ABC News! What “cloud of witnesses”?

all_saints011Wasn’t that a remarkably Protestant festival of civil religion today at the U.S. Capitol?

As expected, President Barack Obama delivered a speech — text here — soaked in religious and moral imagery, one that civil-religion scholars will be parsing for days to come. At the heart of this was the completely understandable and, frankly, appropriate linking of this political ritual with the history of the civil rights movement and all of the language and imagery that goes with that.

Did you notice, for example, that Aretha Franklin’s improvisation at the end of “My Country ’Tis of Thee” formed a perfect bridge to the event from the final improvised lines of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s great “I Have A Dream” speech?

While setting aside the final words of the song, she added — among other improvised riffs — these words:

Our fathers’ God, to thee, author of liberty, to thee we sing; long may our land be bright with freedom’s holy light; protect us by thy might … let freedom ring … from the red clay of Georgia, all the way to the Allegheny mountains … Let it ring.

King, of course, flowed from the same patriotic hymn into these lines:

And so let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania. Let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado. Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California. …

Franklin changed the Georgia reference from Stone Mountain to “red clay,” but the link is still there.

There was much to think about during and after the ceremonies and that sound you hear is reporters working on it — including me, for Scripps Howard — right now.

Much of the attention will, of course, be focused on that radical man of evangelical America, the Rev. Rick Warren. His enthusiastic invocation included many lines to discuss and, sure enough, reporters are jumping on them.

ABC News quickly filed a report under the headline: “Embattled Pastor Warren Sets Inclusive Tone at Inaugural — Under Fire for Anti-Gay Views, Pastor Warren Mentions ‘Jesus’ in Obama’s Inaugural Invocation But Avoids Controversy.” Wow. Once again, to what degree is Warren controversial across the nation? That report by Susan Donaldson James begins:

Rick Warren, the evangelical pastor who faced criticism for his anti-gay views in the weeks leading up to the inauguration, today delivered an inclusive but deeply religious invocation that celebrated the first African-American president.

“Today we celebrate the hinge point of history in the inauguration of the first African-American president of the United States, a land of unequal possibility where the son of an African immigrant can rise to highest leadership,” he said.

“Dr. King and his witnesses are shouting in heaven,” said Warren, the Christian pastor who leads the 20,000-member Saddleback Church in California.

Speaking to a nation whose religious face increasingly reflects the map of the world, Warren invoked God to “forgive us if we fight amongst ourselves and when we fail to treat our fellow human beings with the respect they deserve.”

Actually, that part of the story includes a major misquote — if you care about Christian tradition and doctrine. Click here to read the actual Warren prayer.

ABC quotes Warren as saying, “Dr. King and his witnesses are shouting in heaven.”

The civil rights leader is, in heaven, surrounded by people who witnesses HIS deeds? I think not. Here is what Warren actually said, in context:

We are so grateful to live in this land, a land of unequaled possibility, where the son of an African immigrant can rise to the highest level of our leadership. And we know today that Dr. King and a great cloud of witnesses are shouting in heaven.

Clearly, Warren is alluding to a much greater assembly in glory, with reference to Hebrews 12:1:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.

ABC News needs to run a correction — quickly.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://www.mikehickerson.com Mike Hickerson

    I wonder what Jewish and Muslim observers think of the prayer, both of his use of Jesus’ name period, but also of his use of “Yeshua” and “Isa” and his use of the Lord’s Prayer. The Lord’s Prayer is a strange cultural touchstone in America. It’s a quotation from Jesus, yet I think it’s viewed as a “generic” prayer appropriate for all occasions.

  • Jerry

    I really wonder how many who praise Warren’s inclusive first paragraph know that he made an reference to Islam:

    The Scripture tells us, ‘Hear, Oh Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one.’ And you are the compassionate and merciful one.

    The reference to The Jewish Sh’ma Yisroel should be apparent to many. But I find it hard to believe that many know the classic Islamic formulation of God as “The compassionate, the merciful”.

  • str1977

    Jerry,

    who should have anything against this. People that have problems with Islam do not have problems with Muslims calling God “compassionate” and “merciful”.

    Mike,

    I think Rick Warren found a wonderful solution of not hiding his and the great majority’s faith without claiming any supremacy for it. Those that complain about the wording he used really cannot be helped.

  • Herb Brasher

    Sally Quinn is currently commenting on Rick Warren’s prayer on ABC TV, and says that Obama will be much more pluralistic. Well, fine, but why is that good, and Rick Warren is bad, apparently–the Obama team made a huge mistake in inviting Warren, but they didn’t realize what they were doing–so cut them some slack, they will learn. Huh? Oh, please.

    Now Quinn and others are saying that invoking the name of Jesus didn’t start until Billy Graham came along. I seriously doubt their historical accuracy, but that’s not a big deal, anyway. After all, praying in the “name of Jesus” as a formula seems to be a particularly British-American evangelical phenomenon; German Christians simply say “Amen.”

    But Quinn totally missed the implications of Jesus–Yeshua–Isa nor did she get the clues in “compassionate” and “merciful” that str1977 just mentioned. She seems to have no clue that some of us want to follow the way of Christ because it is true, and not because we are looking for a religion that fits our needs.

    Sally Quinn just seems to never get it, period.

  • David Becker

    Warren’s trsnscribed statement can be understood technically correctly in the context of Hebrews 12:1, and it is good that you referenced that verse. But I think it was very unwise and inappropriate for Warren to say it as he did, because many casual listeners may hear it differently. It sort of sounded to me like Warren was saying that King and others in heaven were shouting because Obama is now president. And that’s ridiculous.

  • http://rub-a-dub.blogspot.com MattK

    It is so bad when a reporter gets the quote wrong. it makes everything else they say suspect.

  • FW Ken

    Nice to see that the friends of Bill had a place in this prayer… ;-)

  • Jerry

    who should have anything against this. People that have problems with Islam do not have problems with Muslims calling God “compassionate” and “merciful”.

    That was not what I meant. I was trying to comment on the ignorance of many and to question if those that praised Warren for being inclusive really knew that his inclusion also included Muslims as well as Jews.

  • Dave

    To shift focus to the benediction for a moment, it was brilliant of Lowery to take the final verse of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” for his initial text. It was completely appropriate, it was known to most African Americans who heard it, and it merged nicely into what he had to say thereafter.

    He also used the phrase “stand on the side of love” while talking about tolerance and inclusion, a phrase used by straight supporters of gay marriage.

  • Dale

    David Becker wrote:

    I think it was very unwise and inappropriate for Warren to say it as he did, because many casual listeners may hear it differently. It sort of sounded to me like Warren was saying that King and others in heaven were shouting because Obama is now president. And that’s ridiculous.

    Is it?

    Luke 15:10 “In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

    In the Old Testament, God repeatedly calls upon Israel as a nation to repent. Most Americans see slavery and racism as our most obvious national sin. If someone seeks an objective sign of our national repentance, certainly the election of an African-American president qualifies.

  • str1977

    Jerry,

    You are right on this. But those that diss Warren for being non-inclusive are anyway doing what they accuse him of.

    David,

    I agree that it would not have been ridiculous, simply out of place at the occasion.

    Oh, and why do we have to worry all the time about the religiously dislexic?

  • FW Ken

    Having worked yesterday, I was trying to catch up during the evening by watching the news channels and even (shudder!) ABC news. I saw portions of Lowrey’s benediction at least 3 times (including the prayer that “white might embrace right”), but of Warren, there was not a mention and not a picture.

  • Peggy

    Warren makes at least the 2nd person who referred to Obama Sr as an “immigrant.” DiFi did as well. His father was only here temporarily to obtain an education. I thought immigrants make a wholesale change in moving to a new country.

    How could Warren’s words be remotely controversial after listening to Lowry’s drudging up of old grievances. White men (and women too I presume) are evil. Sigh.

  • danr

    “In the Old Testament, God repeatedly calls upon Israel as a nation to repent. Most Americans see slavery and racism as our most obvious national sin.”

    A fair interpretation from a liberal, social-gospel standpoint, but certainly not how an evangelical like Warren intended it (or arguably should have intended it). Evangelicals see Christ’s words in Luke and elsewhere regarding repentance as a call to spiritual repentance from unbelief to soul-saving faith – without which true repentance from outward sins (such as racism) is superficial if not impossible.
    Most evangelicals try hard to pray Scripturally. Warren may or may not be right about Dr. King and others rejoicing in Heaven over Obama, but there is scant Scriptural precedent for such an audacious claim.

  • Julia

    Why would you need a Scriptural precedent for saints in heaven rejoicing with MLK over Obama’s inauguration? Don’t you think the saints in heaven applaud good things that happen on earth?

    I’m not a liberal, and I voted for McCain, but I see nothing amiss. A very elderly survivor of the Pettus Bridge, firehoses and police dogs, the close associate of MLK, was relishing the thought that his old friend – who actually died for the cause – is rejoicing in heaven and is joined in that rejoicing by a number of saints. If I was a citizen of heaven I hope that I would’ve been rejoicing with MLK. Wouldn’t you? Forget the policies Obama says he’s for – the joy was at the crashing of a huge barrier.

  • Fr. J.

    Herb,

    Praying in the name of Jesus is British-American Evangelical thing?

    That is just false on the face of it. Praying in the name of Jesus is scriptural and goes back to the beginning of Christianity.

    In fact, almost all Catholic prayers offered in public conclude “We ask this in the name of Christ our Lord, Amen.”

    Catholics then sign themselves “In the Name of the Father…”

    For scripture:
    * John 14:13 – And whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son.
    * John 14:14 – If ye shall ask any thing in my name, I will do it.
    * John 15:16 – Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you, and ordained you, that ye should go and bring forth fruit, and that your fruit should remain: that whatsoever ye shall ask of the Father in my name, he may give it you.
    * John 16:23 – And in that day ye shall ask me nothing. Verily, verily, I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name, he will give it you.
    * John 16:24 – Hitherto have ye asked nothing in my name: ask, and ye shall receive, that your joy may be full.
    * John 16:26 – At that day ye shall ask in my name: and I say not unto you, that I will pray the Father for you

  • Fr. J.

    I actually wonder if the “cloud of witnesses” reference might have been Warren’s way of being inclusive of Catholics who regard the passage in Hebrews as an indication of the relationship between believers on earth and the saints in heaven. Notice the passage begins with a reference to “Barak.” Catholics read Hebrews 12:1 as a continuation of Hebrews 11.

    Hebrews 11:32 to Hebrews 12:1:

    “What more shall I say? I have not time to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets, who by faith conquered kingdoms, did what was righteous, obtained the promises; they closed the mouths of lions, put out raging fires, escaped the devouring sword; out of weakness they were made powerful, became strong in battle, and turned back foreign invaders. Women received back their dead through resurrection. Some were tortured and would not accept deliverance, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others endured mockery, scourging, even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, sawed in two, put to death at sword’s point; they went about in skins of sheep or goats, needy, afflicted, tormented. The world was not worthy of them. They wandered about in deserts and on mountains, in caves and in crevices in the earth. Yet all these, though approved because of their faith, did not receive what had been promised. God had foreseen something better for us, so that without us they should not be made perfect. Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us…”

  • danr

    “Don’t you think the saints in heaven applaud good things that happen on earth? ”

    Julia, that’s the uncertainty I was partly addressing in my comment. It’s by no means a settled matter in Protestant theology (of which I’m a student, and Warren a minister) that those in Heaven are even aware of current human affairs on earth. And if they are, they may not necessarily applaud things as “good” by the same criteria we do. Certainly I (on earth) rejoiced at this milestone, but MLK himself aspired to a time that men would be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. It’s up to God Himself, by the standards of His timeless (and raceless) Word, whether and to what degree Obama’s character and leadership will glorify Christ and earn “Heaven’s applause”, as opposed to ours.

  • Ed

    David Becker wrote:

    I think it was very unwise and inappropriate for Warren to say it as he did, because many casual listeners may hear it differently. It sort of sounded to me like Warren was saying that King and others in heaven were shouting because Obama is now president. And that’s ridiculous.

    Is it?

    Luke 15:10 “In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

    In the Old Testament, God repeatedly calls upon Israel as a nation to repent. Most Americans see slavery and racism as our most obvious national sin. If someone seeks an objective sign of our national repentance, certainly the election of an African-American president qualifies.

    My Comment:
    Dale, your quote in Luke was right about angels rejoicing in heaven, but in the same book in Luke 16:19-31 it clearly states that men who died has no knowledge of what is happening to those who are still alive. Angels sees us but not persons who have died. I would agree with David Becker.


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