So the Supreme Court has ruled 5-4 that city councils can be opened with prayer. I would councils and congresses begin with a pledge to the rainbow or, hands on a box of cornflakes, vow to be good and just council persons. Because the truth is, public prayer by public officials or their rent-a-cleric-for-a-day in service to the State pollutes authentic prayer while violating the sacred consciences of individuals who may not adhere to the particular religious tradition of the person offering himself or herself as a mouthpiece for a deity in service of the State.
Rendering to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s is a separation of religion and the state enunciated by Christ himself whom, you may recall, was executed by the Roman Empire in large part because his message about the coming Kingdom of God was interpreted by Pilate and others as subversive. The first Christians paid a very dear price for their refusal to pray to the Roman gods. In fact, take a moment to read Governor Pliny’s letter to Emperor Trajan in the second century and you will see that Christians were hauled into “court” and summarily told to publicly pray and make an offering to Caesar and the Roman gods or be killed. Those early Christians were called atheists because they –or at least some portion of them—refused to mouth the religious script of the Roman Empire. For Christians in this country to demand that councils begin with prayer and thus shame, embarrass or coerce atheists or persons of other religious traditions is an abomination. The early Christians would know what to call such a practice and “Christian” or “honorable” are not words that come to mind.
Here are a few of my assumptions with commentary:
*The State does not know how to pray. Why would you trust the State to pray or teach your children how to pray? This practice amounts to God-cover for the political aims and aspirations of politicians and the government. By the way, what do you think slave owners and segregationists were praying in their public meetings? Right.
*State sponsored prayer is the rather megalomaniacal illusion that you and your tradition has the only correct way to address the God and the health of the [city, town, country or football team] depends on praying to your God. Unless you’re taken with theocratic notions, why would you agree to participate in this practice? Which leads me to say this to brother and sister clergypersons: stop praying in public on behalf of any government or football team. See below.
*Jesus taught us to pray in our prayer closet in secret and not on the street corner bellowing our prayers or parading God like a float in a Macy Day’s parade. Stop that. It is not just embarrassing, but it is darn near blasphemous.
If you want to pray (and I would hope that you do) then enter your soul’s sacred space and pray or enter the church, mosque, synagogue or temple and pray with others who are doing so because they believe in what they’re doing and not because they are coerced into participating in a religious rite for which they have no devotion. Politicians, you’ve been invoking God to laminate your agendas and minutes for a long time. Some of us have read Machiavelli’s The Prince. You’re not fooling us.
I’ve never plowed in a field. Ever. In fact, I remember as a child sitting on the porch swing of my grandmother’s house in Rosehill, Virginia, down in Southwest Appalachia, beside her brother who was a farmer. He took my small hands and turned them over and asked me where the callouses were. I also didn’t know what a callous was.
There is a very, very difficult teaching of Christ’s about a plow and the kingdom of God. You can find it in Luke 9:62. He taught, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” Had we an audio recording of that moment when he taught this, we would be hearing crickets. There is much to ponder in such a teaching but let’s not get lost in the brush trying to tease those ideas out. The thrust of such a teaching is to underline the cost of discipleship (as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, theologian and martyr at the hands of the Gestapo would say it). Another way of putting it is to turn your hands over and ask if you have any callouses.
My supervising professor in Ph.D. studies liked to say that sitting in a garage will not turn you into a Chevrolet. Even so. Sitting in church will not make us Christians. The Apostle Paul wrote (1 Corinthians 9:10), “whoever plows should plow in hope, whoever threshes should thresh in hope of a share in the crop.” Look forward then, not backwards. Keep your hand on the plow. Sow in hope. I’ll see you Sunday and you can show me your hands. Grace & Peace.
When I naively stepped into college (in 1972!) as a ministerial student, I didn’t know the first thing about biorhythms. That first year I had to take a required science course and I took a subject in biology (whose title I cannot recall) but I do remember being introduced to this idea of biorhythms, that I had a kind of internal clock that worked in sync with seasons of the natural world.
This explained to me–or at least I interpreted this–as the reason why I hated Florida. Well, I didn’t hate Florida the state, I just felt out of sorts with the lack of definitive seasons, having come from Cincinnati where there are definitely four seasons instead of one season of hot. But what is my point? Good question. Hmmm, let me see, where was I going? Oh!
Look around you. The world is renewed. One might have concluded otherwise in dormant seasons such as Winter but consider the renewal of the world now. Atheists will, of course, take this for granted. They take order in the universe –and there are megatons of order both macro and microscopically–for granted. Oh, they’ll conclude, it’s just nature doing her thing. Meanwhile nature, you note, is personified. Be that as it may, in this Spring of 2014, as you ponder the beauty of the world and its season of renewal, don’t take it for granted. This didn’t just “pop” into existence. There is a benevolent, loving God who loved us so much that there is a world and worlds around us and through which we journey. The appropriate response to that primordial fact is worship. See you Sunday!
In the letter below, you will see that I do not address it to “leaders” but to Christians, White Christians in particular. You will also not find the word “condemn” or “condemnation.” Recently, a popular radio program unfortunately used these words to describe my open letter. Instead, you will find a passionate plea for White Christians to speak to justice by rescinding the Stand Your Ground Law. Make no mistake, I’ll condemn ideas and behaviors (like murdering an unarmed teen and passing a law that incentivizes racists to kill young men) but I do not issue blanket condemnations of persons. Finally, this letter ends with a nod to Karl Barth who knew that our silence in the face evil indicts us. Not wishing to be complicit with such silence, I wrote the following “open letter.”
~Pastor Michael Bledsoe, February 26.2014
An Open Letter from Pastor Michael Bledsoe, Riverside Baptist Church Washington DC
Dear White Christians of Florida:
Far be it that I, a white clergyman who is not a lawyer, instruct you as to the illogical nature of your “stand your ground” license to kill but let us note something that is apparent now after two cases where your predominantly white juries could not agree to convict a man who admitted he killed an unarmed teen-ager: if you convict a person for attempting to murder ten teens but fail to convict the killer for actually killing a teen, then you have incentivized killing since, not only on the face of it but in actuality, you have told the person we will not convict you for killing a black, unarmed teen-ager but we will imprison you for attempting it.
The stench from your houses of worship is wafting its way across this country, polluting citizenship, demoralizing parents and families, mocking accountability and blaspheming the Holy God whom you say you love and worship. If that offends you, try reading Amos.
Here is my premise and I dare you to prove me wrong: if white Christians in Florida stood up and cried out for justice, demanding an end to the license-to-kill-stand-your-ground law, it would be rescinded immediately. Where is your conscience? Where is the little light you promised to shine for Christ? You have put it beneath a bushel and suffocated it. You know as well as anyone that teen-agers should not be killed for playing loud music. But then, we all know don’t we, that Jordan Davis was not killed for playing loud music. He was killed for being an uppity black kid who dared to smart off to a drunken white man with a concealed weapon’s permit. Speak up, for Christ’s sake, for the sake of your conscience and because you know in your heart of hearts that had a black man killed your white son playing music in a car with friends, you probably would not have to be demanding he be tried because a mob of white folks would have administered mob justice. Shame. Shame. Shame!
White Christians of Florida, speak up for justice. Stand up and demand that this license for murder be removed from your books, from your lives. Stop defending it. It is but a few steps removed from lynching. And you recall, do you not, that the center of the Gospels is the story of the passion of our Lord who was lynched by Romans who perceived him as a threat?
I’ll end with a word from the great neo-Orthodox theologian Karl Barth, a man acquainted with evil in the form of Nazism and who, along with a small group of other ministers, signed the Barmen Declaration, refusing to swear an oath to the Fuhrer. This is what he said in the 20th century—it is as apt today for your hearing as then: “The time is not always ripe. It may be past, it may be still to come. But woe to the church if when the time does come it is silent….”
Speak up for justice. Rescind Stand Your Ground for the blasphemous sham it is. Do it because were the roles reversed, you would want someone to cry out for your murdered child.
In the Name of the Murdered and Risen Christ,
Dr. Michael Bledsoe