Tuesday, January 20, 2009

A Pastor for the Nation: Rev. Joseph E. Lowery

From what I've been reading on various blogs (admittedly, progressive ones, though I scan widely), the response to Rev. Joseph E. Lowery's benediction at today's inauguration was phenomenal. I'm reading that there were loud amens from many in the audience when he finished his benediction.

By contrast, Rev. Rick Warren received a lukewarm welcome at best, according to many blogs I'm reading. A scattering of applause, a few boos, a sense of relief when he had finished orating.

The difference in how the two pastors were received seems significant to me. It has been clear to many observers for some time that Rev. Warren has been positioning himself to inherit Billy Graham's mantle and be the new pastor to the nation.

It's also clear to me that the nation, at least, insofar as it was represented at this inaugural ceremony, has spoken. It wants a very different kind of pastor. The right-wing hate machine has been working overtime in the last few days to depict supporters of Bishop Gene Robinson and critics of Rev. Rick Warren as godless secularists intent on removing religion from the land.

I think what we saw happen today with the two pastors involved in the inauguration is a clear indicator that the nation wants a different kind of religion than that offered by Rev. Rick Warren. People are tired of the religious right and its misrepresentation of authentic faith for political ends. They see through the machinations of this essentially political, not religious, movement and they are tired of those machinations, even in the recycled kinder and gentler packaging of Rev. Warren.

It is not religion people are throwing away when they turn their backs on Rev. Warren. It's his kind of religion. A politicized gospel that thrives on turning some human beings into enemies, and then justifying our abuse of those "enemies" on "religious" grounds . . . . People are sick to death of being encouraged to hate in the name of God.

It seems clear from the very different response given to Rev. Warren and Rev. Lowery that many Americans would welcome the kind of religion Rev. Lowery represents: inclusive rather than exclusive, loving rather than hating, building rather than tearing down, engaging our energy in the political and cultural spheres to make the world better, not to condemn it and to attack those seeking to craft a better culture. A Christianity that opens to the contributions of the other religions of the world--Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, the religions of Africa and Polynesia, and so on. A Christianity that places love and understanding ahead of hate and condemnation.

Two evangelicalisms: that of the largely white religious right, and that of the black church. If the response to the two pastors who prayed at the inauguration today is any indication, the American people increasingly recognize the latter as a more adequate embodiment of the Christian gospel than the former. If we are to continue the tradition of having a nation's pastor, and if that pastor has to be Christian, then I think the verdict is clear: Rev. Lowery. Not Rev. Warren.

And what will the new administration take from what happened today? Perhaps one lesson is to stop trying to appease those on the far right who use religion to divide us. Stop giving power to a movement that many of us want to see fall by the wayside, because it is trying to tear apart our democratic institutions.

Stop calculating, trying to end up on the expedient side. Do the right thing. Stop listening to those who try to take the political pulse of the nation, while ignoring the demands of conscience.

There's still work to be done. While we were permitted to hear and weigh the words of Rev. Lowery and Rev. Warren, "technical" problems and scheduling oversights prevented us from even hearing what Bishop Robinson had to say.

There's a parable here. The evangelicalism of venerable civil rights leaders of the black church has brought us to a very good place, and we need to continue in that place. But to the extent that the black church in recent years has allowed itself to be courted by the religious right, and to sell out its historic commitment to human rights for all when it comes to gay brothers and sisters, there's still work to be done. To the extent that Rev. Lowery's United Methodist church continues to belie its claim to have an open mind and heart and open doors, while it treats gay human beings as second-class human beings, there is work to be done.

The voice of Gene Robinson should count, too. And it is impossible to justify the structures of exclusion that silenced him yesterday, if we take seriously what Rev. Lowery said in his prayer. It's time to stop the hating, and to end all the little self-justifying maneuvers by which we assure ourselves that the way we treat our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters is not really hateful.

It's time to listen carefully to the witness of venerable pastors like Rev. Lowery, who have spent years struggling to make their faith count as they sought to make society better, and to move forward with hope that we can build a more humane world. For all.