Invocation and Benediction: Call and Response?


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).

Categories: Politics, religion

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19 replies

  1. I really love this reading of the event. While I certainly don’t think that Obama should get a free pass on the Warren front (and I’m sure you don’t either), the way you’ve interpreted this rings very true. All Warren could produce was a dry and boring prayer– the sort of prayer that (if it’s being said at an event where I’m required to bow my head) makes me want to open my eyes and pull faces. Lowery’s prayer– I felt it. I’m not a believer, but his words inspired respect with no need for the compulsion of social niceties.

  2. Thanks, Beppie! I think there is a lot of room for different readings of this, and I’ve engaged in some conflicting ones myself. And Obama’s true intentions may never be known until his post-Presidential memoirs, if ever.
    But this is how it felt to me at the time.

  3. *claps* I hadn’t thought of that but I’m glad you did.

  4. And I have massive issues with the lip service paid in US politics to a seperation of church *coughChristian-centriccough* and state. The whole swearing on a bible thing bothers me – wouldn’t the constitution be more appropriate? That might sound silly to everyone else.
    It really was a marvellous benediction.
    Chally’s last blog post..Barack Obama’s Inauguration Day: the optimistic post

  5. I hadn’t thought about it that way. Thanks for that.
    Ruth Moss’s last blog post..Trans-Friendly Books For Children

  6. nice.

    and hoyden is back! ftw.

  7. hoyden is back! ftw

    Yes, sorry about that gap in availability – entirely my fault! I didn’t update my email address with the domain registration people, so they sent the renewal notice to my old dead email address! Luckily there were only a few hours of down-time while I sorted out renewing the domain registration.

  8. Amen, reverend. Amen. Amen.
    Deus Ex Macintosh’s last blog post..He was acceptable in the 80’s…

  9. Oh yes, that benediction is a damn fine speech. Tanks into tractors, amen to that.

  10. yep them Hebrew Scriptures got some good shit 🙂

  11. Oh, that’s a beautiful reading of events. Amen, indeed. Also, Barack Obama smiling and nodding with his eyes closed, and the whole crowd roaring amen? I could watch that all day.

  12. A great comparison. Good bye to the old regime and all its associated ideologies. A new dawn, a new day, a new era, and new hope. AMEN.
    aztec-rose’s last blog post..How do you experience time?

  13. I really like your take on the inauguration. To be honest I was so wrapped up in being disgusted by Warren I never thought that he was there representing Bush. It is actually much more comforting to see what occurred that way. I used the time when Warren was speaking to take a much needed bathroom break and I refuse to read a single transcript of what he has to say.
    Renee’s last blog post..When Hyper Masculinity Supports Racism and Sexism In Policing

  14. Beautiful. Thank you.

  15. Wow, I want to add that I really like this interpretation too. I was pretty disgusted about Rick Warren being chosen and had only caught the last paragraph of Lowry’s. Reading more here, I think his words are wonderful…. And I love how he actually specified “every man and every woman” which still seems rare to me. It amazes me how it is the direct opposite of US conservative talk radio’s interpretation. I listened to them yesterday and the night of the inauguration and they’ve all been up in arms over Lowry’s “mean” and “divisive” words. It drove me nearly insane.
    Gwytherinn’s last blog post..Yoko Ono: Play it by Trust

  16. Some of the comments on that transcript of Rev. Lowery’s prayer are just…cesspits of racism and hate. Good Lord, I am so ashamed of my country sometimes.

  17. That really is a joyful prayer. Great post. Thanks.

  18. Ohhh errrrr…. I just went and read the full transcript again, as it gave me shivers, and scrolled down to read the posts. Hmmm…. awful.

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