Common Ground

We recently observed a National Day of Prayer in the United States, a tradition we have been carrying on for a while now.  Of the most recent observance, Diana Butler Bass (a seminary professor who will be speaking at Trinity Church in January) asked whether it hadn’t become a National Day of Fighting About Prayer.  The fighting on this particular Day of Prayer revolved mostly around the Rev. Franklin Graham, son of the famous evangelist, who was dis-invited to a Pentagon prayer event he had been initially scheduled to lead because of some ill-considered comments he had made about Islam – a faith to which some of the members of our Armed Forces subscribe.  Mr. Graham was unwilling to apologize for his remarks, believing them to be appropriate.  And many Muslims remain offended by what he said.

This smaller drama is a chapter in a much larger drama: the place of religion in public life.  America values its institutional separation of church and state, but not so much the separation of religion and politics.  And so we grope along trying to figure out what the balance should be between the two, and how religion should or should not play a public role.  So we have chaplains for the House and Senate, and the legislative days open with a publicly led prayer, but graduation ceremonies in public schools must avoid any prayer all together.  When you think about it, these distinctions don’t make much sense – Congress is not as diverse as your average public school, but still, not everyone in Congress is religiously on the same page – but, there you go.  The fact that we don’t seem to have a consistent position on the public role of prayer is a reflection, I think, of the difficulty of resolving the tension between America’s religious legacy and our commitment to being an open and diverse democratic society.

It’s unfortunate that the National Day of Prayer should become an occasion for highlighting what a difficult time we have dealing with this tension.  Of all things, prayer should not be a battle ground but a common ground.  Rather than something that becomes a source of conflict and division, it should be something that brings us together.  For prayer, in its broadest and simplest form, is simply the lifting up of the soul and the opening of the heart to the Sacred, no matter what name any of us may use to name the Sacred or what theology or doctrines we utilize to conceive of the Sacred.  That lifting up and that opening up provide a connection not only to the Sacred but to our common humanity, as well.  In prayer, the hopes, fears and aspirations of the human community are offered up, and those are not particular to any given religious tradition.  They are the hopes, fears and aspirations that all of us share.

We live in a cultural time when religion in general has become a battleground.  And there are 364 days in the year when that battle can play out, if it must.  But perhaps the National Day of Prayer should become the common ground on which we can stand together as a human community.  Those of no religious faith could use it as an opportunity for reflection.  It could be a day when all doctrinal speech ceases, and we simply take some time to be aware of the fragility of our common humanity, and our united desire to somehow make more of our humanity than meets the eye.

2 thoughts on “Common Ground

  1. Matthew’s blog reflects to old adage “Why can’t we all just get along?” Indeed, why can’t we? On this subject anyway.

    Dr. Graham certainly is guilty of choosing his words carelessly. I suspect that in the future, he may consider the consequences with a little more care.

    However, I do understand some of Dr. Graham’s dilemma.

    I am often conflicted by some of my most cherished beliefs as an American; the freedom of (or from) religion, the freedom of speech; the acceptance of diverse cultural backgrounds on the one hand- and my most deeply held belief that the Christian religion is the ONLY true religion, on the other. That religion commands all Christians to spread the word of Christ, to be His active advocate, and to bring all of humanity into the faith. This doesn’t seem to be conditional upon whether the recipient of such evangelism is a willing listener, or may already have some deeply held faith- false, we must believe- that he or she feels they must defend.

    So, it appears, we must always be striking the balance. We must never cease as advocates of our Lord, but must use sensitivity in our advocacy. LEAD people to Christ, but never try to DRIVE them to Christ.

    It is a perilous dance we must dance. But we must keep on dancing.

    • The difficulty I think, Monty, is that so many Christians seem to have a hard time accepting the religious freedom that is part of the American democratic tradition. We understand, of course, that the founders of this country were Christians (though their Christianity would be unacceptable to most conservative Christians today, if they really understood the founders’ religion) and that our traditions of law find their roots in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Nevertheless, we do not, as a society, have an established religion. It seems to me that for a committed Christian in America who believes passionately in his faith, that our constitutional framework gives you the right to express yourself in the hopes that others might be attracted to Christ. It does not, however, give you the right to insist that your religion be featured or preferred in public settings. And this seems to grate on many people, who talk about the importance of the separation of church and state, and yet expect that Christianity should have a preferred status in public, non-sectarian, government-sponsored settings. It would be a great thing if Americans could agree that for most people, the spiritual dimension of life has value, and honor the diverse ways in which that dimension is valued. It does not mean that you must give up your belief that your religion is the only right one (not a position I entirely agree with, but that’s beside the point). It simply means you must respect the decisions of others not to agree with you, and to live their lives in peace, without any fear of discrimination by public institutions. From a theological perspective, we would all do well to remember that Jesus didn’t force anyone to be Christian. Indeed, the word “christian” didn’t even exist during his earthly life. He simply preached and taught and healed, and encouraged people to judge for themselves by what they saw. That was his form of evangelism: he allowed his life and witness to stand on its own merits. That is a far quieter way of evangelism than that practiced by most Christian evangelists today.

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