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Thursday, February 12, 2015

The President's Prayer Breakfast Speech

You Know What? I have no patience with people (apparently Christians, although that's up-for-grabs) who are criticizing President Obama for remarks he made at the February 5th Prayer Breakfast he attended with his wife, Michelle. I've said it before, and at the risk of too often repeating myself,  I assert again that Barack Obama is one of the most straightforward and often passionate defenders of our American values and standards. He talks about family, he talks about the importance of the middle class and the poor, he talks about equality of opportunity for all in our nation; he defends differences, quite often in religion; he defends those who are in need, particularly as he demonstrated with the oft-maligned and attacked ACA or "Obamacare" as it has been derisively named for all time (little did the Right-wing radicals suspect that their epithet would turn out to be a truth - Obama actually does care as 10.5 million people who are now adequately covered will gladly tell you!). The President has been an ardent defender of our core values and standards which he emphasizes in almost every speech, and which he demonstrates through many of his policy initiatives, putting words into action.

However, that Barack Obama is a defender of our most cherished values and a passionate advocate of the most vulnerable cohorts of our population does not seem to deter these Radicals from their constant, belligerent criticism of our President. Aside from the fact that their criticism is leveled at remarks taken completely out of context, these critics have missed the point of his breakfast speech, as they are wont to do with anything coming from him. I might take just this moment to remind you that many of the Radical Right of this country are imbued with the false premises of Social Darwinism, with contempt for the Weak and praise for the Strong ("men of action"). They focus on the propaganda ploy of the "Big Lie" in order to persuade many of the unknowing public to join them in their unholy crusade. (I would also remind you to check out my postings on this Blog regarding Social Darwinism and regarding the Big Lie technique: 7/17/2012 and 2/8/2014).

It is regretful that his critics have probably not read his entire speech (you can avoid this oversight by clicking on this link or by pasting it in your browser: http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/remarks-by-obama-at-the-national-prayer-breakfast/2015/02/05/e9374b70-ad53-11e4-9c91-e9d2f9fde644_story.html). If they did read it all, they would find, as I did, that his main theme was: "the degree to which we've seen professions of faith used both as an instrument of great good, but also twisted and misused in the name of evil." And then he asks a very basic question: "how do we, as people of faith, reconcile these realities -- the profound good, the strength, the tenacity, the compassion and love that can flow from all of our faiths, operating alongside those who seek to hijack religions for their own murderous ends?"

His answer is contained in three "principles" that make sense for any person of faith: "...first, we should start with some basic humility. I believe the starting point of faith is...not being so full of yourself and so confident that you are right and that God speaks only to us, and doesn't speak to others, that God only cares about us, and doesn't care about others, that somehow we are alone in possession of the truth. Our job is not to ask that God respond to our notion of truth -- our job is to be true to Him, His word and His commandments."

Most Right-wingers do not like talk of 'humility.' They want only to talk of strength, of superiority, of exceptionalism, of the old and outmoded concept that 'might makes right.' They are the bearers of a distortion of the Christian faith, for Christianity places humility and an all-pervasive non-reward-seeking love (agape) for neighbors (including 'enemies', by the way) in the forefront of all our endeavors. Their concept of Christianity is not that which Jesus preached on the Sermon on the Mount, or that their Savior spoke of and took action upon in his demonstrations of his beliefs. It is not the religion of the Parable of the Good Samaritan, it is not the religion of the Crucifixion, it is not the religion of Jesus' own judgment upon the religious leaders and right-wingers of his day: the Sadducees (priestly aristocratic class) and the Pharisees (legalistic interpreters of the Law or Torah).  Jesus spoke often of the flaws inherent in the pervading religion of his day, but always pointed to a higher truth, which is exactly what the President tried to do with his emphasis on God's word and commandments.

Here's what the President of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission had to say about President Obama's remarks: "an unfortunate attempt at a wrongheaded moral comparison." Is he actually trying to say that Christianity has no flaws whereas Islam has many? Apparently, as his next statement says: what we need more of is a "moral framework from the administration and a clear strategy for defeating ISIS." Not so. What we need from Christian, albeit Baptist, leaders is a clear sense of what Jesus' teachings about humility and agape love really mean for Christians in this era of terrorism in the name of religion.  Maybe Pope Francis should come and talk to them a bit, and maybe they should go out into the world and practice what the Pope does as he reaches out to people of all faiths. Have these Social Darwinist Christians ever asked themselves: what can I do to determine what it is that inspires a terrorist to act in such a barbaric and destructive manner? Why do they hate me? Why do they want to put an end to my way of life?  Will these critics ever permit themselves to probe and to understand the motivations, deprivations, humiliations or circumstances that characterize their enemy?  It is apparently not part of their religious teaching, yet it is written into the Christian religion throughout the New Testament. "Judge not, lest you be judged." "Put on Love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony."

But this Baptist leader is not the only Right-wing voice that speaks in such ill-considered language. The former Governor of Virginia had a few choice words that do not enhance anyone. He said: "The president's comments this morning at the prayer breakfast are the most offensive I've ever heard a president make in my lifetime. He has offended every believing Christian in the United States. This goes further to the point that Mr. Obama does not believe in America or the values we share."

While I found the President's remarks to be most un-offensive (because they spoke to Gospel truth), I must say I find the former governor's remarks to be offensive in the extreme. How could any Christian be offended by remarks that stress the positives of all faiths and which point to the fact that every religion, every faith (and non-faith) community has its own positive attributes as well as unfortunate flaws, good uses and misuses? Apparently, once again, there appears to be no room in the Governor's (Pharisaic) heart for any truth other than his own version. Humility is not his strong suit.

But, let us press on. The second thing we need, said the President, "is to uphold the distinction between our faith and our governments. Our government does not sponsor a religion, nor does it pressure anyone to practice a particular faith, or any faith at all." Our founders believed in separation of church and state and they wrote that principle into our Constitution - our founding document - and it is, to this day, one of our most cherished and defended rights, not just to worship freely but to make sure that religion does not gain a foothold in directing the operations of governance (see my Blog postings of 7/3/2014 and 12/3/2013).

Just what values does Mr. Obama not share, since he is very specific about humility and love as cornerstones of a Christian morality (in complete accord with the New Testament, I might add)? In other words, what "moral framework from the administration" would fit with the critics' call for a strategy to defeat ISIS? Are we talking here about killing people as a moral framework and acceptable strategy? Are we talking about annihilation of terrorists as a part of a moral framework? Just what is this Southern Baptist official getting at here? I suspect he is wanting this country to follow Christian Crusaders marching to War against Muslims rather than to follow a Christ-like way about which the President was speaking. With the constitutional ban on a religion or religious practice dictating policy, I would answer: keep your war-like notions and your Christian "moral framework" to yourself and don't try to force what you believe on the rest of us.

It is Obama's third principle that really hits home, and which calls out to critics like the former governor and the Baptist official: where do you stand on "the one law, that Golden Rule that we should treat one another as we wish to be treated?" The President points to The Torah which says: 'Love thy neighbor as yourself.' To the Hadith in Islam that states: 'None of you truly believes until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself.' To the Holy Bible that says: "Put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony." (He could have also added similar words from Confucius, Hinduism and Buddhism!). But what he calls us to do in his conclusion is what the Gospel says and requires, and is unfortunately what the governor and pastor missed. Even though their criticism is based on one or two paragraphs, their condemnation extends to the whole of the speech, therefore bringing into question their own religious and moral "framework."

The President said: "Whatever our beliefs, whatever our traditions, we must seek to be instruments of peace, bringing light where there is darkness and sowing love where there is hatred" (citing as examples both Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama). "Each of us has a role in fulfilling our common greater purpose -- not merely to seek high position, but to plumb greater depths so that we may find the strength to love more fully. And this is perhaps our greatest challenge -- to see our own reflection in each other; to be our brother's keepers and sister's keepers, and to keep faith with one another. As children of God, let's work to end injustice -- injustice of poverty and hunger. As children of God, let's work to eliminate the scourge of homelessness. As children of God, let's stand up for the dignity and value of every woman, and man, and child...and work to end the scourge and the sin of modern-day slavery and human trafficking, and 'set the oppressed free.' We can never fully fathom (God's purpose and grace)...But even with our limits, we can heed that which is required: To do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with our God. I pray that in His Name... we will run and not be weary, walk and not be faint, and we'll heed those words and 'put on love'."

In summary, let us ask again, not only of the former governor and Baptist official, but of all the President's critics: just what is your problem? Are humility, religious neutrality and freedom, and the Golden Rule not within your Christian framework? Are you saying that loving your neighbor as yourself is not to be applied to everyone? Are you against the role of peace-making, although the Sermon on the Mount calls the makers of peace blessed by God? Are you ready to say that homelessness is the tough luck of those caught in it, or that human trafficking or oppression should not be opposed?

Or are you simply saying that we as a government should stand against all terrorists, seek them out, and destroy them? Is that your "moral framework?" Then I suggest, for your uninterrupted and in-depth reading, that you look up and absorb your own holy book, and assess just who it is that is offending other Christians with such war-like tones and with unrelenting insensitivity to an important speech by the President of the United States on the positive uses and the unfortunate misuses of religion that characterize all faiths. 

It is important to note that the President put all of this into proper perspective when he concluded his speech on the note that "as children of God" we must act in love toward others. It is also of major import that the President asserted early on that God is the source of this loving spirit, for that is the emphasis of Jesus' words in the New Testament. Jesus' primary emphasis was that his disciples should live as the "sons of God. " In other words, because God is who he is, humans are to be sincere, patient, kind, merciful, humble and generous. Thus, Jesus made plain that the first commandment is to love God with all heart soul and mind, and the second is to love neighbor as yourself. Thus, it is that all through the NT, the love of God is essentially equated with love for neighbor. because neighborly love is the will of God for his children. The Christian ethic derives from this relationship of closeness - from a faith relationship -- to God.

But Jesus, as he was wont to do, carried it all a step further; a step too far for many. He declared: "Love your enemies and pray for your persecutors, so can you be children of your heavenly father. You must be all goodness, just as your heavenly father is all good."

The whole point is that human beings are called to act, not out of a calculated prudence, but on the basis of an uncalculating loving-kindness exemplified by the heavenly Father of us all. There is always an ethical "plus" in the words of Jesus, many of which still make us uncomfortable:

love your enemies (Matt. 5:44)
forgive seventy-times-seven (Matt. 18:21-22)
be tolerant of non-conformists (Mark 9:40)
love gives, expecting no return (Luke 6:35)
love stoops to serve as a servant, like the master who waited on his laborers (Luke 12:37)

But, it is perhaps the Sermon on the Mount that throws a moral bomb into the middle of all our pharisaic calculations and expectations. Among the "Blessed" who will see the kingdom or inherit the kingdom of God or be called sons of God, are:

the poor, the sorrowful
those of a gentle ('humble') spirit
those who hunger and thirst to see the right prevail
those who show mercy
those whose hearts are pure (not sinless, but perhaps guileless, sincere, truthful)
the peacemakers
those who have suffered persecution or insults for the cause of right

In the face of this ethical construction of love of other humans based on love of God for all life, it is my conclusion that the speech of the President before the Prayer Breakfast on Feb. 5th, is much more in line with the Christian Gospel, the Christian ethic, the Christian manner than are the words of those who would seek to denigrate peacemaking, humility, or the truth of flaws in all religions and religious followers. Jesus himself condemned the rituals, the showiness, the hypocrisy of the religious groups of his day - the priests and the legalists - because they missed the point of who God is and what the mission of the children of God is all about -- loving actions toward friend and foe alike.

 The President gave us sustenance --food for thought and action -- the critics gave us nothing of the sort. And, what is worse, by criticizing the President for citing Christian misuse of their religion throughout the ages, along with the misuses of other faith groups, the critics condemned the whole of the speech and thus condemned the essence of their own ethical foundation. Their legalistic interpretation of what he said does exactly what the binding and blinding interpretations of the Law by the Pharisees did: it denigrated and condemned the essence of the very religion and ethic it sought to defend! May God forgive them, for they know not what they do!