God's Inaugural Spokespersons

By Rabbi Arthur Waskow 1-22-2009

I thought God -- the real God, the One who cares passionately about justice, peace, and diversity -- came out rather well in the inaugural ceremonies.

God's official spokespersons did better than I had expected. Rev. Rick Warren -- whose choice I had strongly criticized because of his views about gay and lesbian sexuality -- did far better than I had feared. I was especially moved by his speaking, in English, the Jewish "Sh'ma" about God's unity and the Muslim "Bismillah Er Rachman Er Rahim" -- "In the name of God who is Compassionate and Merciful." I doubt that most Christians knew what he was doing in either case, but Jews and Muslims did.

And I respected his going out of his way to affirm that he spoke in Jesus' name not as if Jesus were the self-evidently, universally accepted God Incarnate, but rather explicitly that Jesus is the aspect of God that Warren himself feels called by.

I also appreciated his effort to contextualize Jesus as both actually a Jew and in Muslim eyes a prophet by saying his name in both Aramaic and Arabic, as well as in the Greek by which most of the Christian world knows him.

And though Warren did not confess and repair the sin of his attacks on gay sexuality, his words were in general pacific.

As for Rev. Lowery: He moved me to tears and to delighted laughter too. Tears when he began with a passage from a poem/song by James Weldon Johnson, "Lift Every Voice and Sing," long known as the "Negro National Anthem." Not only the words of the song, but its melody too, move back and forth from grief to hope as they reflect on the past and future of black life in America.

I know the song and so do my adult children, who learned it in mostly black schools in the District of Columbia when they were growing up. Indeed, I sang it last Sunday morning when I preached on Martin Luther King and the American future at Old South Church in Boston, and the church leadership chose it from the hymnal of the United Church of Christ to end the service. I thought then, "Every black church in America is also singing that song this very morning!" But it had not occurred to me that Rev. Lowery might use it.

I am sure that few American whites know it, or understood what Lowery was doing. But practically every black American did.

I laughed out loud when Lowery then turned upside down the despairing and cynical old patter about "black, brown, yellow, red, white." Who could have imagined these in-group cultural artifacts, these nearly secret rituals of black life, coming out of the closet in such a public way on this most broadly American occasion?

As for President Obama himself, any God worth the salt that was spread upon the Temple offerings would have smiled benignly as he mentioned "Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus -- and non-believers." Monotheists, polytheists, and atheists all included in our community. (Maybe Obama, like many Buddhists, sees Buddhism as a philosophy, not a religion.)

As for much of the content of Obama's speech -- for example, ''A nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous" -- it seemed secular on the surface but at least to my ears bespoke an implicitly religious sensibility. Some of the immediate post-ceremony TV commentary heard the speech as prose rather than poetry; but as I read it later, that line and others seemed to me to glow and chime as poetry. God shining through.

Rabbi Arthur Waskow is director of The Shalom Center, which voices a new prophetic agenda in Jewish, multireligious, and American life. He is co-author of The Tent of Abraham: Stories of Hope and Peace for Jews, Christians, and Muslims, as well as the author of many books on Jewish thought and practice and U.S. public policy.

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