When I first heard Rick Warren had been honoured with the invocation at the inauguration of president Barack Obama, all I felt was a wave of abhorrence and disgust, and I was in good company. Warren represents much that is bad about the United States today – the colonisation of the nation’s culture with far-right conservative religion, the hubris, the striving for inequality, the intolerance, the hatred, the relegation of women and gay people and transpeople to non-human status, the veneration of straight white rich male citizens over all others. The appointment appeared to be a giant crass misfire of cynical pandering, a boot to the face of Obama’s supporters who don’t fit Warren’s very narrow definition of humanity.
That feeling continued right up until Reverend Joseph E. Lowery offered the benediction at the end of the ceremony last night. Then, in the moment, a new interpretation of these appointments occurred to me.
Warren called, and Lowery answered.
And Lowery’s response was not an AMEN.
President Obama had Rick Warren do the invocation while George Bush was still President. Warren represents the old way of doing things. The Bush Way. The way of division, of turning people against each other, of profiting from polarity.
By the time Obama became President at 12 noon in Washington D.C., Warren had been put aside, relegated to the history books. The new era had started – the era of people like Joseph E. Lowery. And of people like Aretha Franklin, and Dianne Feinstein, and Itzhak Perlman, and Yo-Yo Ma, and Elizabeth Alexander. It was noticeable, and notable, that for once an Anglosphere political ceremony wasn’t dominated by white men. [I would have loved it if it wasn't dominated by religion - but that was never going to happen this time around. So I'm settling for the shoutout to atheists in Obama's speech, and getting on with it.]
Joseph Lowery didn’t offer Rick Warren an AMEN; he repudiated the hatred that Rick Warren stands for. Lowery stood up for justice, and for peace, and for solidarity.
And the crowd shouted AMEN! AMEN! AMEN!
May the people of the Obama era remember their AMEN.
[Video, transcript, and comments below the cut.]
Here’s the latter half of Lowery’s benediction. (Full transcript here.)
And while we have sown the seeds of greed — the wind of greed and corruption, and even as we reap the whirlwind of social and economic disruption, we seek forgiveness and we come in a spirit of unity and solidarity to commit our support to our president by our willingness to make sacrifices, to respect your creation, to turn to each other and not on each other.
And now, Lord, in the complex arena of human relations, help us to make choices on the side of love, not hate; on the side of inclusion, not exclusion; tolerance, not intolerance.
And as we leave this mountain top, help us to hold on to the spirit of fellowship and the oneness of our family. Let us take that power back to our homes, our workplaces, our churches, our temples, our mosques, or wherever we seek your will.
Bless President Barack, First Lady Michelle. Look over our little angelic Sasha and Malia.
We go now to walk together as children, pledging that we won’t get weary in the difficult days ahead. We know you will not leave us alone.
With your hands of power and your heart of love, help us then, now, Lord, to work for that day when nations shall not lift up sword against nation, when tanks will be beaten into tractors, when every man and every woman shall sit under his or her own vine and fig tree and none shall be afraid, when justice will roll down like waters and righteousness as a mighty stream.
Lord, in the memory of all the saints who from their labors rest, and in the joy of a new beginning, we ask you to help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get in back; when brown can stick around; when yellow will be mellow; when the red man can get ahead, man; and when white will embrace what is right.
That all those who do justice and love mercy say Amen.
Edited to add: Here’s the Big Bill Broonzy song that Lowery was calling out to in his final paragraph, “Brown, Black and White”.
“Me and a man was workin’ side by side
This is what it meant
They was paying him a dollar an hour,
And they was paying me fifty cent
They said, “if you was white, ‘t should be all right,
If you was brown, could stick around,
But as you black, hmm boy, get back, get back, get back”
(full lyrics here).