grappling with history

Yesterday, President Obama addressed the annual National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, DC. He spoke of religious freedom and – in our time of global anxiety about what has been termed Islamic terrorism, the remarks that have garnered the most media attention – religious tolerance. Here, I think, the president stepped again into his sometime role as our national-scold (I recall his 2010 barely-one-year-in-office questioning of the parochial mythology of American exceptionalism). Denouncing using religion as a vindication for violence, the president said, “Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history.” He reminded his fellow Christians to beware of considering themselves superior to others, for “during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ (and in America) slavery and Jim Crow all too often (were) justified in the name of Christ.”

Unsurprisingly, the reactions have been mixed. Some, including myself, acknowledge the president’s historical referents and accept the validity of his Christian critique. Others condemn his words. As I read this morning’s The Washington Post, one criticism, and what I consider its hyperbolic, all inclusive sweep, fascinated me. Former Virginia governor James Gilmore (1998-2002) stated: “The president’s comments…are the most offensive I’ve ever heard a president make in my lifetime. He has offended every believing Christian in the United States.”

As a self-professed wordsmith, I relish the English language’s efficiency in conveying nuance, in part, as a fruit of its vast vocabulary. I also believe that all persons, each of individual origin, history, and experience, embody their own sets of understandings. Though using the same words, no two of us can mean precisely the same thing. Therefore, as a big believer in defining one’s terms, I oft use multiple adjectives to express with particularly what I mean when naming a nounal person, place, or thing.

Former Governor Gilmore’s statement, particularly the words “believing Christian”, strikes me as a bi-word in search of fuller description. I think I understand his inference. There is a Christianity of tradition, perhaps familial association or societal assimilation, and there is a believing Christianity of devoted practice. I also think I understand that when making a public comment or response in our savagely news-snippet, sound-bite world, one does not have the luxury of time (or the patience of the reporter) to delineate more deeply, artfully one’s intent or meaning.

Still, at the heart of my nearly instantaneously reactive critique of Gilmore’s critique of Obama’s remarks is this: My perception of a declaration of the true nature of Christianity, its beliefs and behaviors, its principles and practices, and an implied presumption of applying that set of standards to separate believers from non-believers. In this, I find, fear a less violent, but no less virulent exclusivistic tension that motivates our human religious predilection to divide, to defame, and, sometimes, to destroy.

Yes, Mr. President, “Humanity has been grappling with (this) throughout human history,” and, I believe, until time’s end.

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