It’s time to collect my thoughts about a lawsuit filed against a legislative body of one of the United States of America. It’s not the state I live in, but it could be. When I read that a group of individuals and organizations that don’t believe in God are suing a state’s House of Representatives for refusing to let one of them give the invocation, I was tempted to react by sighing, shaking my head, and turning the page. Instead, I determined to consider both sides and think about how these lawsuits could be avoided. Two stories came to mind, one fictional and one factual. The definition of the word “invocation” became central, and I was reminded of wise words about making peace before getting to the courthouse.
I needed more information. Who are the plaintiffs, members of the legislature or interested citizens? I found out that they are observers to the House proceedings. Who is permitted to give invocations? According to the plaintiffs, 265 out of 575 invocations delivered since the position of House Chaplain was eliminated in 2008, were delivered by guests, all of whom were monotheistic. The article I read states that the defendants maintain that only religious people are fit to deliver the opening invocation.
The articles about this suit use “invocation” and “opening prayer” interchangeably. As atheists, the plaintiffs are not interested in praying. The lawsuit claims that “Like theists, the plaintiffs are capable of giving inspiring and moving invocations”. My research turned up the text of the proposed invocation that was denied. As a motivational moment or pep talk, I like it. However, the only hint of invoking was a call for reason and rationality to guide decisions. A little more digging revealed that the individual who asked to speak prefers that the chambers save the money and do away with the prayer all together. Ah, there’s a question about the spending of tax dollars to be addressed. The plot thickens. Speaking of plots, how about those two stories? And the questions they raise in my mind.
In Harper Lee’s recently published novel “Go Set A Watchman”, a person with very bigoted views is permitted to speak at a meeting of town leaders, not because they hold to his beliefs, but because he asked to. They risked being misinterpreted in order to show respect to another human being. Should government leaders who value the centuries-old tradition of an opening prayer show respect to those who do not believe in God by allowing them to speak? Could the nonbelievers be content to offer their version of invocation alongside a religious prayer?
Speaking of respect, the newspaper and on-line articles state that two of the plaintiffs were “pressured by the speaker and then House security to stand during an opening prayer.” Should people be forced to stand for a prayer, a pledge, or an anthem? In my opinion, no. But, could they do it out of respect for fellow Americans who do value the tradition?
Finally, is the tradition worth defending? Is an invocation effective in bettering the work of the legislative body? I believe it can be. To quote the Bible’s New Testament writer James, “If anyone lacks wisdom, he should ask God who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him. But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt.” Does God respond to an opening prayer? When it is offered with humility and people are willing to receive his wisdom, I believe he does. We who believe in God are convinced that he is the Creator who has endowed each person with inalienable rights and who deserves ultimate respect.
Dr. Del Tackett challenges Christians to answer, “Do you really believe that what you believe is really real?” The prophet Elijah certainly did. In an effort to end a drought, he invited the prophets of Baal to make an offering to their god and he would make an offering to his. But neither was permitted to light the sacrifice. That was up to the deities. The Baal worshipers received no response; however when Elijah called on the God of Israel, fire fell from heaven and consumed even the water around the sacrifice. Are we believers in Jesus confident enough that what we believe is real to be willing to show respect to those who don’t agree with us by listening to them? Again, words of James come to mind: “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry.”
I’ll end with the words about peace. The gospel writer Matthew records that Jesus said to his followers, “”Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still together on the way, or your adversary may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison.” And one more comment from James: “Peacemakers who sow in peace will raise a harvest of righteousness.”