As the inauguration of the new president was approaching, the National Cathedral in Washington, DC — which is an Episcopal cathedral — announced that, in accordance with a tradition stretching back some years, it would be holding an Inaugural Prayer Service on the day after the inauguration. At least within The Episcopal Church, this sparked quite a controversy. Many Episcopalians who opposed Mr. Trump’s election felt that the National Cathedral should cancel its service, so as not to imply that either the cathedral itself or The Episcopal Church somehow endorsed the new president’s administration.
For me, it was an odd controversy. Never before had I thought of the Inaugural Prayer Service, which has always been an interfaith service, as implying any kind of endorsement of whomever had been inaugurated or his administration. It was, rather, a moment to pray for the future — not a president’s future, so much, but the future of the nation to which each presidency is tied. The fact that this year, many people seemed to believe that the service somehow made the cathedral or the The Episcopal Church an endorser of the person elected perhaps speaks to the shift that has taken place in our political universe.
In the midst of this controversy, the Most Rev. Michael Curry, Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church, issued a statement on the matter, and I found his words quite powerful:
I grew up in a historically black congregation in the Episcopal Church. We prayed for leaders who were often lukewarm or even opposed to our very civil rights. We got on our knees in church and prayed for them, and then we got up off our knees and we Marched on Washington. Following the way of Jesus, we prayed and protested at the same time. We prayed for our leaders who were fighting for our civil rights, we prayed for those with whom we disagreed, and we even prayed for those who hated us. And we did so following Jesus, whose way is the way of unselfish, sacrificial love. And that way is the way that can set us all free.
Bishop Curry, as an African American, spoke something that we needed to hear at that moment, and that, I think, we continue needing to hear. He reminded the people who were upset about the cathedral’s prayer service — and, at least as I was seeing it in various articles and postings, seemed to be overwhelmingly white — that minorities and oppressed peoples in this country have been praying for a long time for those who wished them ill. “We got on our knees in church and prayed for them, and then we got up off our knees and we Marched on Washington.” For Bishop Curry, as for much of the African American community, much of life has been lived in this dynamic of prayer and protest, never failing to offer prayers for leaders with whom they disagreed and who often wished them ill, and at the same time seeking to hold those leaders accountable for their leadership.
Those who were disturbed by the fact that the National Cathedral’s prayer service are, I think, mostly people who have never had to live in this dynamic. People who, like myself, have never felt themselves threatened by power in any fundamental way, and who, therefore, have never really had to contemplate the relationship between prayer and protest, faith and action.
And it also seems to me that, for many white Christians — particularly maintain white Christians — we have a long practice of isolating our faith from the way in which we act in our public capacity as citizens. Many white, mainline Christians have not seen a relationship between their faith — understood strictly as a personal matter of salvation and transformation — and their political lives. The institutional separation of church and state has been seen as also embodying a separation of religion and politics.
On the one hand, keeping religion and politics separate is not a bad thing, if we are talking about refraining from using politics or political institutions to impose our religion on other people. On the other hand, it becomes problematic when we do not allow the values of our faith to inform our personal civic lives, because then the values that our faith holds up for us are not given public voice, they are not advocated for. I am reminded of a line from the Letter of James in the New Testament, “But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing” (James 1:22-25). Too many of us have become too practiced at looking in the mirror of our faith that reflects Jesus’ words and teaching back into our lives, and then walking away from that mirror and forgetting about what we are called to do. James sums up that call this way: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (James 1:27). In other words, for James — and, I would argue, for Jesus — “true religion” is one in which faith informs action. And to be “unstained by the world” means to stand up for the values of the Gospel, rather than giving in to the values that the world may embrace at any particular point in time.
Bishop Curry, in large part based, I think, on his experience as an African-American among whom this separation of faith and action did not become a habit, puts it this way:
Real prayer is both contemplative and active. It involves a contemplative conversation with and listening to God, and an active following of the way of Jesus, serving and witnessing in the world in his Name. For those who follow the way of Jesus, the active side of our life of prayer seeks to live out and help our society live out what it means to “love your neighbor as yourself.” So we work for a good and just, humane and loving society. We participate as followers of Jesus in the life of our government and society, caring for each other and others, and working for policies and laws that reflect the values and teachings of Jesus to “love your neighbor,” to “do unto others as you who have them do unto you,” to fashion a civic order that reflects the goodness, the justice, the compassion that we see in the face of Jesus, that we know to reflect the very heart and dream of God for all of God’s children and God’s creation.
If we truly wish to build a “good and just, humane and loving society”, then we surely must act in accordance with those values. And we also, just as surely, must pray for those who seem to us to be working according to some other set of values. Because we are called to love our neighbor, and to do to others as we would have them do to us. And that does not change, even when our neighbor is someone we really don’t like, or with whom we really disagree profoundly.
That is the difficult calling which Bishop Curry was holding up for us: the call to live as fully as possible into the dynamic of prayer and protest, of faith and action.