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What We Have Seen and Heard

January 27th, 2009


Then they called them in again and commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John replied, “Which is right in God’s eyes: to listen to you, or to him? You be the judges! As for us, we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.” (Acts 4:18-20)

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Rick Warren, the senior pastor of what might be America’s best-known church, the Saddleback church, was asked to lead the invocation at President Obama’s inauguration this week. Warren’s prayer was probably about what could reasonably have been expected from an evangelical pastor. It was an unabashedly Christian prayer in which Warren invoked the name of Jesus at least four times, and closed with the Lord’s Prayer.

Predictably, some people are horrified that a Christian pastor would pray a Christian prayer.

Steve Chapman, a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, wrote this in his online blog of January 21st:
“If I were a Christian, I'd have been embarrassed by Rick Warren's invocation at the Inauguration. It was aggressively evangelical, serving to exclude everyone who doesn't accept the divinity of Jesus…. He seemed to think he was at a revival rather than a secular event meant for all – in a country whose constitution rejects official sponsorship of any faith.”

Mr. Chapman isn’t a Christian. He is, in his words “not persuaded of the existence of the Almighty.” He goes on to write, after his criticism of Warren, of his feeling of gratification that President Obama included a reference to “nonbelievers” alongside “Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus” in his address, pointing out that he is probably the first President to expressly mention atheists as making up part of the nation. He ends his post by writing, “I can only be grateful to Obama for reminding his audience – including Rick Warren – that nonbelievers are Americans, too.”

Mr. Chapman’s post is another entry in the ongoing debate that arises out of the diversity of America. The framers of our Constitution never envisioned a country of “Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus and nonbelievers.” The clause against the formal establishment of an official religion seems to have been part of an effort to keep the new country from inheriting the Protestant/Catholic wars of Europe. It’s at best debatable that the clause was ever intended to obliterate all traces of religion in the public life of the nation. But with immigrants from all over the world coming to America – and bringing their faiths, or lack thereof, with them – religion in American life has become increasingly complicated. The recent past demonstrates an approach that acknowledges a sort of civic, “God bless America” kind of religion. It acknowledges that faith is important to many of us, and lets us speak of that faith publicly as long as we do so in agreeably non-specific terms.

Warren’s sin is that he got too specific.

Of course, in asking Warren to lead the invocation and taking in atheists with his address, President Obama might have signaled an adjustment in approach. As glad as Mr. Chapman is that atheists were recognized as Americans, I’m at least that gratified that President Obama included evangelical Christians. As highly as Mr. Chapman values his rights as an American to speak out as an atheist, I value my right to speak out as a believer in Jesus.

If President Obama had asked a Muslim cleric to lead the invocation, no one should have been surprised to hear that prayer addressed to Allah. And no one should have been surprised that an evangelical Christian would invoke the name of Jesus. More than a right given by the Constitution, speaking in the name of Jesus is an obligation that springs from who a believer in Jesus is. He claimed to be the salvation of the world, and embedded in the gospel is a mandate to tell the story to the world. A Christian literally bears the name of Jesus, and to speak of who we are is unavoidably to speak of who he is.

Mr. Chapman is understandably comfortable speaking of a “secular” sphere as opposed to a “sacred” one, because for him there is only a secular sphere. It’s more problematic for a Christian to speak in such terms, because for us there is only a sacred one. Jesus stakes a claim to our whole lives; “No one can serve two masters,” he reminds us. And so it would have felt like a betrayal of his faith for Rick Warren to pray at the Inauguration in any way other than in Jesus’ name. What for Mr. Chapman was a “secular” event was for Christians a sacred one, because the questions we should be asking at every event and every turn of our lives is, “What is God up to here?” and “What is my part in it?”

In a regime which did not allow freedom of religious expression, Peter and John found themselves forced to ignore an official gag order: “Which is right in God’s eyes: to listen to you, or to him? …As for us, we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.” And the fact is that even in a country that allows freedom of religion, we’ll sometimes be called to follow in their footsteps. Our conviction will at times, for various reasons, make people uncomfortable. We will occasionally be accused of intolerance, that most unforgivable of American sins. There will be times in our lives when we’ll be asked to be quiet, or even instructed not to speak anymore in the name of Jesus. When that happens, as politely and gently and humbly as possible, we’ll have to say along with our spiritual forbears “We cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.”

Don’t get me wrong: we mustn’t be jerks. There’s no Christian calling to bigotry or hatred or intolerance of different beliefs and points of view. We’ll want to choose our words carefully sometimes, mindful of context and situation. There may well be times when we’ll suggest that it might be more appropriate to finish a conversation at a later time. But neither should we pretend to be something we’re not, or pretend not to be something we are. If we’re believers in Christ, then not speaking about him is really not an option.

That’s not because I feel like I have more right than Mr. Chapman to force my opinion on others, or because I feel that the President should favor Christians over atheists. It’s not about my national identity at all – it’s about who I am in Christ. It’s about the fact that “the life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

I cannot help speaking about what I have seen and heard.

Sorry, Mr. Chapman.

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