The Challenge of President Obama’s Prayer Breakfast Comments
By: Robert L. Withers
February 8, 2015
I did not hear or see the President’s address to the prayer breakfast last week. However, after a dear friend asked me to watch the address, I printed it out and read it. Since then I’ve read it again, pondered it, and have given it much thought.
I imagine that I am obliged to say at the outset that I do not agree with everything Mr. Obama believes nor with everything on his administration’s agenda; in fact, some things are sad beyond words, sad to the point of being worthy of the Lamentations of Jeremiah. On the other hand, I can probably write that about most every administration. There is also the realization that, by and large, whatever Jeremiah might lament about in the current administration are things that he would also lament about on both side of the aisle on Capitol Hill, in the Supreme Court, in our state capitals, and within both the general culture and within the professing church. Peter reminds us that “judgment begins at the house of God”; it does not appear from the Scriptures that judgment begins at the White House.
Mr. Obama has the unenviable task of leading a postmodern pluralistic society; the fact that it is postmodern means that it lacks the unifying cohesion of a shared worldview, the fact that it is pluralistic in myriad facets mitigates against any attempt to develop a unifying center of gravity. Mr. Obama, as with his immediate predecessors, is the product of our culture and is, in many ways, the product of the professing church. To those who take issue with my “professing church” observation I will simply say that had the church been the church in the twentieth century, a distinctive and recognizable counter-cultural entity within our society, that perhaps Mr. Obama’s perspective on the exclusiveness of the claims of Christ might be different. I write this as one who was expelled from a seminary in 1967 that took umbrage at a chapel message of mine that suggested that we love blacks in the same degree that we love whites. I write this as one who, as a lad, saw “Whites only” signs within miles of our Federal capital, and within minutes of churches where professing Christians gathered.
Mr. Obama stressed humility in his message; this is assuredly a Biblical value. Whether we agree with some of Mr. Obama’s remarks or not, I find it difficult to understand why professing Christians cannot agree that a humble response to Mr. Obama is an obedient response to Jesus Christ – the King of kings and Lord of lords who as a lamb taught us humility – James and John had to learn that calling fire down on those who did not agree with them was not the way of the Lamb. I applaud Mr. Obama’s emphasis on humility – I need more of it.
When I read Mr. Obama’s remarks I am reminded of Peter’s admonition to, “Honor all people. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the king,” 1 Peter 2:17. Note the proximity of fearing God and honoring the king; he that fears God will honor the king. Paul writes to Titus, “Remind them to be subject to rulers and authorities, to obey, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to be peaceable, gentle, showing all humility to all men,” Titus 3:1-2. The person who desires to obey Scripture will be the man or woman who will not speak evil of others and who will show humility to all men – note the context of these words with “rulers and authorities”.
Jesus teaches us that, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God,” Matthew 5:9; and James writes (James 3:17 – 18), “But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality and without hypocrisy. Now the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.”
Mr. Obama is the president of my country, and as such I owe him respect and honor, and should I disagree with him, as I often do, I must remind myself that to speak evil of others, and particularly to speak evil and to disrespect God-ordained authority, is to disobey the Word of God, it is to sin.
Now I think it is unfortunate that our president did not give some historical context when he mentioned the Crusades; but he only had a few minutes and perhaps he trusted that his listeners and readers would educate themselves on the context – I don’t know. As a rule my only problem with those who continually bring up the Crusades as a slam on Christianity is that they seldom give equal attention to militaristic Islam; in other words, they don’t tell the whole story. I read one Catholic response to the President’s message that insisted that the Crusades were political and not religious. Surely the person jests, for not only did the Catholic Church “preach” crusades, it encouraged recruitment by promising dispensations. It was a “Go to war and get your sins forgiven” campaign.
Mr. Obama also referred to the Inquisition, this was not an isolated stain on the history of the church, it was a reign of terror; but lest Protestants become smug we can find examples of Protestant terror on Catholics as well as of Protestant and Catholic terror on indigenous peoples. This is not revisionist history – this is simply history. I am not responsible for the history of Islam, nor of any other religion, but I am responsible for the history of Christianity. I am not responsible for the behavior of adherents to other religions or philosophies, but I am responsible for the behavior of adherents to Christianity. I need not repent for the behavior of anyone else, than of those who say they are Christians; I need not be ashamed of what the followers of Islam do; but I must be ashamed of followers of Christ who do not obey Him.
Mr. Obama’s point was that we all need to be conscious of “a sinful tendency that can pervert and distort our faith.” How can a Christian disagree with this most Biblical of observations? Much of the Bible was written because nations and peoples and churches perverted and distorted their faith.
I have read criticism that Mr. Obama reached back hundreds of years ago to the Crusades to illustrate a sad period in the church’s history. What about his reference to Jim Crow?
Oh yes, I’ve read another criticism that Mr. Obama did not point out that Christians were in the forefront of opposing slavery – as if that is supposed to dismiss the Jim Crow observation. But let me first address the argument that Christians were in the forefront of opposing slavery by saying that many more Christians either endorsed slavery or at best ignored it – ignored it in their very own country. I will also observe that Christians participated in the genocide of American Indians and the illegal taking of their land – I particularly have the Cherokee nation in mind during the presidency of Andrew Jackson; President Jackson ignored the Supreme Court and removed the Cherokee people, sending them on the Trail of Tears. Where were Christians?
As for Jim Crow, black Americans have been lynched in my lifetime. A bus filled with Freedom Riders, peaceable non-violent men and women, was fire-bombed – where was the church? This is not revisionist history, these are simply the facts. And when (white) Christians are confronted with the terrible stain of acquiescing in and promoting first slavery and then Jim Crow we ought to stop worrying about the sins of Islam and worry about our own sins. And I think that is what bothers me the most about some of the responses to Mr. Obama’s remarks, the inability of professing Christians to look themselves in the mirror and say, “We have sinned and we’d better watch out or we’ll do it again.”
I do not agree with all of what Mr. Obama said, but he is the President of my country and I owe him respect – that is a nonnegotiable teaching of the Bible. Mr. Obama used the word “humility” throughout his message – he must have sensed that we needed it. Based on many of the responses to his remarks by professing Christians that I’ve read…Mr. Obama was right. Unfortunately, Mr. Obama has probably learned by now what preachers have known for centuries, the people in the pew tend to think that the message was for someone else.
Mr. Obama did what I expect a good leader to do, he did what I would expect a good preacher to do, he challenged me to examine myself.