Religious Leaders Should Aspire to Inspire

The uproar over President-elect Obama’s controversial selections of religious leaders for his inaugural events is just one of the problems … Continued

The uproar over President-elect Obama’s controversial selections of religious leaders for his inaugural events is just one of the problems already besetting our next president. But I believe there is power in the problems and religious leaders have a role to play in unleashing that power.

To some, the invitation to evangelical pastor Rick Warren plants a symbol of exclusivity and intolerance smack in the middle of an inauguration that millions have looked forward to as an historic moment of unprecedented inclusivity; to others, inviting the first openly gay Episcopal bishop, Gene Robinson, to give an invocation at the Lincoln Memorial affronts their sensibilities. To still others, the pick of pastors seems like small potatoes in the face of the nation’s plummeting stock market and soaring unemployment. Passage of California’s Proposition 8 is the problem that weighs heaviest on the hearts of others denied the right and dignity of sanctifying their loving, lifelong marital commitments as heterosexual couples can. Bloodshed in Iraq, Afghanistan, and now in Gaza and Israel is the most pressing crisis to many. To others, it’s the melting polar ice cap that threatens the globe.

Though we have a trillion-dollar deficit in our nation, I know first-hand from a lifetime in the ministry that there is more than a trillion dollars worth of caring, commitment, and courage in American hearts today. How do I know? As the pastor of Riverside Church in New York on the morning of September 11, 2001, I witnessed how in the worst of times we discovered the best in ourselves and in each other. Our city and our entire nation were united in grief as dishwashers and stockbrokers and sons and daughters and mothers and fathers alike perished. And we were united in determination as we moved mountains of cement and steel, donated blood and blankets, searched for survivors and perpetrators, and bravely embarked on rebuilding broken lives, battered hopes, and blasted buildings. There was a new feeling of unity and community and power as we stood together, strong at the broken places.

President-elect Obama clearly is wrestling with that challenge of how to bring out the best in our nation in these difficult times, and it is a question that likewise has the attention of our nation’s religious leaders. What do we say to our nation to inspire us to find the power in the problems? Just yesterday, Pastor Rick Warren asked me for counsel after being invited to preach the Martin Luther King Day sermon in Dr. King’s home church in Atlanta. As the first white pastor invited by the famed Ebenezer Baptist Church to deliver this sermon, Pastor Warren recognizes the need to build bridges and connections with Black pastors; as the first Black pastor of the famed Riverside Church, I understand the challenging dynamics of building authentic community.

I’m sure that Bishop Gene Robinson is also praying and pondering: what words can I offer to our nation today that will heal, inspire, and live up to the need and potential of this moment? The Reverend Sharon Watkins, the first woman asked to preach at the inaugural prayer service at Washington National Cathedral, is surely mulling over the same question. As I have prepared to preach and pray at five different events over Martin Luther King Day weekend and the inauguration, I’ve asked myself as well: What can we say that will help unleash the resources within us to heal our nation?

James Weldon Johnson’s lyrics for the Black National Anthem “Lift Every Voice and Sing” remind us that especially in times of trouble–every voice is needed. Not just the voices of the Black or the White, the rich or the poor, the gay or the straight, the conservative or the liberal, the Christian or the Jew, the elder or the youth, but every voice is needed. There is a song of harmony and liberty that we are called to sing in these times that recalls the problems of the dark past that we’ve come through by faith and God’s grace and that keeps our gaze fixed on the rising sun of a new day begun. At this moment in history, on the eve of the inauguration of our nation’s first African American president and just days from the Feb. 1 beginning of Black History Month, it is time to recognize that Black History is Our American History Together. Even as we look back at the history that has already been written, we stand on the brink of writing a powerful and positive next chapter together.

Sure, we’ve got problems. But we’ve come through worse. Slavery didn’t stop us. Segregation didn’t stop us. And whatever has been thrown at us in these days won’t stop us. There is power in the problems, if we know that God’s people are in it and every voice is needed; that God’s purpose is in it–to reflect the Beloved Community Dr. King described; and God’s promise is in it–that our best days are to come.

The Rev. Dr. James Alexander Forbes, Jr., is senior minister emeritus of The Riverside Church is founder and president of the Healing of the Nations Foundation.

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  • norriehoyt

    Father Schillebeeckx is so yesterday and just plain wrong about “free will” and determinism.

  • ThomasBaum

    CCNLI know you do not believe in God but if you do believe in some kind of god, it is an awfully small god.Take care, be ready.Sincerely, Thomas Paul Moses Baum.

  • ThomasBaum

    JAMES FORBESAfter reading your post, the song, “Why’s everybody always pickin on me”, came to mind.It seems to be a human tendency to dwell on oneself and oneself’s problems and sometimes not even notice that not only are there other people out there but also other problems.If one does look out past oneself, it can also be very helpful to realize that one can only do so much and if one has the inclination, to do what one can.Take care, be ready.Sincerely, Thomas Paul Moses Baum.

  • Paganplace

    I mean, that makes me *sick,* as a queer white girl with, I assure you, more than enough problems of m own in not-too-distant more-racist times, whogot called an ‘n-word-lover’ on more than enough occasions, yes, it makes me *sick* to see ‘Black’ churches deciding civil rights.. And MLK’s dream, should rightfully stop with them. Sick at the heart to see it. I didn’t expect to see such cowardice.

  • Paganplace

    “” ThomasBaum If CCNL doesn’t believe in *your* God, Thomas, he’s awfully short on reasons to be so virulently devoted to your God’s supposed Fundamentalist line. And all the conservative dogma. I think he’s given up on claiming to be an atheist at this point, but it seems that was always one of those lies certain Fundies feel justified telling, even while trying to play the provocateur, or, more fittingly, …troll.No illusions, there.

  • CCNL

    Father Edward Schillebeeckx’s god will do just fine.And as we have survived five Wiccan curses, we are now immune to the text ramblings of one or all pagans!!!

  • Paganplace

    Eh, if you’re ‘cursed,’ Concerned Christian, you’ll know it. This has nothing to do with you. It’s about people trying to drive artificial wedges between the civil rights of black people and civil rights of queer people. You, on the other hand, don’t seem to believe anyone has *any* rights, so you know where you can stuff that.

  • willemkraal

    well having no preachers at all would be my very first choice! but having a man like bishop gene robinson (this guy had to wear a bulletproof vest to be safe from some his own homophobic church members) should inspire millions of americans , a dude who stands up for the rights of all americans including our gay and lesbian friends and relatives!

  • petersmeets

    Obama, please be a rationalist. There’s really nothing to expect from (the) god(s). It just takes common sense to admit that.

  • StephenBWise

    There is serious talk that Congress will succumb to a request from the porn industry for a multi – billion dollar bailout. Hopefully Obama can block that, otherwise his promise of change is baloney and his presidency will be good for nothing.A lot of people are praying that he has the courage to do the right thing. Let there be no doubt, porn destroys lives!

  • Alex511

    fr willemkraal:>…but having a man like bishop gene robinson (this guy had to wear a bulletproof vest to be safe from some his own homophobic church members) should inspire millions of americans , a dude who stands up for the rights of all americans including our gay and lesbian friends and relatives!EXACTLY! Unfortunately, the higher-ups at hbo decided to NOT show his lovely prayer, so it can be accessed via the boston globe website.

  • Paganplace

    I mean, no, I don’t think the ‘porn industry’ needs a bailout. But people who think a crappy magazine has that much power over them *don’t get to tell me *my* marriage is something, ‘dirty, dirty, bad girl.’Gods, where’d you even *learn* that?

  • CCNL

    Porn and paganism?? Historically they have always gone together.

  • Paganplace

    I mean, that’s all I see in the likes of you, and other conseratives, Concerned Christian: A bunch of dudes trying to mobilize ‘Armies of God’ to get off like your own spoo is a bigger deal than it is. Get over yourself.

  • Paganplace

    I mean, you people quoting Bible verses and thinking ‘Masturbation’ is the big threat to the universe, you do realize you’re geeks, right? You think you can quote something and say ‘By rights I should be the one getting laid,’ without ever troubling to grow a social skill. You realize that, right?

  • CCNL

    Paganplace, Paganplace, Paganplace,It is simply biology, physics and anatomy- you need to get over your sensitivity about gay sex being mutual masturbation. It is what it is. As noted previously even the ancients labeled it properly:”The word lesbian in English was originally an adjective referring to the inhabitants of the Greek island of Lesbos and the dialect of Greek from the island. From antiquity Lesbos was associated with female homosexuality because of the homoerotic verse of native poetess Sappho. The ancient Greek rhetorician Lucian used “Lesbian” as an adjective to refer to female homosexuality, but the most common term used by ancient writers was Tribade, which could mean either a masculine woman, or a woman who has sex with another woman. This term continued to be the most common word used in medical literature in up to the 18th century in Europe.[3] The word meant “rubber”, on the assumption that female homosexual practices involved sexual stimulation by rubbing together both the genitalia of two women,[4] and referred to sexual practices rather than the modern concept of sexual orientations.[3]The dominant meaning of “lesbian” until the 19th century still referred to Lesbos rather than any sexual identity. However, Pierre de Bourdeille, seigneur de Brantôme, the French 17th century writer on sexuality, uses the term “lesbian” (“dames et lesbiennes”) to mean homosexual women, but according to David M Halperin the word is always still directly linked to the women of Lesbos:”