Representative Emanuel Cleaver, a United Methodist minister and nine-term congressman from Missouri, made headlines earlier this week when he ended his prayer to commence the first day of the new congress by saying “Amen and A-woman.”
He has since described the choice as “a lighthearted pun in recognition of the record number of women who will be representing the American people in Congress during this term as well as in recognition of the first female chaplain of the House of Representatives whose service commenced this week.”
With regards to the backlash those comments have generated, he’s disappointed that “rather than reflecting on my faithful requests for community healing and reversion from our increasingly tribal tendencies, it appears that some have latched on to the final word of this conversation in an attempt to twist my message to God and demean me personally. In doing so, they have proven one point of my greater message—that we are all ‘soiled by selfishness, perverted by prejudice and inveigled by ideology.'”
I share his disappointment that the preceding content in his prayer has been obscured by the final words, though for different reasons.
The prayer actually started off pretty well, with an acknowledgment that “we enter this new year relying dangerously on our own fallible nature.” From there, he paraphrased the blessing in Numbers 6:24–26 to appeal for protection, grace, and peace, but did so “in the name of the monotheistic God, Brahma, and ‘god’ known by many names, by many different faiths.”
The tragic truth is that Rep. Cleaver’s prayer demonstrated a profound lack of understanding regarding the nature of the God to whom he claims to pray long before he chose to end it with a “lighthearted pun.” In so doing, however, he epitomized an approach to the Lord that is growing far more common in our culture.
The real issue at stake
It seems like most people today recognize the fallibility of humans. Honestly, avoiding that fact requires a level of self-delusion that is increasingly difficult to maintain. Where we turn from there, however, remains an open question for a lot of people. Unfortunately, that can include those who claim to know and follow God because the “god” they follow is more one of their own invention than the true Lord.
So how should we respond to the idea that the God of the Bible is the same as Brahma, Allah, or the “god known by many names” and “by many different faiths”? Ultimately, that question is far more relevant in the wake of Rep. Cleaver’s prayer than the notion that the Hebrew word for “truly” or “so be it” somehow has gender connotations.
That conversation could go in many directions, but there are two main points I think are helpful to keep in mind.
First, it’s vital that we have a correct understanding of who Jesus is before attempting to correct anyone else’s.
While none of us can fully comprehend the totality of our infinite, omnipotent, omniscient Lord, he has revealed the fundamental aspects of his identity in the Bible, and the depiction we get across its pages—especially as revealed in the person of Jesus—must be the lens through which we judge everything else.
As such, it’s important to periodically go back to his word to evaluate how our understanding compares with what we find in Scripture. All of us can fall prey to the temptation to define the Lord more by what others say about him than by what he says about himself. Getting into the habit of guarding against that fallacy is crucial if we’re going to try to correct it in others as well.
Second, we must be careful not to immediately discount the other person’s sincerity, intentions, or desire to know the Lord simply because their understanding was flawed.
Throughout the gospels, Jesus interacted with people who had an incorrect or incomplete understanding of who he was. Additionally, while he had less patience with the religious leaders who should have known better, most of the time he simply tried to correct their thinking with patience and understanding.
That’s the best approach for us to take as well. After all, few people are inclined to be corrected by those who start the conversation by making them feel dumb or defensive, but far too often that seems to be the default approach for many.
Unfortunately, most of the response to Rep. Cleaver’s prayer has emblemized an approach that is unlikely to yield real change or a better understanding by those sympathetic to his views. And while the “Amen and a-woman” line at the end has understandably garnered the greatest attention, the content that preceded it is far more worthy of our consideration as it presents an excellent example of the way in which we are most likely to encounter a false understanding of God in our culture today.
So the next time you encounter someone who worships a god of their own making rather than the true God of Scripture, how will you respond?
Preparing for that conversation today is the best way to ensure you won’t regret your response tomorrow.