If this blog had a political rather than religious focus, I would now link to the online bulletin of the University of Papua New Guinea, specifically the proceedings of its recent conference entitled “Is the United States Ready for Democracy?” Although the conference was meticulously fair in presenting different points of view (thus living up to its host institution’s reputation, dating back to colonial times, as “the Oxford of the South Pacific), the thrust of the discussion was clearly in the direction of a negative conclusion—“not yet ready”. The foreign policy of PNG is mandated by law to promote democracy worldwide, and one suggestion at the conference was that UPNG set up an educational program in Washington to contribute to that purpose.
Writing this post in the midst of events that make the (let us call it) Papuan view of the US more plausible every day, any piece of rational discourse coming out of the nation’s dysfunctional capital is comforting. Such a piece was the story “Give Us This Day, Our Daily Senate Scolding”, by Jeremy Peters, in the New York Times on October 6, 2013. The story is about Barry C. Black, the chaplain of the Senate. (Yes, in case you don’t know, the Senate has a chaplain, as does the House of Representatives. I imagine that scores of Kemalist lawyers are busy preparing lawsuits challenging this age-old practice in the federal courts.)
I don’t know the Reverend Black. He must be an interesting man. Aged 65, Black is a dapper man given to wearing brightly colored bowties. He is African-American and a Seventh-Day Adventist, the first Senate chaplain of either category. He was a Navy chaplain for thirty years, achieving the rank of admiral. In addition to giving the opening prayer at every session of the Senate, he is available for pastoral care of Senators, their staffs and families, and he conducts Bible studies. From the information available to me, Black is evidently Evangelical by faith and moderately right-of- center politically (he was nominated for his present position by Senator Bill Frist, Republican of Tennessee). His years as a military chaplain have given him plenty of practice in addressing people of different faiths without hiding his own (Catholic chaplains, say, are unlikely to conduct Bible studies), and in being discreet about his own political views. In the event, he uses his big booming voice to berate the Senators of either party. It seems that he is a master of what Biblical scholars call “condemnatory speech” (Scheltrede). Put simply, he really lets them have it!
Black is not the first preacher who cloaks a sermon, addressed to the human congregation before him, in a prayer supposedly addressed to God. Here is a sample: “Save us from the madness” – “We acknowledge our transgressions, our shortcomings, our smugness, our selfishness and our pride” – “Deliver us from the hypocrisy of attempting to sound reasonable while being unreasonable” – “Remove from them that stubborn pride which imagines itself to be above and beyond all criticism”. Note the alternation between “us” and “them”: In some of the prayers the preacher, as it were, takes upon his own shoulders the sins of his people; in the other kind, he calls upon God to give it to them—here the preacher stands outside the congregation and engages in prophetic condemnation. Black’s prayers/preachments are carefully non-partisan—surely the phrase “stubborn pride” could apply to both the Tea Party and President Obama—but they are also quite concrete: There is no doubt what he is referring to when he says that it is playing “a very dangerous game”, and that he hopes that “cooler heads” will prevail.
Does the Reverend Black’s praying/preaching on the floor of the Senate have an effect? It got attention, to be sure. During one of the prayers majority leader Harry Reid (a Mormon, no less) bowed his head reverentially, then raised it and said something that almost sounded like contrition. Black has been asked to come over and repeat his performance in the House of Representatives (which, given the frequency distribution of the “madness”, may need it even more than the Senate). Is any of this likely to affect the real behavior of anyone? One cannot know. Given the absurdity of the situation brought about by all the major actors in the ongoing “kabuki theater”, the big booming voice of a strategically placed preacher may just possibly provide a nudge in the direction of sanity (if not of non-partisan patriotism).
“Speaking truth to power” has been a favorite phrase on the Left, at least as far back as the antiwar movement of the Sixties. There is some irony here. The Democratic Party has become the favored political habitat of people who want religion to be out of politics (people I like to call Kemalists). Republicans, on the other hand, have typically defended a public role of religion: Here they are hit by someone playing just such a role. There is actually an old Biblical lesson here: Beware of applauding a prophet who blesses you today for something you are doing; tomorrow he may scold you for other actions of yours. “Speaking truth to power” rarely keeps to one single target all the time.
[Barry C. Black, left, the chaplain of the U.S. Senate, and Maj. Gen. Douglas L. Carver, the U.S. Army chief of chaplains, at a 2008 9/11 ceremony.]