What the President really said

Rev. Jim Harnish

The hyper-reaction of some folks on the religious right to what the President said at the National Prayer Breakfast reminded me of Jack Nicholson’s Oscar-nominated portrayal of Col. Jessup in “A Few Good Men.” It’s when he shouts, “You can’t handle the truth!”

Maybe a thoughtful reflection on historical and theological truth is more than most folks expect at an event that often turns out to be little more than a polite recognition of religious tradition or, at worst, a self-righteous celebration of American civil religion. If all you hear is the shouting, you’d think the President went on an all-out attack on Christianity. But if you actually listen to the speech, you have to wonder if these folks were in the same room. I encourage you to watch it (click here) or read the text (click here).
The President actually expected religious people to think. Instead of offering pious pabulum that would go down as easily as the scrambled eggs, the President invited his listeners to wrestle with the 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 religious for their own murderous ends?”
It’s a good question, even when it is an unwelcome one.
In no uncertain terms, he gave a blistering condemnation of the Islamic State as “a brutal, vicious death cult that, in the name of religion, carries out unspeakable acts of barbarism — terrorizing religious minorities like the Yazidis, subjecting women to rape as a weapon of war, and claiming the mantle of religious authority for such actions.”
But then, he dared to speak truth. “We’ve seen professions of faith used both as an instrument of great good, but also twisted and misused in the name of evil.” It was like pointing out that gravity pulls down.
He reminded us that “during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ” and that “in our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.” He could have added the Salem Witch Trials, the English Reformation, the Holocaust and Apartheid in South Africa, all of which were endorsed or passively accepted by some branches of the Church or by faithful Christian people.
Naming the dark side of our history doesn’t justify evil behavior in the present. But it does call us to humility. That was the theme of the rest of the message. Unfortunately, humility is not a welcome guest at these events, either.
Abraham Lincoln’s “Meditation on the Divine Will” was lurking in the background when the President said, “If we are properly humble, if we drop to our knees on occasion, we will acknowledge that we never fully know God’s purpose. We can never fully fathom His amazing grace. ‘We see through a glass, darkly’ — grappling with the expanse of His awesome love. But even with our limits, we can heed that which is required: To do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with our God.”
When it comes down to it, the hostile reaction to the speech says more about the opponents than it says about the President. We can debate whether it is the role of a President to function as a theologian or preacher. But the challenge to name what Wesley called “our bent to sinning” and the call to some measure of humility is a central, if often unwelcome, part of the gospel.
It is, in fact, what Ash Wednesday and Lent are all about.
Grace and peace,
Read more of Rev. Harnish's blogs at http://jimharnish.org. The opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position or policy of the Florida Conference.

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