FaithWorld

GUESTVIEW: Amazing Grace — a rabbi’s view of the inaugural prayer service

The following is a guest contribution. Reuters is not responsible for the content and the views expressed are the author’s alone. The author, Rabbi Burton L. Visotzky, is a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and author of the novel A Delightful Compendium of Consolation.

By Burton L. Visotzky

On Wednesday, I went to church. It seemed right that on the morning after President Barack Obama’s historic inauguration as the 44th President of the United States I should pray for his and our success in the years ahead. We are a nation in crisis, depleted in so many ways by the last eight years. On the Tuesday of the inauguration, I stood with a million other Americans on the Mall in Washington, watching and cheering the transfer of power. The air was frigid, but filled with hope. We stood just behind the Capitol reflecting pool – far from the rostrum, but embedded in the great, diverse mass of people who make up America. Next to us were folks from Augusta, Georgia, who drawled their discomfort when George Bush was booed. On our other side were Washingtonians – African-Americans who proudly declared that on this day we were not black or white, but all of us were silver (the color of our tickets to the event). (Photo: National Prayer Service at the National Cathedral in Washington, 21 Jan 2009/Larry Downing)

Truth be told, the inaugural was better viewed in front of a television. But for the experience of being an American on this auspicious day, the Mall was the best place in the whole world. There is something extraordinary about standing among a million others, staring up at the jumbotron, striving to catch the words our new president was speaking. Sharing our food, our stories, ducking down so someone behind us could snap a photo, making sure that kids were in the sight-lines of their parents, breathing free; we huddled, massed against the cold, embodying the passions that Emma Lazarus’ poem emblazons on the base of the Statue of Liberty.

On Wednesday morning, waking before the dawn, again in bitter cold, we headed to church to pray for our republic. We were invited to the magnificent Washington National Cathedral for the interfaith National Prayer Service, a long tradition, since the days of President George Washington. There among the crowd I spotted many familiar Jewish faces (not a long tradition). There were Muslims and Hindus, and, of course, an abundance of Christian clergy.

I had the privilege of shaking hands with Rev Katharine Jefferts Schori, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the U.S. (the National Cathedral is Episcopal). I greeted Rev. Joseph Lowery, who had delivered the stirring closing benediction at the inaugural. The 3,000 proud Americans in the congregation included the incoming cabinet, as well as senators and members of Congress among the pews. From my seat I watched former President Bill Clinton and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton work the room. I saw Vice-President and Dr. Biden enter the cathedral, mere feet from where I was seated. They were immediately followed by President and Mrs. Obama. Tall, even regal, they embodied the very grace that we all prayed God may grant them.

Should Obama address “Muslim world” as a bloc?

President Barack Obama has just pledged to make a new start for United States relations with the Muslim world: “To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect,” he said in his inaugural address. “To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society’s ills on the West – know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy. To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.” (Photo: President Obama delivers his inaugural address, 20 Jan 2009/Jason Reed)

It’s not clear what he plans to do. One idea he’s mentioned is to deliver a major speech in a Muslim country in his first year in office. There’s already a lively discussion on the web about where he should go. During his speech, CNN showed a shot of the crowd with some people holding up signs urging him to deliver the speech in Morocco.

Before this train starts rolling, it might be useful to recall that some Islam experts don’t think it’s a good idea for him to deal with “the Muslim world” as a bloc opposed to the West. Two French experts on Islam, Olivier Roy and Justin Vaisse, argued this in a New York Times op-ed piece last month. Here is the full text and below are excerpts.

from Tales from the Trail:

Rhyming reverend gets last word at Obama inaugural

WASHINGTON - Rev. Joseph Lowery was back on stage with a president, but on Tuesday the civil-rights pioneer used his wry rhymes to welcome the U.S. leader, not skewer him as he did three years ago.  OBAMA

Lowery, who co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with Martin Luther King Jr., delivered the benediction at Barack Obama's inauguration as first black U.S. president.

Lowery prayed for healing from a era of "greed and corruption," and asked, in verse, for divine help toward a new beginning of racial harmony: