Signs of the Times

Obama Era Begins With Prayers

WASHINGTON--The inauguration of President Barack Obama began and closed in the traditional way: with prayers. The Right Rev. V. Gene Robinson, Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire, delivered the invocation at the pre-inaugural celebration on Jan. 19, reminding thousands gathered at the Lincoln Memorial “that every religion’s God judges us by the way we care for the most vulnerable.” The Rev. Rick Warren, senior pastor of the evangelical Saddleback Church in Southern California, delivered the invocation at the swearing-in ceremony on Jan. 20, asking for God’s forgiveness for the times “when we fail to treat our fellow human beings and all the Earth with the respect that they deserve.” The Rev. Joseph Lowery, a minister in the United Methodist Church and leader in the American civil rights movement, delivered the benediction at the swearing-in, beginning with a partial recitation of the hymn “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” and ending with a spirited invitation to “say Amen,” which the nearly two million onlookers enthusiastically accepted.

Much was made of the uniformly Protestant, mainly evangelical character of the formal inaugural prayers. It is, of course, very difficult to include in one prayer all of the religious strands of the nation and still remain faithful to one’s own tradition. A close look at the prayer texts, however, finds them to be less narrowly Protestant than they first appear. All three prayers aimed at inclusiveness and struck strong notes of solidarity, justice and the common good, the last being a theme that individualistic Protestant theologies sometimes overlook.


Bishop Robinson’s prayer called upon “the God of our many understandings”—an allusion, by a recovering alcoholic, to the instruction in Alcoholics Anonymous to pray to God “as you understand him.” Robinson asked for the gift of tears for a world where so many are poor and the gift of anger at discrimination, at home and abroad, including, he said, discrimination against gay people.

Rick Warren evoked the Jewish Shema, “Hear O Israel,” and he echoed the Koran, by naming God “the compassionate and merciful one.” He asked for forgiveness “when we fail to treat our fellow human beings and all the Earth with the respect they deserve” and he directed our attention—as Obama did—to the common good. Warren also reminded us that all nations and peoples will someday stand before God’s judgment, and although Warren was the one minister to mention specifically Jesus, he tempered it by personalizing the reference.

Joseph Lowery’s prayer was the best, and I found myself shouting Amen along with everyone else at its conclusion. “Lord,” he said in the cadence and style of a grand old preacher, “we ask you to help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get in back, when brown can stick around...when yellow will be mellow...when the red man can get ahead, man; and when white will embrace what is right. Let all those who do justice and love mercy say Amen.”

The sociologist Robert Bellah has argued that alongside denominational religion, there exists a partially differentiated civil religion in the United States representing “the subordination of the nation to ethical principles that transcend it, in terms of which it should be judged.” This civil religion was clearly on display on Jan. 20. “Without an awareness that our nation stands under higher judgment,” Bellah wrote, “the tradition of civil religion would be dangerous indeed,” perhaps degenerating into a kind of national idolatry.

John A. Coleman, S.J., a well-known sociologist of religion, is associate pastor of St. Ignatius Church in San Francisco.


Military Necessity?

In the wake of two unilateral cease-fires declared by Israel and the Palestinian militant organization Hamas in early January, some groups have called for war crime investigations and prosecutions of both parties for offenses during three weeks of combat. Such prosecutions, however, may miss the more important issue, indeed the most crucial ethical issue of our time: that killing large numbers of civilians has become the norm in fighting terrorists and insurgents.

The immorality and illegality of non-state terrorist attacks, like Hamas’s shelling of Israel, is unquestionable. But the pattern of response to such attacks by national governments, as well as the new logic that justifies it, is seldom critically examined. Beginning with the U.S. destruction of civilian infrastructure in Baghdad during the first Persian Gulf war, advanced military powers have responded to asymetrical warfare by their opponents with devastatingly powerful air and ground attacks. These disproportionate responses are justified by using the language of military necessity. Civilian deaths, these states claim, are regrettable. But they are also inevitable, they argue, because the enemy hides among the civilian population, using it as a shield, thus leaving states “no choice” but to attack civilian centers.

The Russians employed their own brutal and disjointed version of this in Chechnya in 1994-95. The U.S. Shock and Awe campaign of March 2003, its siege of Fallujah in November 2004 and the Israeli war in Lebanon in 2006 all fit the same pattern. After these wars, many critics labeled the states’ actions “war crimes”; but in so doing they missed the larger, more sinister, conscious thinking at work. Central to each of these campaigns against “terrorists” (or dictators, as in Iraq) is an unspoken logic that if the civilian population has terrorists or insurgents living among them, these enemies have probably attracted numerous sympathizers and potential recruits within that community. Thus, an attack to eradicate the embedded terrorists in densely populated areas may not need to be that careful and surgical. In fact, widespread attacks, or so this thinking goes, can have added utility if they impose high costs in life and property on the sympathizers.

According to this thinking, in wars against terrorists or insurgents, local people should pay some price for their unwillingness to purge the terrorists or insurgents on their own. In this sense, neither “collateral damage” nor “innocent” civilians exist. Rather, each citizen who is not a terrorist is nonetheless still a citizen who failed to take action against them, thus forfeiting his or her immunity from attack.

In light of this logic and the actions it justifies, the once critical concepts of proportionality, civilian immunity and even military necessity itself have all lost their meaning. Standard ethical language and logic are simply inadequate to address the normative anarchy of this new killing para-digm. A sustained and scrupulous dialogue among ethicists, military professionals and international lawyers is desperately needed to dissect this new paradigm and offer reasonable—and moral—alternatives.

George A. Lopez holds the Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C., Chair in Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame.

Pope Congratulates New U.S. President

Pope Benedict XVI, congratulating Barack Obama on his inauguration as U.S. president, prayed that he would remain steadfast in his dedication to promote understanding, cooperation and peace in the world. In his message to Obama, Pope Benedict said he prayed, under the new president’s leadership, that “the American people continue to find in their impressive religious and political heritage the spiritual values and ethical principles needed to cooperate in the building of a truly just and free society.” The pope added that he hoped the future of the United States would be “marked by respect for the dignity, equality and rights of each of its members, especially the poor, the outcast and those who have no voice.”

Vatican Embassy Attacked in Venezuela

The Vatican Embassy in Caracas was attacked with tear-gas bombs amid rising tensions over a vote to amend the Venezuelan constitution, Catholic officials said. The six bombs, thrown at 5:30 a.m. on Jan. 19, caused no injuries but generated an angry protest from Archbishop Roberto Luckert Leon of Coro, vice president of the Venezuelan bishops’ conference, who called the act “an abuse.” Those who threw the tear-gas bombs left leaflets from a pro-Chávez activist group also accused of attacking a television station and the home of a journalist critical of the government. On Feb. 15 Venezuelans will vote on a government-proposed constitutional amendment that would remove term limits for all elected officials, including Mr. Chávez. Catholic Church leaders, who have long accused Chávez of concentrating too much power in the presidency, have criticized the proposed amendment.

A Spanish judge has decided to open an investigation into the case of 14 members of the Salvadoran army accused of involvement in killing six Jesuit priests and two of their employees in 1989 during El Salvador’s civil war. High Court Judge Eloy Velasco also decided not to try former Salvadoran President Alfredo Cristiani, accused of concealment of the crime, because of insufficient evidence. Last November, the Spanish Association for Human Rights and the San Francisco-based Center for Justice and Accountability filed a lawsuit against the military officers and Cristiani based on the Spanish legal principle of universal jurisdiction for crimes against humanity. Velasco’s decision was announced on Jan. 13, nearly 20 years after the massacre at the University of Central America in San Salvador on Nov. 16, 1989. The Jesuit priests killed were the Spanish priests Ignacio Ellacuría, rector of the university, Ignacio Martín-Baró, Segundo Montes, Juan Moreno and Amando López and the Salvadoran Joaquin López y López. Also killed were the Jesuits’ housekeeper, Elba Ramos, and her teenage daughter, Celina.

News Briefs

Two-thirds of Americans see religion as having a declining influence on U.S. society, according to a new survey by Gallup. • The retired Belgian archbishop, Jean Jadot, former apostolic delegate in the United States, died Jan. 21 at his home in Brussels. He was 99 years old. • Cardinal Pio Laghi, a former Vatican nuncio to the United States, died Jan. 10 at the age of 86. • Msgr. Edward J. Burns, rector of St. Paul’s Seminary in Pittsburgh, Pa., has been named bishop of Juneau, Alaska. • The Vatican and the United States quietly marked 25 years of formal diplomatic relations in mid-January. • The annual March for Life was scheduled to begin on Thursday, Jan. 22, in Washington, D.C., the 36th anniversary of Roe v. Wade. • The incoming homeland security secretary, Janet Napolitano, and the new C.I.A. director, Leon Panetta, are both graduates of Santa Clara University, in California. • Washington Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl read a prayer for the nation and Washington Auxiliary Bishop Francisco Gonzalez read a selection from the Letter to the Romans at the National Prayer Service marking Barack Obama’s first full day as president, Jan. 21, in Washington, D.C.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
9 years 11 months ago
America's enhanced and reader-friendlier appearance is great! And so is your decision to add the author's name to the principal SIGNS OF THE TIMES items. However, George A. Lopez' failure to mention Nagasaki and Hiroshima in his otherwise excellent "Military Necessity?" analysis is as regrettable as the deafening silence of most official churchmen concerning the immorality of what must have been one of President Truman's most difficult decisions. Yes, because of the unprecedented terrible pressure of that war moment, Truman can perhaps be forgiven his immoral decision, but that decision remains immoral. ------------------------------------------------- I would like to ask someone at 106 West 56th Street... the reason for your first and once-only possibly useful numbering of each letter-to-the-editor (January 5-12, 2009 issue...) Also, your printer's devils, usually so meticulous at catching an author's or editor's occasional oversight in the spelling of foreign words, failed to note that Giuseppe Alberigo's "una svolta epochale" should have been "una svolta epocale"... Happy New Year, and May God continue to bless you good work! Larry --------------------------------------------------


The latest from america

Psychedelics can blur the line between science and spirituality—but Christian mysticism cannot be studied.
Terrance KleinJanuary 17, 2019
The extensive New York Times series in support of legal abortion unfolds as if the last 46 years of the abortion debate following Roe v. Wade never happened and did not need to.
​Helen AlvaréJanuary 17, 2019
In 1983, Sri Lanka descended into a bitter and prolonged ethnic conflict. Harry Miller, S.J., then almost 60, was thrust into a new role as witness, advocate, intermediary and protector not only for his students but for anyone in Batticaloa who sought his help.
Jeannine GuthrieJanuary 17, 2019
I have found that praying 15 minutes every day is an important form of self-care.
Michael R. Lovell January 16, 2019