Rabbi Arthur Waskow on the Inauguration : The God of Peace Fared Well

The Rev. Joseph E. Lowery gives the benediction at the end of the swearing-in ceremony at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2009. Photo by Ron Edmonds / AP.

As for President Obama himself, any God worth the salt that was spread upon the Temple offerings would have smiled benignly as he mentioned ‘Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus — and non-believers.’

By Rabbi Arthur Waskow / The Rag Blog / January 21, 2009

I thought God — the real God, the One Who cares passionately about justice, peace, and diversity — came out rather well in the Inaugural ceremonies.

God’s official spokespersons did better than I had expected. Rev. Rick Warren –- whose choice I had strongly criticized because of his views about gay and lesbian sexuality –- did far better than I had feared. I was especially moved by his speaking, in English, the Jewish “Sh’ma” about God’s Unity and the Muslim “Bismillah Er Rachman Er Rahim” — “In the name of God Who is Compassionate and Merciful.” I doubt that most Christians knew what he was doing in either case, but Jews and Muslims did.

And I respected his going out of his way to affirm that he spoke in Jesus’ name not as if Jesus were the self-evidently, universally accepted God Incarnate but rather, explicitly that Jesus is the aspect of God that Warren himself feels called by.

I also appreciated his effort to contextualize Jesus as both actually a Jew and in Muslim eyes a prophet by saying his name in both Hebrew and Arabic as well as the Greek by which most of the Christian world knows him.

And though Warren did not confess and repair the sin of his attacks on gay sexuality, his words were in general pacific.

As for Rev. Lowery: he moved me to tears and to delighted laughter too. Tears when he began with a passage from a poem/song by James Weldon Johnson, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” long known as the “Negro National Anthem.” Not only the words of the song but its melody move back and forth from grief to hope, as they reflect on the past and future of Black life in America.

I know the song and so do my adult children, who learned it in mostly Black schools in the District of Columbia when they were growing up. Indeed, I sang it last Sunday morning when I preached on Martin Luther King and the American future at Old South Church in Boston, and the church leadership chose it from the hymnal of the United Church of Christ to end the service. I thought then, “Every Black church in America is also singing that song this very morning!” But it had not occurred to me that Rev. Lowery might use it.

I am sure that few American whites know it, or understood what Lowery was doing. But practically every Black American did.

I laughed out loud when Lowery then turned upside down the despairing and cynical old Black patter about “black, brown, yellow, red, white.” Who could have imagined these in-group cultural artifacts, these nearly secret rituals of Black life, coming out of the closet in such a public way on this most broadly American occasion?

As for President Obama himself, any God worth the salt that was spread upon the Temple offerings would have smiled benignly as he mentioned “Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus — and non-believers.” Monotheists, polytheists, and atheists all included in our community. (Maybe Obama, like many Buddhists, sees Buddhism as a philosophy, not a religion.)

As for much of the content of Obama’s speech –- for example — “A nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous”: it seemed secular on the surface but at least to my ears bespoke an implicitly religious sensibility. Some of the immediate post-ceremony TV commentary heard the speech as prose rather than poetry; but as I read it later, that line and others seemed to me to glow and chime as poetry. God shining through.

Shalom, salaam, shantih, namaste, peace…

Rabbi Arthur Waskow

The Rag Blog

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5 Responses to Rabbi Arthur Waskow on the Inauguration : The God of Peace Fared Well

  1. Mariann says:

    Rev Lowery’s benediction was much more poetic, I thought, than the rsther dull inaugural poem, read rather dully by the inaugural poet. Hmmm — how does one go about applying for that honor?
    2013, right around the corner!

  2. Not only have I enjoyed all the prose and poetry from the media (live and in living color), but the many web-sites and blogs where it seems so many are quick to appreciate our new president, and want to express themselves in so many positive ways.

    Obama seems to bring out the best in people (as does his wife). I feel fortunate to have friends that have come from so many parts of the world and all are of that ‘red, white, brown, yellow, and black’ collection that were mentioned in this (what I call) benediction.

    Personally, I continue to be ‘color blind’, but not ‘cutural’ blind; keeping open to the ways of other nations and countries. With ‘eyes wide open’ on traditions and ways that have lived for thousands of years, we will learn more and the more we learn, the more we will understand.

    It isn’t religion that will bring peace; in fact, too often it creates conflict and war. It will be understanding and being exposed to the ‘ways of the world’; respecting the rights of those who live around the globe from our country, and (likewise) they will need to respond in kind.

    I loved the Inaugural poem; it’s posted on a friend of mine’s blog, so I brought it here to keep it handy for your other readers.

    ‘Praise Song for The Day” , by Elizabeth Alexander

    Each day we go about our business, walking past each other, catching each others’ eyes

    or not,

    about to speak or speaking.

    All about us is noise.

    All about us is noise and bramble, thorn and din,

    each one of our ancestors on our tongues.

    Someone is stitching up a hem, darning a hole in a uniform,

    patching a tire, repairing the things in need of repair.

    Someone is trying to make music somewhere

    with a pair of wooden spoons,

    on an oil drum with cello, boom box, harmonica, voice.

    A woman and her son wait for the bus.

    A farmer considers the changing sky; A teacher says, “Take out your pencils. Begin.”

    We encounter each other in words;

    Words spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed;

    Words to consider, reconsider.

    We cross dirt roads and highways that mark the will of someone

    and then others who said, “I need to see what’s on the other side;

    I know there’s something better down the road.”

    We need to find a place where we are safe;

    We walk into that which we cannot yet see.

    Say it plain, that many have died for this day.

    Sing the names of the dead who brought us here,

    who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges,

    picked the cotton and the lettuce,

    built brick by brick the glittering edifices they would then keep clean

    and work inside of.

    Praise song for struggle;

    praise song for the day.

    Praise song for every hand-lettered sign;

    The figuring it out at kitchen tables.

    Some live by “Love thy neighbor as thy self.”

    Others by first do no harm, or take no more than you need.

    What if the mightiest word is love,

    love beyond marital, filial, national.

    Love that casts a widening pool of light.

    Love with no need to preempt grievance.

    In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air, anything can be made, any sentence begun.

    On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp —

    praise song for walking forward in that light.

  3. Mariann says:

    Happy — I like the poem better reading it than I did hearing it — maybe the poet was just nervous! Thanks for posting it up for us!

  4. Yes, I agree; I didn’t like it nearly as much, and think you’ve ‘nailed it’ – just like Shakespeare, it has to be properly delivered; emphasis in the right places – all the nuances placed there for us if we want to get the full benefit.

    Now read it; imagine James Earl Jones reciting it, and I bet you’ll love it more.

    …or Richard Burton; Emma Thompson – Morgan Freeman – even Anthony Hopkins.

    I’m guessing you understand poetry; you were able to even ‘say it out loud’ as you read through it, and probably did a far better job.

  5. Vic Foe says:

    Rabbi Waskow lists coded messages embedded in the Inaugural Day presentations. Here is one less commented on: Yo Yo Ma et. al. played an arrangement by John Williams of the Shaker dance tune Simple Gifts, which he dedicated to Obama. The words point 180 degrees away from the governing philosophy of the last eight years.

    ‘Tis the gift to be simple,
    ’tis the gift to be free,
    ’tis the gift to come down where you ought to be,
    And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
    It will be in the valley of love and delight.


    When true simplicity is gained,
    To bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed.
    To turn, turn will be our delight,
    ‘Til by turning, turning we come round right

    ‘Tis the gift to be loved and that love to return,
    ‘Tis the gift to be taught and a richer gift to learn,
    And when we expect of others what we try to live each day,
    Then we’ll all live together and we’ll all learn to say,


    ‘Tis the gift to have friends and a true friend to be,
    ‘Tis the gift to think of others not to only think of “me”,
    And when we hear what others really think and really feel,
    Then we’ll all live together with a love that is real.


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