As I reflect back on the inauguration of President Obama, the invocation by Saddleback Church’s Pastor Rick Warren provides an interesting opportunity to continue the discussion of the public role of faith in a world that is overflowing with diversity of belief and opinion and struggling every day with harmful divisions that build walls between political parties, nations, religious traditions, and subgroups and factions within each of them.
Here’s a video clip of the invocation:
I’ll begin by saying that I love Rick Warren. I’m not a fan of his books. I disagree with him often on matters of politics and theology. That being said, I’ll begin by stating that I love Rick Warren. It saddens me that the voices speaking loudest in response to Warren being included in the inauguration have fallen into the all-too-predictable camps of the critics that think Warren is too conservative or too evangelical and the defenders who are (no surprise) mostly conservative evangelicals. On some level, it’s time for “the church” to be “the church”. It’s time for the “body of Christ” to be the “body of Christ”. I’m thinking of Paul in Ephesians chapter 4:
“I…beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.”
I don’t always agree with Rick Warren, but we are both a part of the growing community of people following Jesus in the world today. We are in the same church. We are in the same body.
Back to the matter at hand…
Warren’s invocation was genuine and included some important things to pray for (or at least hope for). He prayed that President Obama will possess “the wisdom to lead us with humility, the courage to lead us with integrity, the compassion to lead us with generosity.” He went on to call our nation to a lifestyle of daily repentance and unified purpose:
When we focus on ourselves, when we fight each other, when we forget you—forgive us. When we presume that our greatness and our prosperity is ours alone—forgive us. When we fail to treat our fellow human beings and all the earth with the respect that they deserve—forgive us. And as we face these difficult days ahead, may we have a new birth of clarity in our aims, responsibility in our actions, humility in our approaches, and civility in our attitudes—even when we differ. Help us to share, to serve, and to seek the common good of all.
And then the invocation concluded with words that invite us into the conversation of how to be people of faith in this pluralistic nation and interconnected world: “I humbly ask this in the name of the one who changed my life—Yeshua, ‘Isa, Jesús, Jesus—who taught us to pray: Our Father, who art in heaven…”
This is the part that leaves me with a swirling vortex of thoughts on how we are to live together in today’s world and how faith ought to interact with public life. Some thoughts:
- The question is often raised if such “religious acts” are appropriate at civil events. I think this is a good question and agree that there is a lot at stake in terms of civil liberties on both sides of the question. While I support a civil life that is not restricted by religion (and a faith life not limited by the state), it seems that a complete removal of all things religious from public life is a futile, if not harmful, pursuit. To define the ideal as the complete absence of the expression of belief (or, I would add, expression of unbelief) would fail to recognize the role of faith in the lives of citizens. It also emphasizes faith and religion as the activity of individuals and cloistered communities. This concerns me as a firm believer in a faith that must be neither individual nor cloistered.
- Warren’s intentional naming of Jesus Christ at the conclusion of the prayer seemed like an attempt to assert his own belief as superior (or even dominant). Warren did change his use of pronouns from “we” to “I” before invoking the name of Jesus. I appreciate this shift for it’s recognition that there were many wishing to pray along who would not do so in the name of Jesus. At the same time, the prayer became individual instead of corporate.
- We are still far from completing the journey to living together in the midst of diversity. If we are to become pluralist people, we must respect and recognize the voices of others, including Rick Warren. There is also a need, however, for people across the political, religious and theological spectrums to move away from exclusivism and beyond mere inclusivism or tolerance. It seems to me that our culture struggles to see pluralism as something other than being inclusive and non-offensive. This is evidenced in the way that we continue to struggle with “political correctness” or wandering off into uncentered relativism.
The place we need to continue journeying toward is described wonderfully by Diana Eck in her 1993 book Encountering God. It is the journey toward “pluralism”. Eck includes the following in her definition of “pluralism”:
- Pluralism is not simply the existence of diversity, but active engagement with diversity.
- Pluralism is more than tolerance. Tolerance is too minimal an expectation, it can even be a form of passive rejection or hostility. Pluralism is the seeking of understanding.
- Pluralism is not simply relativism. Pluralism expects commitment to a defined truth.
- Pluralism seeks commitment that does not descend into dogmatism. Pluralism seeks to be distinctively ourselves while remaining in relationship with one another.
- Pluralism requires dialogue. The goal of dialogue is not to arrive at agreement, but to arrive at mutual understanding. Points of agreement can be affirmed, points of difference can be better understood.
If I am to become pluralist, I will embrace the presence of Rick Warren as completely as the presence of someone I align with politically and theologically. I will also embrace the presence of someone who holds a commitment to a different religious tradition, or a non-religious ethic. A few moments after Pastor Warren concluded the invocation, the president that was prayed for challenged us to continue the journey:
For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus — and nonbelievers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.
We journey on together…
The text of Pastor Rick Warren’s Invocation:
Almighty God, our Father: Everything we see, and everything we can’t see, exists because of you alone. It all comes from you, it all belongs to you, it all exists for your glory. History is your story. The Scripture tells us, “Hear, O Israel, the LORD is our God, the LORD is one.” And you are the compassionate and merciful one. And you are loving to everyone you have made.
Now today, we rejoice not only in America’s peaceful transfer of power for the 44th time, we celebrate a hinge point of history with the inauguration of our first African-American president of the United States. We are so grateful to live in this land, a land of unequaled possibility, where a son of an African immigrant can rise to the highest level of our leadership. And we know today that Dr. King and a great cloud of witnesses are shouting in heaven.
Give to our new president, Barack Obama, the wisdom to lead us with humility, the courage to lead us with integrity, the compassion to lead us with generosity. Bless and protect him, his family, Vice President Biden, the Cabinet, and every one of our
freely elected leaders.
Help us, O God, to remember that we are Americans—united not by race or religion or blood, but by our commitment to freedom and justice for all. When we focus on ourselves, when we fight each other, when we forget you—forgive us. When we presume that our greatness and our prosperity is ours alone—forgive us. When we fail to treat our fellow human beings and all the earth with the respect that they deserve—forgive us. And as we face these difficult days ahead, may we have a new birth of clarity in our aims, responsibility in our actions, humility in our approaches, and civility in our attitudes—even when we differ. Help us to share, to serve, and to seek the common good of all.
May all people of good will today join together to work for a more just, a more healthy, and a more prosperous nation and a peaceful planet. And may we never forget that one day, all nations–and all people–will stand accountable before you.
We now commit our new president and his wife, Michelle, and his daughters, Malia and Sasha, into your loving care.
I humbly ask this in the name of the one who changed my life—Yeshua, ‘Isa, Jesús, Jesus—who taught us to pray: Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil, for Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.