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Obama at prayer breakfast: Focus on what is just

Obama at prayer breakfast: Focus on what is just

Remarks by the President at National Prayer Breakfast, a selection:

… part of what I want to touch on today is the degree to which we’ve seen professions of faith used both as an instrument of great good, but also twisted and misused in the name of evil.

As we speak, around the world, we see faith inspiring people to lift up one another — to feed the hungry and care for the poor, and comfort the afflicted and make peace where there is strife.  We heard the good work that Sister has done in Philadelphia, and the incredible work that Dr. Brantly and his colleagues have done.  We see faith driving us to do right.

But we also see faith being twisted and distorted, used as a wedge — or, worse, sometimes used as a weapon.  From a school in Pakistan to the streets of Paris, we have seen violence and terror perpetrated by those who profess to stand up for faith, their faith, professed to stand up for Islam, but, in fact, are betraying it.  We see ISIL, a brutal, vicious death cult that, in the name of religion, carries out unspeakable acts of barbarism  — terrorizing religious minorities like the Yezidis, subjecting women to rape as a weapon of war, and claiming the mantle of religious authority for such actions.

We see sectarian war in Syria, the murder of Muslims and Christians in Nigeria, religious war in the Central African Republic, a rising tide of anti-Semitism and hate crimes in Europe, so often perpetrated in the name of religion.

So how do we, as people of faith, reconcile these realities — the profound good, the strength, the tenacity, the compassion and love that can flow from all of our faiths, operating alongside those who seek to hijack religious for their own murderous ends?

Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history.  And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.  In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.  Michelle and I returned from India — an incredible, beautiful country, full of magnificent diversity — but a place where, in past years, religious faiths of all types have, on occasion, been targeted by other peoples of faith, simply due to their heritage and their beliefs — acts of intolerance that would have shocked Gandhiji, the person who helped to liberate that nation.

So this is not unique to one group or one religion.  There is a tendency in us, a sinful tendency that can pervert and distort our faith….

Posted by John B. Chilton


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Rod Gillis

Christian churches in Canada across the board, including the Anglican Church, participated in the operation of Indian Residential Schools where aboriginal children suffered systemic violence in the form of cultural, sexual, and physical abuse. A recent Canadian delegation to Israel included right wing evangelicals while excluding mainline churches supportive of the Palestinians.The pedophile scandal in the Catholic church is a form of violence of the most systemic, criminal and conspiratorial type. If main stream columnists are to be believed,right wing Christian radicalization of the armed services is a growing concern to military brass. Any religious tradition that purports to traffic in ultimate values, and sees itself as enjoying divine permission, runs the risk of becoming enmeshed in violence.

Ann Fontaine

Here is Susan Russell’s response to the critics of Islam:

Christopher Johnson

As expected, both the President and Rev. Russell, complete miss the point. Who’s ethnically cleansing, who’s beheading people, who’s doing the bulk of the killing RIGHT NOW.

“Yeah, well, your religion did bad things a thousand years ago” doesn’t begin to approach the intellectual heft of “I know you are but what am I?” It may be difficult for minds as limited as those of the President and Rev. Russell to grasp but Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and Boko Haram are not Presbyterians.

JC Fisher

“Perhaps if parents taught their kids that validation comes from within”

…which is exactly what Leelah Alcorn, and many (though not all) LGBT youth suicides so tragically lacked: parents who affirmed their child’s inner, True, self.

My opinion stands that too many Christians lack empathy and compassion.

Nick Porter

JC Fisher, that is well past the age of reason. My opinion stands as is. Perhaps if parents taught their kids that validation comes from within instead of looking for others to give it to you, maybe they wouldn’t seek a permanent solution to a temporary problem. Everyone isn’t going to be your friend and some of these kids as well as adults believe that you’re entitled to acceptance and the hard truth is that you’re not.

JC Fisher

“no one is responsible for the suicide of someone but the person who is committing it”

Did you miss the word “youth” in my citation, Nick? Some of them were as young as 10 and 11 years old! [In my area, a 12 year old “creative” “different” “only boy cheerleader” committed suicide in December. RIP, Ronin.]

They’re not “responsible” enough to vote, to buy liquor, to cosign a loan but, if bullied for YEARS, and determined to find a way out by any means necessary, they’re “responsible” for their suicides? No they are not.

LGBT youth are the MOST vulnerable, they need the MOST protection: the opposite of what they get from *too many* Christians.

@ Elouise, re “slavery in the US was always opposed by Christian believers”: An entire Confederate Army of non-Christians then? I’d be interested to learn where you heard that…

David Streever

Well said, JC.
There are people in our country right now who advocate inhumane treatment of others, and according to many, our country declared war and invaded a sovereign nation that had done nothing to us, resulting in the deaths of nearly 1 million people.

I think Obama makes a good point in reminding us that none of us are incapable of great evil, and in asking us not to pretend we’re immune to evil and hatred.

Rod Gillis

@ Anne Fontaine, yes that is correct. The abolitionist movement was a kind of moral coalition of Christians ( like the Quakers), Unitarians, deists, and atheists, gathered
around a common cause moral consciousness that stems from the Enlightenment.

I should have precised in my post about the churches support for slavery/segregation and the like, that it was churches in the South, although again, one must be careful not to oversimplify. I had the opportunity to visit Jamestown in 2009, and the interpretive work there regarding the evolution of slavery seemed fairly up front.

There is a book that looks interesting, published in 2003,Episcopalians and Race: Civil War to Civil Rights (Religion in the South) by Gardiner Shattuck Jr.

We cribbed from the Quakers the saying about speaking truth to power. The corollary is the need to speak truth to and about ourselves. How else do we change direction and engage metanoia?

I have to say you folks in The States seem to be able to get the issues out in public and on the streets. We have major issues in Canada around entrenched racist attitudes towards First Nations peoples. And while the Church is working at it, getting the issues out there in public discourse here is a real struggle.

Ann Fontaine

It would do all churches good to study their complicity with racism and slavery. Although I grew up and was educated in Oregon – I only recently learned that it was set up as a White Haven. Ann (no e)

Rod Gillis

@ JC, good point about the contribution of Christian attitudes to the toxic social environment towards GLBTQ folks. Here is a link to an article in which Archbishop Justin Welby takes Christians to task to for their attitudes towards gays, and the perception that it is like unto racist attitudes, and that repentance of homophobia is in order

Rod Gillis

@Elouise Weaver, “In addition, slavery in the US was always opposed by Christian believers, and was eradicated by Christian movements. ”

This statement is at best an oversimplification, and more likely completely inaccurate historically. American Slavery was devised by Christians in colonial America, and evolved through deliberate cascading legislative measures in, for instance, Jamestown ( the birth place of the British Empire it has been argued) from the 1630s onward. While Christians may have been among passionate abolitionists, the abolition of slavery is a product of The Enlightenment. Slavery was supported up to and throughout the Civil War by churches, including The Protestant Episcopal Church. After the war beginning with reconstruction and up to the civil rights movement in the 1960s segregation was supported by Christians and their churches.

Earlier on, after the end of the War of Independence many African American United Empire Loyalists migrated to what was then British North America in order to obtain the freedom they were promised by The British. Upon arrival, in places like Nova Scotia, they were greeted with racist attitudes by the colonial authorities there as well, authorities politically connected to The Church of England.

Ann Fontaine

The Bible was used by Christians to support slavery. Mark of Cain, Ham, son of Noah. etc. A few Christians were part of the abolitionists in the US — but not all by a long shot.

Elouise Weaver

I agree. Mind boggling that Obama compares Christians defending themselves 1000 years ago, with evil murderous Islamists in the 21st century. In addition, slavery in the US was always opposed by Christian believers, and was eradicated by Christian movements. Why doesn’t he address human slavery today? It’s only grown, not diminished.

David Streever

President Obama was explaining that we’re all capable of evil. People in this country, Christians, burned men alive for their skin color; other Christians defended it with arguments from religion.

I heard President Obama telling us not to be complacent, and not to assume we’re incapable of evil, while we demonize others. It sounded like a very Christian message to me, similar to sermons I’ve heard, certainly, about our own broken nature.

Nick Porter

JC Fisher, no one is responsible for the suicide of someone but the person who is committing it. We have to take responsibility for our own actions.

JC Fisher

Who drove Leelah Alcorn ( ), and dozens of other U.S. LGBT youth, to their deaths the past few years? Overwhelmingly, they were *Christians*. That ain’t ancient history, that’s NOW.

Nick Porter

Well said,Christopher.

Rod Gillis

@ David Streever, post Feb.6th. Good post David, right on!

The following line from The President’s remarks is a concise insight, and I think pretty much self-evident across the historical record.

“So this is not unique to one group or one religion. There is a tendency in us, a sinful tendency that can pervert and distort our faith.”

David Streever

Do you really think the President is limited in intellect? Do you think the Harvard Law Review, widely considered to be the best in the nation, would have elected him as the President if he was lacking in the smarts department?

I wouldn’t express any trepidation about your comment if you were merely questioning a policy, or an ideological concept, but it seems spurious and specious to question the intelligence of a person who has such a strong academic record.

Academic honors from Punahou Academy. Magna Cum Laude Harvard. 3.7 GPA at Columbia. I think if you’re going to describe him as some type of fortunate idiot, you’re going to have to give us some information about your own bonafides, so we can understand what perspective you’re using to claim that Obama isn’t an incredibly intelligent person with a strong academic background.

Rod Gillis

“Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and Boko Haram are not Presbyterians” Nor are long time American friend and ally Saudi Arabia.

And, one does not have to go back a thousand years to find Christian complicity with and support for segregation, foreign policy misadventures in Latin America or support for oppressing Palestinians.

Rod Gillis

There is an old book ( Westminster 1973) by Robert McAfee Brown, titled Religion and Violence: A Primer For White Americans. It’s a period piece in some ways, but highly relevant still. I recommend it.

Nick Porter

JC Fisher, that is well past the age of reason. My opinion stands as is. Perhaps if parents taught their kids that validation comes from within instead of looking for others to give it to you, maybe they wouldn’t seek a permanent solution to a temporary problem. Everyone isn’t going to be your friend and some of these kids as well as adults believe that you’re entitled to acceptance and the hard truth is that you’re not.

Paul Woodrum

OK. Let’s separate religion from law. That way we’ll be able to dishonor our parents, commit murder and adultery, steal, lie and covet what belongs to our neighbor who we will no longer have to respect, much less love.

Free at last. Free at last. No more religion. Free at last.

David Streever

Do you see barbarism in every secular country? France? Czech Republic? Sweden? Denmark? Austria, Norway, Japan? Australia?

Are these countries of barbaric violence? No… in fact they all have lower murder rates and violent crime rates than we do.

I think you might want to re-consider your position on secularism being the gateway drug to murder.

Elouise Weaver

‘Secular’ countries have Laws based in God’s Laws. (That’s where the Law comes from.)

Rod Gillis

Paul, can you expand upon your comment? I’ve read the President’s remarks in total, but I’m unclear about your object of your comment?

Rod Gillis

Ok Elouise, I see it now. I was on the wrong track, trying to put it together in terms of the separation of church and state in The President’s speech. Interesting observation. I think I’d have to agree with Anne Bay’s comment in terms of modern democratic constitutional politics, but I see what Paul is getting at in terms of what might be called transcendent social values as a ground for law. It would be interesting to hear more from both.

As an aside, I’m somewhat envious that you can have the kind of public conversation that is reflected in President Obama’s remarks. Both the United States and the U.K. ( even though we like to razz their sometimes superior attitude) have a much more open market place of ideas around values and religion than we have here in Canada.

Elouise Weaver

I think he was just citing the 10 Commandments (the basis of good Law) in answer to Anne’s statement, that ‘…clearly history shows that religion, if used for making laws– bad things happen to civilizations. ‘

Anne Bay

I just got through seeing President Obama’s speech at the Prayer Breakfast. He did a good job as usual. I am just hoping that the U.S. will preserve the separation of church and state. The older I get the more I am concerned that people blur the two. History clearly shows that religion if used for making laws, bad things happen to civilizations.

Rod Gillis

It does society a disservice to filter religion through either the lens of romantic hagiography or the lens of uncritical vilification. Most religions, Christianity and Islam included, have had and continue to have their struggles with violence. The one thing that may be in order is to attend first and foremost to the struggle of one’s own tradition with violence.

Joseph W. Trigg


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