Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Barack Obama's Inauguration: A Critique

Barack Obama is now our forty-fourth president. His inauguration yesterday was a spectacular event, filled with all the pomp and circumstance we could want. There were beautiful decorations and excellent military marchers, singers, and bands. Many dignitaries and celebrities were in attendance. There were likely over two million people attending the event with over 29,000 police and security officials to control the crowd and guard the new president.

One of the most symbolic aspects of the event was Barack Obama's use of the Lincoln Bible at his swearing-in. The act was designed to link Obama with Abraham Lincoln, our sixteenth president who passed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862, proclaiming the freedom of the slaves of any who had helped in rebellion against the Union. While this symbol holds great meaning for black people within the United States, there are a couple of ironies inherent in his use of the Lincoln Bible. First, Barack Obama's family background has nothing to do with slavery. His father immigrated to the U.S. from Kenya. Thus his link to slavery is a cursory one at best and his link to other black Americans with a family history in this country has more to do with skin color than real identification.

A second, and very unfortunate, irony is Barack Obama's commitment to abortion. While abortion has been touted as a mother's right to choose, the reality is that choice has been made over 50 million times over the the last 39 years. That's 50 million people who are not with us today. Adding to the irony is that the vast majority of those aborted people would have been black. Is choice really more important than people's lives? I think Abraham Lincoln, a man of deep principle, would vehemently say, "No!"

There were two prayers made on behalf of Barack Obama yesterday by Dr. Rick Warren of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California, and Dr. Joseph Lowery a former United Methodist pastor and long-time leader within the civil rights community. Both of these prayers had some great points and some poor ones.

Rick Warren's prayer was a largely God-focused one in which he reminded the new president and all citizens to whom they owe their lives and there livelihoods. He reminded us that God is eternal and sovereign. And he gave God as a reason for Americans to work together. Unfortunately he also told Americans to look to something else, "our commitment to freedom and justice for all," as a source for our Americanism. While these are good things, should they really trump faith in God? I would suggest these things should grow from our faith in God. Further, If we have different religions (different concepts of God), how can we agree on even the rest of Warren's prayer? He ends his prayer with Jesus' name in different languages, but he did not make Jesus or God the basis for our American ideals. I think that Warren's prayer was more confusing than helpful and more sentimental than purposeful. Find the transcript here.

Joseph Lowery's benediction was a hodge-podge of the eloquent and the silly, the reverent and the self-focused. Some of what he said appears to be very reverent and appealing until it is scrutinized and its rhetoric is examined. For example, his opening words:

God of our weary years, God of our silent tears, thou who has brought us thus far along the way, thou who has by thy might led us into the light, keep us forever in the path, we pray, lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met thee, lest our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, we forget thee. Shadowed beneath thy hand may we forever stand -- true to thee, O God, and true to our native land.

It is obvious that the weary and silent years that Lowery is referring to are the years of slavery, segregation, and civil-rights fighting. The light he is referring to is a new era with a black president - a man who will assumably uphold black interests. A question arises about where the places are where the god was met, and who that god is. After all, this god is the god of Liberation Theology. A god who is concerned first and foremost with the condition of man and not with his own glory. Without understanding the concepts behind his words, they seem not only innocuous, but glorifying to God. In reality, however, Lowery's words were wholly man-centered. There were no requirements of man, only blessings for man's interests.

The end of Lowery's benediction was a silly and rather irreverent rhyme which pushed the civil rights agenda. This section was not only detached from the somber eloquence of his previous words but seemed largely inappropriate for the nature of the event. It was also largely insulting toward white people, implicitly blaming them for doing wrong.

Lord, in the memory of all the saints who from their labors rest, and in the joy of a new beginning, we ask you to help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get back, when brown can stick around, when yellow will be mellow, when the red man can get ahead, man, and when white will embrace what is right. Let all those who do justice and love mercy say amen.

I found Lowery's benediction to be a mockery of a prayer and a dilution of what could have been a wholly poignant and prayerful celebration.

I do not think that we are merely seeing the statements of a couple of people selected by Obama to speak, offering their own ideas. I think we are seeing evidence of what this administration is committed to. I was also saddened to see how many people within the crowd were not willing to bow their heads during the prayers. We are seeing a generation of unbelievers electing an unbeliever as their president. I have been thinking of the kings of Israel and Judah since I saw this. All those kings who were enemies of God and yet invoked his name and offered sacrifices to "honor" him at their coronations. This is pretty much the same thing. God, however, has warned us that he will not be mocked. 2 Chronicles 36:11-16:

Zedekiah was twenty-one years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem eleven years. He did evil in the eyes of the LORD his God and did not humble himself before Jeremiah the prophet, who spoke the word of the LORD . . . Furthermore, all the leaders of the priests and the people became more and more unfaithful, following all the detestable practices of the nations and defiling the temple of the LORD, which he had consecrated in Jerusalem. The LORD, the God of their fathers, sent word to them through his messengers again and again, because he had pity on his people and on his dwelling place. But they mocked God's messengers, despised his words and scoffed at his prophets until the wrath of the LORD was aroused against his people and there was no remedy.
Those of us who are Christians should see the false humility and false reverence that is rampant in our culture. We must live differently. We have a unique new opportunity, a black president, which we should see as a blessing. Unfortunately this man does not share our convictions. Pray for Barack Obama, his family, his staff, and our government as a whole. God is sovereign and can change Obama's mind and heart, either as a brother or as a pharaoh.

Here are videos of the oath and inauguration of Barack Obama, the 44th President of the United States of America.


Rev. E. Scott Hart said...

Actually, Lincoln only freed the slaves in the states that were in rebellion. And even that has legal doubt as those states were not part of the United States but part of a sovereign nation, the Confederate States. He left out any emancipation for the United States as a whole.

Steven Douglas said...

Thanks for the clarification - I meant that by what I said, but I see I didn't make it clear. Thanks again.

A. B. Caneday said...

"Lord, in the memory of all the saints who from their labors rest, and in the joy of a new beginning, we ask you to help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get back, when brown can stick around, when yellow will be mellow, when the red man can get ahead, man, and when white will embrace what is right. Let all those who do justice and love mercy say amen."

Quite offensive! What? Is not the inauguration of Barack Obama evidence that racism hardly holds any prominence in American society today?

It is deeply offensive when people exploit prayers to deliver sermons. Both prayers crossed over into sermonizing, in my estimation.

Steven Douglas said...

I found it unfortunate that Obama's celebration was so black-centered. Most of the performers were black. There was an obvious statement that I don't think needed to be made. So, yes, I think there was racism shown in the event. I of course would not expect the first black president to only have white performers, but I wish there had been a greater range of cultures to show his commitment to a multi-cultural government and country.

As for the sermons . . . er, prayers, I really didn't mind the sermonizing as much as I minded the subject of the sermons. Irreverent, especially the latter.