"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God."
- Jesus in the gospel of St. Matthew
"From man's sweat and God's love, beer came into the world."
- St. Arnold of Metz, patron saint of brewers
When President Obama popped the top on three cold beers with Henry Louis Gates Jr. and police sergeant James Crowley at the White House Thursday night, his efforts toward brokering peace between the two men were laden with spiritual meaning.
And I'm not just talking about Obama's attempts at peacemaking. The president's choice of beverage for the sit-down has deep spiritual implications as well.
Beer is, of course, an ancient beverage, made from the fruits of creation. It is also a populist drink - an inexpensive oat soda, if you will, equally accessible to rich and poor, male and female, white and black and brown. And it's a great equalizer and unifier, much like baseball, hotdogs, and apple pie.
Let's put aside for a moment aspersions cast about Obama's act of beer diplomacy being little more than a political photo opportunity and criticisms of the quality of the oat sodas he plans to serve. (Bud Light? Blue Moon? Why not a few nice craft beers brewed locally? Capitol Brewery, located not far from the White House, offers one called Equality Ale, for instance.)
Instead, let's look at the spiritual lessons we might learn about community, constancy, and hope.
While there are certainly a number of religious traditions that look at imbibing beer with an evil eye - Islam, the Southern Baptist Convention, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, to name a few - there also is another, storied spiritual view that sees beer as a blessing from the Almighty.
"Moralists work hard to maintain the wedge between spirituality and alcohol - it's what keeps them in power," said Sean Lilly Wilson, a friend and classmate of mine from Wheaton College and founder of the craft brewery Fullsteam in Durham, N.C. "But there's no evidence that Jesus wanted this separation. Quite the contrary! Alcohol and community are central themes in Jesus' first miracle (the wedding at Cana) and his final act (the Eucharist)."
Within Christendom, there are no fewer than a dozen patron saints - including three different St. Arnolds - of brewers, hop pickers, and tavern keepers, each accompanied by wonderfully folksy tales of miracles and wonders performed with (and sometimes through) vats of divinely inspired lager.
According to the folks at www.beerhistory.com, St. Wenceslas, who helped spread Christianity to Czechoslovakia and is the patron saint of Bohemia, valued the precious Bohemian hops so dearly that he ordered anyone caught exporting them put to death. That's pretty extreme, of course, but it did endear him to local brewers. Another Wenceslas, the 13th-century king, convinced the pope at the time to lift the ban on the brewing of beer.
In 6th-century Brussels, St. Arnold of Metz cautioned the faithful, "Don't drink the water, drink beer," because he believed the local water supply caused illness. (The water used in the production of beer was boiled, killing off water-born diseases.) Legend has it that St. Arnold also ended a plague by dipping a crucifix into a vat of beer and distributing the blessed elixir to the masses.
St. Brigid, the patroness of Ireland, is said to have miraculously turned her bath water into beer to sustain the lepers she nursed in a colony near the monastery she founded at Kildare. A poem attributed to Brigid that the beerhistory.com guys located in a library in Brussels says, "I should like a great lake of ale, for the King of the Kings. I should like the family of Heaven to be drinking it through time eternal."
Then there is St. Benedict, the father of western monasticism, whose famous rule required his monks to open their monasteries to weary travelers, turning no one away, and sharing their meals - including their fine monk-made beer - with their guests.
"Beer is the beverage of community and celebration," said Lilly Wilson, a faithful Episcopalian who also happens to be one of the most godly people I know. "It's the beverage of letting down your guard, showing your true colors, and building consensus. I like wine as much as the next brewer, but I can't imagine President Obama inviting the gentlemen over for a bottle of Cabernet."
Charlie Papazian, president of the Brewers Association and author of The Complete Joy of Homebrewing, recently explained via the beer-enthusiast Web site TheFullPint.com that for early brewers (who didn't know that yeast was the magic ingredient that turned beer into beer), God was literally in the pint glass. These ancient beer-makers had a name for the yeasty scud left at the bottom of a shiny beer stein: Godisgood.
"I'm thrilled that beer is back in the White House," Lilly Wilson said. "The Roosevelts served beer at the White House after Prohibition was lifted. Lyndon Johnson used beer to ease tense situations. Our president embraces beer as natural and normal. Life is good."
Here's to peacemaking, chilling out, and finding consensus.
May the God of peace - and Godisgood - be with Obama, Gates, Crowley, and all who choose to share a beer as they try to mend fences.