Public Piety, Authentic Courage and Christian Witness

You may have heard about the young man, a valedictorian in Liberty, SC. I’ve been following the story somewhat closely, because it’s close to home in more than one way. More abstractly, issues of church and state have always caught my attention. But more concretely, it took place in a county that borders my own home county. It happened in my “neck of the woods.”

Essentially, the Pickens County School Board, touchy over religion in public places as a result of a few lawsuits that the county council has faced over prayer before their meetings, had excluded a prayer from the proceedings at the graduation for Liberty High’s seniors. The valedictorian, though, decided to go against his pre-approved remarks, and instead lead students in the Lord’s Prayer. There were cheers in the audience, cheers for what was seen as bravery in the face of oppression. Cheers for his courage.

Watching this proceeding has gotten me thinking back to my high school graduation. I said the prayer there myself. But I’ve been thinking about the place where I attended school. I was in a small cohort of the school’s International Baccalaureate program, and many of my friends were of different faiths. There were Muslims, atheists, Christians of various stripes, Hindus, Jains…a mixed lot, religiously and culturally. But outside that IB cohort, there was a broader student population, predominantly Christian and culturally committed to that faith. And I’ve been thinking, in light of the events in Liberty, about our own valedictorian.

He was a smart young man, naturally. One did not become valedictorian at my high school be being dumb. But I also remember him as someone who was kinder than most, and gentle. He was a Jain, and while I did not know much about Jainism in high school, I knew that it was a religion which practiced strict vegetarianism. To do no violence, to incur no damage to one’s soul as a result of the hurt we occasion on other living things, this was what I knew about Jainism. And this young man practiced that carefully. I remember he was gentle.

And I wonder, at that graduation ceremony. If my friend had spoken about his faith, if he had taught us anything about Jainism, about how it had motivated him and mattered to him, about how it had been part of his family and part of his upbringing, about how it mattered within his life, that would have been a true courage. Truly courageous, because he knew he could not rely on a crowd of his fellow-students rising up with him and reciting the tenets of the Jain faith. In fact, truly courageous, because who knows what might have happened sharing a foreign faith amidst a crowd culturally and religiously distinct? Perhaps the cheers would have been jeers. Perhaps.

When I think of the Lord’s Prayer, I think of Christ’s words as he introduced the prayer in the first place. The following is Matthew 6:1-15, NRSV:

‘Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.

‘So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.*

‘And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.*

‘When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words.Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

‘Pray then in this way:
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And do not bring us to the time of trial,
but rescue us from the evil one.

For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

Beware. The text says beware.

I don’t mean to launch any sort of attack on the young man in Liberty. Perhaps he did feel hurt. Perhaps even oppressed. But the prayer he prayed, the prayer he led his classmates in reciting, Christ begins that prayer by saying, simply: beware. Beware of doing this in public. This act, these acts of prayer and piety, are meant for our souls, are meant for our internal lives, are meant to shape who we are and what we are. They are not meant for anything else, and doing them in public changes what they can mean. What is more, they can shape what we mean by them. The prayer ceases to be an instrument of communion with God, and becomes an instrument of political power.

And I wonder if a young man, like my friend, was in that graduating audience. Perhaps a young Jain, celebrating his success, attempting to pass through to the next phase of his life with his head held high and his soul intact. And suddenly classmates are on their feet, loudly cheering, loudly saying words that he cannot say and words he does not even know. And those cheers sound a little like jeers, a little bit like a community closing its ranks against him.

And as a Christian, I weep for him, and weep that from this day forward, his memory of what Christ means will be one of exclusion and hurt, a memory of how Christians, those who are supposed to be Christ, cared so little for his accomplishment that they saw fit to ruin it.

I want Christians to be bold in their faith. As a Christian, I believe…I believe in God the Father Almighty, whose image is on you and me. I believe in Christ, God-with-us, who lived and died and rose and will come again. I believe in the communion of saints that will endure. I believe in all of these things, and do not want Christians to sacrifice our faith for any reason. But I want us to live it better. To practice it better. To pray in our hearts, and if we must pray on a street corner, to pray for the wholeness of the world, in such a way that all of God’s children, Christian or not, are held as valuable images of God’s heart and proofs of God’s presence.

(Image Credit: “The Lord’s Prayer” by natalvanjjn. Attribution via Creative Commons.)

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19 thoughts on “Public Piety, Authentic Courage and Christian Witness

  1. Thanks, Madison. You have hit the nail on the head – succinctly and powerfully.
    Relatedly, I have noticed: It seems to be too easy to be bold about speaking out in a crowd against the prescripts of authority but too difficult to be bold to talk to one person about how our relationship with Jesus has transformed (and is transforming) us. Too difficult to listen to others with other faith traditions and practice. Too scary to truly engage in life-transforming conversation with others.

  2. Hi Madison,

    I want to point out that my perspective on the Matthew verses you have quoted differs, I think, substantially from your own. To me, the key phrases are “IN ORDER TO be seen by them,” “SO THAT they may be praised by others,” etc.

    Jesus is NOT telling people not to pray in public. He IS telling people not to pray in public in order to elevate themselves. Praying in public for the purpose of praising God is, in fact, a fundamental tenet of Christianity – at least based on my interpretation of the Bible.

    Christians must be respectful of others, but the entire point of Christianity comes down to Mark 16:15, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation.” Missionary service is hugely important to Christianity, and that includes preaching and praying in front of people who aren’t currently believers. Christians must choose their battles – e.g. running into a mosque and screaming Bible verses is inappropriate, but I believe what happened in Liberty was done responsibly. The young man was NOT trying to draw attention on himself to say “Look at me! Look how pious I am, aren’t I great?” I think his actions are completely consistent with the Matthew verses you quoted, and I appreciate his courage.

  3. Thank you for giving me something to think about today! Very thought provoking!!

  4. It seemed to me like an act of rebellion against a zeitgeist that insists that, not only is this no longer a Christian culture, but that it was never a Christian culture. Few people would object to a Jain speech at a Jain event in a Jain culture, of course. Even fewer would ever dream of moving to such a culture and demanding that it instantly relinquish every distinguishing characteristic that had formed it. But multiculturalists urge immigrants to do so, over the protests of those in whose breasts the spirit of the nation still lives.

  5. Your blog is articulated with a lot of compassion. Thanks for your reflection Madison.

  6. Darren, you’ll note that I never said that Jesus was telling people NOT to pray in public, but very specifically chose to use his term for what it was: “beware.” It’s precisely about being wary

    Being wary means being aware of what it can do to us and our communities when we turn prayer into an instrument of our sectarian identity instead of a conversation with, a listening to, the living God of Abraham and Isaac and Peter and Paul. And it’s precisely to be wary because praying in public naturally and almost effortlessly molds the soul towards exactly those IN ORDER THAT and SO THAT statements you highlight so well.

  7. As to the young man in Liberty, it really isn’t courage to say something like what he said when he knows that the vast majority of his audience is in his pocket.

    But I have tried to refrain from judging or assuming his intent. The video does not, to me, seem like a young man who simply wants to share his faith, but that could just be my biases at work. So instead, I’m more interested in the impact of his sharing, and how it might have been received by others, especially the vulnerable. That impact, regardless of what the young man intended, is quite opposite the way he may have intended his words to be received.

  8. I must ask you, Madison, do you always go into your room to pray, as the scripture directs? If you were in a public place and suddenly saw the need and opportunity to talk to God on behalf of someone, would you do it? Or do you say, “I can’t pray here, but I will pray as soon as I return to my private place.”
    Perhaps this young man truly believes ““Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation.” This was his world.
    You take literally the beware part, yet do not take literally, the go into the world part. Interesting.
    With all the ‘approved’ junk I have heard at graduations, It is refreshing that this one had substance.

    1. You’ll note, Debbie, that in my post I included a description of what I believe — essentially a recitation of the Apostle’s Creed, a very old and august statement of the Christian faith — and said it, for myself, without reservation or concern. I have no problem with preaching publicly, going out into the world, offering prayer where it is appropriate. Your assumptions — that I do not take seriously the call to preach the gospel — do not make any sense in the context of my post, in which I most emphatically did preach the gospel.

      What is more, this entire post is a reduction of a message I preached in an actual church, because I believe that the gospel is about many things, and one aspect of the good news is that how we treat our neighbor matters. Indeed, the parable of the Good Samaritan is about a neighbor who does not share the same faith as the good people of Israel. I would not be preaching the message of Christ, the incarnate God I worship and proclaim, if I did not consider the danger to a person’s soul that comes from as ill-considered a proclamatory approach as the young man in Liberty adopted.

  9. There is little that troubles me more or makes me more uncomfortable than attending what are supposed to be public secular multifaith events suddenly turning into some kind of Christian revival meeting.

    I really feel bad for any non-Christians who had the bad fortune to have attended that ceremony; I know how awful they felt being pressured to either fake belief in a religion not their own, or caught in some freeze-frame of inaction while the sheeple carried on in their religious frenzy of group-think.

    Congratulations to that kid, right, he just celebrated what he never learned about American history and respect for Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Daoists, and atheists who were simply trying to attend a graduation ceremony without planning on attending some religious spectacle.

    Pickens public schools, you and your students are a disgrace to pluralism in America. Welcome to the youth leaders of Christian Taliban USA!

  10. Really…”sheeple” and “Christian Taliban USA”? I would expect such vitriolic comments on, say, Huffington Post, but for a site that prides itself on including commentary by rising specialists in religion, this kind of name-calling is inappropriate. This is exactly the kind of unconstructive response that causes many people to be wary of religious debate in public settings.

    Also, as you say, he is just a kid, so maybe it is wise not to hold him as representative of the entire district and student body.

  11. Re: short piece on Lord’s Prayer at high school graduation.
    This is a wonderful and very thoughtful piece. I would add to the writer’s very cogent focus on the context that the Gospel writer supplies through citing Jesus’ preliminary remarks. I would add just one thing. The more I recite that prayer, the more I see it less as simply a set of petitions and more as a set of commandments to the one praying, commandments that are equal to the petitions and without which no petitions are valid. That is, If I am getting my bread, my obligation is to be sure that the rest of the “us” that is referred to in the prayer also get theirs, and only the “us” who have enough can do that.


    After reading your post, I reread Matthew 6 with parallel translations. The first part of Matthew 6 is talking about not boasting about good deeds. Boasting about anything is never wise…and no matter my religious beliefs, if my good deeds lead me to boasting, then I need lots of prayer in my ‘closet’.

    As for praying in public….maybe the young man in question should have used his time to talk about how freedoms in America give us the right to pray, worship, go to school, and live our lives the way we want and that freedom is guaranteed as of right now…but if our society continues to move toward limiting those rights then maybe one day the right to speak, pray, go to school and live our lives in freedom will vanish.

    I don’t have a problem with him saying the Lord’s Prayer, and if an atheist had been in his place, he/she would have had the freedom to tell their story…..that is what freedom is all about.

    I don’t even see this as religious freedom, but more about our freedom to choose the life we want….we are losing more and more of those freedoms and as a Christian I really do prefer that our freedom of speech be preserved for everyone…no matter their beliefs.

    I also am really tired of feeling that I have to Hide my beliefs, because they might offend. Every time I turn on the TV, walk down a street, listen to the radio, and go to movies I am offended by things I see and hear…..But, this just means that our freedom of speech is at work, and I can avoid those things as much as possible and continue to live my life.

  13. I agree with Vickie that the time could be better used. There are no shortage of opportunities for Christians to share and celebrate their faith.

    The idea that a public multi-faith audience will appreciate and not feel harmed by being alienated when not participating in the act of the majority Christians who fail to consider the feelings and well-being of the non-Christians is naive, and not in the spirit of love and kindness that Christianity is supposed to be about. It also is irresponsible privilege to ignore how it feels for someone who has not volunteered to participate in a Christian prayer in what is intended by design to be a secular event within the separation of church and state, for that very protection.

    For a private Christian school their prayers could be the whole graduation ceremony, and that would be fine. Or there could be some separate prayer service organized before or after the ceremony. Or there could be a multifaith planned event to include all of the non-Christians in the community in planning to share prayers from each tradition, also put alongside the ceremony.

    The method selected by the student and which was endorsed by the adults in the community was careless, and if I was a non-Christian family in that town, I would look to move away from that place and take my kids out of the school to find a place free of this coercive proselytizing culture (which is what it feels like, intended or otherwise well-meaning). Did people look around and see who was not participating? Are they talked about at dinner parties? Avoided in the grocery store? No one wants to talk about the negative repercussions of this kind of domination culture.

    I was not earlier being facetious or extreme in comparing this culture to the Taliban. Christian culture encroachment on the political, moral, and economic rights of all Americans is way out of control, and this event is just one more example. If you doubt this, imagine if Hindu, Jains and Buddhist Americans paid off politicians to pass laws banning or reducing eating of meat (grotesque and mass scale unnecessary violence-regularly glorified- in some moral perspectives)? The protections of church and state considered disposable by the dominant culture.

    Now, that boy can go through life feeling entitled to dominate others as normal, through his experience of community consent. That normalized domination culture is why Christian missionaries are still not welcome in many parts of the world (including by many in the USA). This is not a skillful way to share the values and virtues of Christianity, or increase the estimation of Christianity.

    Like the Taliban, the Christian dominant culture appears to want a Christian state run by Christian laws, like say, the state of Texas is now approaching. In that case, let’s go ahead and break up the Union and let Texas or such states become their own country, and leave the rest of us in freedom.

    1. I am afraid you have jumped on the wrong band wagon….

      If you will reread what I wrote “I don’t have a problem with him saying the Lord’s Prayer, and if an atheist had been in his place, he/she would have had the freedom to tell their story…..that is what freedom is all about.” The young man earned the right to stand at the podium.

      What I was trying to convey (and apparently I did a poor job) was that the young man could have used his time to talk about our freedom of religion, speech, etc, etc. He could have used his time to point out that once we start giving up our rights to freedom of speech, then eventually we will give up all of our rights. The issue for me is clearly freedom. There are many people in our society who push their beliefs and not all of them are Christians.

      I also would not have a problem with an atheist, a Buddhist, etc standing at that podium and expressing their beliefs. I do not see why anyone should be offended by a young person standing upon their principles. We need more people who will stand for what they believe.

      As for your comments about Texas…it seems you are being as judgmental as you feel the young man was when he expressed his beliefs. The great thing about America is that we still have the right to live where we want. So don’t move to Texas.

      Maybe the best policy is to live your life the way you feel lead and allows others to live their lives the way they feel lead.

      1. I was merely agreeing with the part of your post that I found sympathy for.

        The public school system is funded by the public, and our constitution provides protections against having to fund or sponsor or participate in religious events.

        Non Christians are supposed to have the freedom to have their children in school free of participation in religious events.

        Your position is also quite self-evident. I agree that every one is entitled to pray privately anywhere.

        The boundary is crossed when one person incites a group to colonize another’s space. The public school system is a public space and their is a balance of protections for freedom of speech vs freedom from speech.

        A similar case was filed, cited by the Pluralism Project:

        The Hindu American Foundation (HAF)

        The HAF, representing Hindus, Jains, and Buddhists in America, filed its first Amicus Brief on the Ten Commandments issue in relation to Van Orden v. Perry. Their brief states that the existence of a Ten Commandments monument on Texas State Capitol grounds is an endorsement of Judeo-Christian law, which is not upheld by the establishment clause and is potentially hostile to non Judeo-Christian traditions. They argue that although the monument has stood on the State Capitol grounds for nearly forty years it “violated the Establishment Clause forty years ago and continues to do so today.”

        Anyway, if I am on my own bandwagon, so be it! It may not be welcome everywhere. (I am not hearing any other minority religion clergy comment on this, here in this forum.)

        Your accusation that my statements on Texas are judgmental is quite true. I am using my conclusion based on assessing (well-documented) evidence where state school system science and history books have been factually altered to reflect religious and cultural biases. I have enjoyed the people and time in Texas in the past and would happily continue to visit if it succeeds from the Union. (This is an idea also shared by many Texans!)

        I am happy with “leaving others to live their lives as they feel” until they start imposing their feelings or way of live on myself and others.

        Not only that young boy praying, but even many of the clergy have no training in leading a faith-appropriate prayer for a multifaith audience. There is no surprise that the boy could not have the skills to do it, or even think to do it. Who would have taught him?

        But what he taught through his act is something else. I am sure most Christians are happy with it. I hope the families or youth who felt violated by it find peace.

  14. As a Texan living in Kentucky, still with strong ties to Texas, I am dismayed about the textbook issues, which are many and varied, as well as other decisions made at the state level in other areas. However, I an not advocating for Texas’s secession from the Union. Nor are many Texans. Texans may joke about that – just as we kid about the jackalope in the backyard, but very few are very serious about such a proposition.

  15. I greatly appreciate Madison’s comments and thoughts. Walking and living in faith in an increasingly pluralistic society that seeks to provide protection from government intrusion into and favoritism toward religion is very difficult to do. How do we speak the Gospel boldly and lovingly? Are we able to speak Gospel at all if we do so with a heart of defiance or dominance? Is prayer the best method for preaching? What is the purpose of prayer? Is it not to speak to and listen to God? Yes, I can invite others to join that conversation with me – or just listen in – and pray publicly. If I pray in public so that people will know I am praying, then I am boasting and showing off and doing it for approval from others, not as a faithful conversation with my God. When we forget these things, and pray for reasons other than that conversation, we diminish the prayer and turn that conversational into something else.

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