Does Our City Council Have a Prayer?
By: David Roy
I’d like to slip a few words into the verbal and legal dustup over prayer at Fresno’s City Council meetings. Let me start with the fact that, in the end, there will never be a perfect solution. Not if perfect means that all parties will be pleased with the outcome. Between the born-again, only-one-true-path Christians and the born-again, grow-up-&-give-up-god atheists, there is no “somewhere” that will work.
A second fact: Close to 80% of the citizens of the US identify themselves as Christian. What it means to be a Christian, however, is all over the place, despite what media and some believers and non-believers maintain.
I once argued on a local Catholic TV station program that, because Christians have such a huge majority, we should be especially careful not to dominate but, instead, be as sensitive and gracious as possible toward other faith expressions.
Are Council Members Even Listening to the Prayers?
I also have given prayers at City Council during the time I served on the former Human Relations Commission. While I did not close with the “in the name of Jesus” phrase many Christian clergy use, I did reference a caring, loving Creator. I also watched Council members up on their dais as I gave the short invocation and noticed that some paused, but not all. A few were talking to aides or on their mobile phones. My impression was this was largely a pro forma moment, something to be checked off on the to-do list before getting down to the real business.
If that is indeed the case, this pause to remind Council and audience of something more beyond the mundane may have become a ritual that is largely empty of meaning. If so, it should be revitalized, renewed in some fashion, or eliminated.
What Purpose Does this “Pause” Serve?
What is the purpose, anyway? My own belief is that human beings in groups who are about important planning and decision making do a better job if the mode of consciousness of the participants is altered, even just a little, in the direction of a deeper and broader awareness. This helps us tap into our own creative process more fully and also helps us feel more fully our connection to those around us.
This does require being quiet and thoughtful but it does not require any particular kind of prayer. In fact, some prayers can have just the opposite effect. This mode of consciousness can be fostered by silence, by thoughtful meditations, by certain kinds of music, and so on. Yes, I would like to see our City Council enter into and take seriously those kinds of moments before diving into the day’s proceedings, but I’m not sure that this is a high priority for the Council nor do I believe this is what is being considered in the current debate.
This Ritual Can Help Celebrate Our Region’s Diversity
The ritual also provides a wonderful opportunity to support, celebrate, and display our community’s incredible religious diversity, to invite leaders of these faith groups to offer their caring words in ways that reflect their own traditions. I know that this has happened at least to some degree in the past.
But, back to the issue with some Christians: It is undoubtedly true that Christianity has long been marked by a strain of vigorous, even aggressive, proselytizing. This tendency, which reflects something deep in the human soul that is not exclusively Christian, has rooted itself in the New Testament texts that claim it is only through Jesus that one can be made right with God.
The Problem with Taking John 3:16 Literally
Anybody who has watched pro football games on TV has seen the John 3:16 signs as the camera pans over stadium. Unfortunately, far too few Christians have been educated to the fact that the Gospel of John was written relatively late (perhaps a century or more after Jesus’ death) and intended for a Greek audience. This particular text was designed to reach that audience. While I am far from a biblical scholar, I believe it to be hyperbole – deliberate exaggeration for effect.
As with any hyperbole taken literally, it has helped to distort the view of Jesus from that point forward. There is clear evidence elsewhere in the NT that Jesus did not see himself as unique or special, but simply as one who was attuned to God’s love and care for those hurting the most; and determined to point this out to his listeners.
Those who came later placed this frame of divinity around for any number of reasons (probably ranging from a genuine response to the person to the universal human need to claim that my leader is the best – he’s God!).
The Lure of Power
People have used this text to give themselves permission to employ everything from gentle persuasion to the sword to recruit new Christian believers. I have no doubt that some are motivated, at least consciously, by the idea that they literally are saving others from eternal damnation in the same way one might want to rescue someone from the aftermath of an earthquake. But others clearly are motivated by the dark energy of sheer power: Tolkien’s ring of power at work.
There are many examples, I am sure, of people who embodied both qualities. One group was the Christian missionaries who felt it was their duty to travel to foreign lands to save the souls of heathens. Sometimes, as we know, the “heathens” did not take kindly to these intruders.
The Missionary Who Became One With the Chief
Okay, this is a setup to tell a darkly funny story from a delightfully quirky book about one man’s adventures while living on various Pacific islands: Getting Stoned with Savages by Maarten Troost (his first book was The Sex Lives of Cannibals and his most recent is Lost on Planet China).
Troost tells about ducking out of the rain and happening into the Fijian national museum in Suva, the capital. Normally, he hates museums but this one is so down to earth he is captivated. In one display case, they have placed the bible brought by a Methodist missionary to a remote area of Fiji in the 1860s. Next to it is the wooden bowl in which he was served up to the chief. Then, the wooden fork the chief used for this meal.
Alas, the missionary, not being culturally attuned, attempted to grab back his comb that the chief had taken from him. Unfortunately, the comb was in the chief’s hair. Turns out that it was a mortal taboo to touch the chief’s hair. The missionary found a new variation of the cliché, if you can’t beat them, join them. It was, clearly, an unintended communion.
In All Seriousness … Does this Fight Help the Progressive Agenda?
Okay, all joking aside (well, I thought it was funny, even if my wife was appalled), now I come to the controversial part. Controversial I mean for Community Alliance readers: I have reached the point that when I read or hear about the latest struggle over prayer in public forums, I cringe. The moves, the words on all sides are predictable and stale. The question I ask of those who are determined to end any and all prayers and meditations in public places, such as Fresno’s City Council, is whether or not this is the most important point to engage the establishment.
As I said at the start, this problem is never going to be resolved to the satisfaction of all parties. If all prayers and meditations are totally eliminated, there will be the die-hard Christians who will make this a do-or-die cause (even more so than now). This inevitably pulls in more moderate, tolerant Christians who otherwise might be more inclined to support progressive goals. The struggle over public prayer tends to harden people’s positions (on both sides) and can end up making it more difficult to move things forward in areas that are very concrete and of utmost importance, such as ensuring social justice for LGTB citizens, fair and respectful treatment of the homeless and the seriously mentally ill, elimination of the problems of hunger and nutrition, access to quality education for all, the provision of safe water supplies and air fit to breathe, and so on and on.
I also believe that better things can happen if people pause and feel more deeply than normal before making decisions that impact the common good.
In the End, What is Needed? Respect
I think it would be better to seek a respectful diversity of voices to grace the City Council and, at the same time, for at least some members of the Christian leadership to help educate fellow leaders on the importance of being sensitive to those who believe differently, including those who believe in a universe without a deity. After all, if God is a reality, a lack of acknowledgment does not change that fact (and vice versa, of course).
The key to all of this is respect even in the face of serious disagreement and a deeper understanding of the beliefs and worldview of those who are quite different. God or no god, this is what works most often in resolving conflicts that get in the way of tending to those with the greatest needs.
The 2007 survey by Pew had 78.4% as Christians and 4.7% as other religions. Atheists were 1.6% and agnostics 2.4%. The “nothing in particular” was 12.1%. That’s far greater than Jewish (1.7%) and Muslim (0.6%). My argument is that instead of saying, “We are the largest, therefore we should get our way,” Christians should be saying, “Since we are the largest, let’s make room for and listen to you.”
As I indicated, this is my own interpretation of this text. I say that it is hyperbole even if the author may have believed it to be true. Why? Because the aim was to convince the audience that this person was so extraordinary that the Greeks of that day should give up any and all allegiances to other religions and deities.