Rev. Kirbyjon Caldwell, senior minister of the Windsor Village United Methodist Church in Houston, has offered the benediction at both of President Bush’s inaugurations. After the 2001 prayer, Rev. Caldwell was sharply criticized for saying at the end of the prayer “in the name that is above every name, Jesus. Amen.”
And the criticism was deserved. To say that Jesus is the “name above every name,” summarily dismisses every non-Christian religious tradition as irrelevant. Prayers offered where the whole of America is represented must respect our nation’s religious diversity.
Of course trying to pray a prayer that takes everyone into account usually results in a bland sort of generic prayer. Prayers of this type are not going to offend anyone except those pesky atheists who don’t think we should be praying at all. They can at least take comfort in knowing that an all purpose public prayer is not much of a prayer to begin with.
To his credit, at this year’s inauguration, Rev. Kirbyon found a third option. This time he closed his prayer by saying, “Respecting persons of all faiths, I humbly submit this prayer in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.” That’s not bad. While acknowledging that not everyone believes the same way in America, he nevertheless prayed in a manner that was meaningful for him.
Unfortunately, he got criticized again—this time from elements of the religious right. They were happy that he didn’t bow to political correctness and pray some theologically anemic prayer. But they were disappointed that he acknowledged other faiths traditions as if they had the same standing as Christianity. Of course, under our Constitution, they do.
As it turns out, the ritual use of “in Jesus’ name,” is based on a misunderstanding of what the phrase actually means. When Jesus said, “If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it” he was not defining the form prayer should take, but its content.
Biblical scholars point out that the expression “in the name of” originally meant “in the spirit of” or “in the manner of.” In other words, simply saying “in Jesus’ name,” does not mean that a particular prayer really is in Jesus’ name. Praying in someone’s name means that we say the kinds of things that person would say.
For instance, a prayer that is in keeping with Jesus’ teaching might begin by acknowledging the plight of the poor. Jesus singled out the sick, the hungry, the imprisoned, and told his followers they would always find him among what he described as “the least of these members of my family.”
A prayer in Jesus’ name might also include a prayer for our enemies–and not a prayer for their destruction. Jesus taught us to love our enemy and to bless those who cursed us.
I wonder, though, if you could offer a prayer at the inauguration of a president that challenged us to love our enemies, called on us to care for the least of these in our midst, and pleaded with God to help us renounce violence and seek to overcome evil with good.
At any rate, it would seem we have two options when it comes to prayer—public and otherwise. We can pray prayers that purport to be in Jesus’ name because we say “in Jesus’ name” at the end. Or we can pray prayers that are actually in Jesus’ name because they ask for the things he cared about and prayed for every day of his life.
James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.