Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Amen and Amen

Calamity looms. At this point in our national history, anybody who can't see calamity looming has their head in the sand. Of a beach. While a tsunami is building on the horizon. Today's headline news in the Houston Chronicle reads JOB LOSSES MOUNT ACROSS U.S. The rest of the day's and week's paper is full of war, climate change and economic upheaval. We know darn well that the United States caused some of this trouble and failed to mitigate some of the rest of it. We're now afraid about what the next wave of calamity is going to wash away. I, for one, am glad that last week's Inauguration pointed out where the moral bedrock is.

Last Tuesday like never before there were amen corners all over the USA. Americans were amenning to joy, hope, justice, righteousness, inclusion, and choosing good over evil. In other words, the entire inauguration had religious overtones, in a wholesome way, as distinct from the notion that religion holds the copyright on goodness. As we know, religiosity doesn't map onto who's actually a good person or not. Religion too often validates evil; witness how the Bible was used to justify slavery in the United States. Religious people are in constant danger of doing evil in the name of God and good.

Most time-tested religions seem to understand that. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, there's a long prophetic tradition of saying truth to power, afflicting the comfortable, and telling ordinary folk to shape up in the name of God. On Inauguration day, I don't know that any of the speakers literally said the word repentance, but the idea ran like a red cord through the day, in the lyrical words of the pastors and the poet and in President Obama's inaugural speech. According to newspaper accounts, Bush administration insiders were offended that Obama didn't laud George W. Bush. The sour grapes were predictable but misplaced. Obama was talking to Bush and his people, all right, but also to everybody else in the United States and including himself every time he said we went wrong. We tolerated world-wide wrong done in the name of the people of the United States for far too long. While the greed and irresponsibility of some weakened our economy, we failed to make hard choices, failed to use energy wisely, and let our politics be strangled by behaviors unworthy of us. We now have hard work to do.

If the election had gone to the Republican Party, Inauguration Day would have been a very different story. I suspect that there would have been much praise for Bush and little about national repentance, because John McCain and Barack Obama understand evil very differently. A New York Times article by Peter Steinfels on January 17 reviewed a campaign debate sponsored by Rick Warren back in August. This is the same evangelical minister who did the main-event Inaugural invocation. I think he's very wrong in his opposition to same-sex marriage, but he did the country a service with that debate. Steinfels identifies "one of the most revelatory moments in the presidential campaign" when Warren asked the two candidates, "Does evil exist?"

McCain answered in the affirmative and talked at length about victory over Islamic extremism.

Obama answered in the affirmative and located evil abroad—but also in American cities and in abusive homes. We have to have some humility in how we confront evil, he said, because evil has been perpetrated based on the claim that we were trying to confront evil. "Just because we think our intentions are good doesn't always mean that we're going to be doing good."

The presidential election went as it did. At the Inauguration's end, it was not whomever McCain-Palin might have chosen to sanctify their enterprise. It was the Reverend Joseph Lowry who closed the Inauguration with a prayer that began with words from "Lift Every Voice and Sing." That great hymn is associated with the Civil Rights movement, but it goes back further than that; it was created in the early 1900's and sung against Jim Crow and the Ku Klux Klan.

We were a nation that had slavery and vicious segregation, and yet through long, heroic and costly struggle, we repented of those evils, to the astonishment of the world and astonishing us too. This year on the eve of the holiday honoring Martin Luther King, Jr. and two days before the inauguration of Obama, lots of American churches sang "Lift Every Voice and Sing," even if they sang it at different tempos. White churches tend to make it peppy. When a black church sings "the days when hope unborn had died" they linger on those agonizing words. Anyway, churches black, white and variegated sang that hymn on Sunday the 18th.

That same day saw the Inauguration's opening event at the Lincoln Memorial with a prayer by Gene Robinson, the openly gay Episcopal bishop. What a symbolic choice he was—someone who can speak from the crossfire of change and oppression while he speaks for all of us. He offered an Anglican-style bidding prayer. One of the biddings was this: "Bless us with discomfort—at the easy, simplistic 'answers' we’ve preferred to hear from our politicians, instead of the truth, about ourselves and the world, which we need to face if we are going to rise to the challenges of the future." He closed with a heartfelt bidding to keep Barack Obama and his family safe. Bishop Robinson understands the danger they are in. At his ordination as Bishop, he wore a bulletproof vest because he'd received so many virulent death threats.

An eventful week later, on Sunday the 25th, the lectionaries of many mainstream Christian denominations had the spectacularly relevant Old Testament lesson about Nineveh. It's part of the Jonah story, but not the part of about the whale. The whale episode happened because God told Jonah to go to Nineveh to preach to that city that the judgment of God was about to fall on it. Jonah wanted Nineveh to be righteously destroyed by God. Instead of going to Nineveh, Jonah scuttled onto a ship. He meant to sail far, far away. The weather turned supernaturally awful and the sailors in desperation tossed him overboard into the sea, where was ingested by the whale, i.e., enormous fish. Three days later the fish regurgitated him. The story continues:

The word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time, saying, 'Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.' So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the LORD. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, three days' walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day's walk. And he cried out, 'Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!' And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth. When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.

On Inauguration day, without putting it quite so bluntly, the President, the poet, and the pastors said that being a lazy, violent, self-indulgent nation at the expense of the world is paving the way to hell and has got to stop. In honor of who we came from and how we got here, we have got to do better. At the end of his benediction, the Rev. Lowry had a fair fraction of people in the United States, and visitors, and people around the world, saying amen, amen, and amen. It wasn't yes-yes-yes to we're wonderful, good, great, and kings of the world. It was YES to we have got ourselves into deep and shameful trouble and dragged much of the world in with us, but we can turn around, and we should, and we will.

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