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.