[Note: A year ago, I reflected in this space on the play of “light” and “darkness” in the rhetoric of Dr. King, drawing on remarks by the late Georgia Congressman John Lewis and Republican columnist Michael Gerson. I ended by confessing that I could not imagine what Dr. King would make of the state of our union in 2020. Do you see where I’m going with this?
Since that post, we’ve had the worsening of the Covid-19 pandemic, the presidential election that would not die, and, between November and early January, the eyes of the nation were fixed on my home state of Georgia, where two–count ’em, two–seats in the U.S. Senate were at stake. And, son of a gun, the Democrats won both seats!
BUT, just when a few optimists thought that the bad times were over and a brighter future beckoned this battered country, our incumbent President refused to accept the outcome of the presidential race and then tried to “fix” the results of the Georgia senatorial election because control of the Senate hung on the outcome.
Bad, right? But it got worse: On January 6, 2021, the incumbent President encouraged several thousand of his supporters, who had made the trip to Washington because he promised that things would be “wild,” to march on the Capitol, at the very time Congress had assembled there to count ritually the presidential votes from the states in the Electoral College. The President promised he’d be with his supporters on their march, but of course he wasn’t; instead, he was hunkered down in the comfort of the White House watching everything on television that he’d set in motion, no surprise given his conduct over the past four years.
And the results of that “march” by “patriotic” followers of a defeated President yielded only chaos, including five deaths. The new President, former Vice-President Joe Biden, is to be inaugurated on January 20. Problem over, right? No! Rumors reported by the FBI warn of the possibility of gatherings by the defeated incumbent’s supporters, not only in the Nation’s Capital (again) but also in state capitals.
Oh, I almost forgot: our lame-duck Commander-in-Chief has now been impeached by the Democratic-controlled House, for the second time, for inciting the riot that led to the invasion–and brief occupation–of the Capitol by his fan club. Of course, he escaped conviction by the Republican-controlled Senate almost a year ago, and whether he’ll be convicted by the soon-to-be Democratic-controlled Senate this time, after Biden is inaugurated, is up in the air.]
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So, what in the world can I say on this King holiday that will bring comfort, or be even the least bit celebratory? I thought I’d try something different this year.
I am an Episcopalian; central to our worship is the Book of Common Prayer (hereafter BCP), a volume of nearly 1000 pages, with roots in the English Reformation, that guides our modern worship services, religious rites, and private devotions. What some say about us is almost literally true, “You Episcopalians have a prayer for everything!” (To which I invariably respond, “Not quite, but close.”) And today I offer an example, a “Prayer for our Country.” Believe it or not, this is one of at least three such prayers for the nation in the BCP, and is the most complete and detailed petition. Moreover, the words seem to me to “speak to our condition” in this perilous moment:
Almighty God, who has given us this good land for our heritage: We humbly beseech thee that we may always prove ourselves a people mindful of thy favor and glad to do thy will. Bless our land with honorable industry, sound learning, and pure manners. Save us from violence, discord, and confusion, from pride and arrogance, and from every evil way. Defend our liberties, and fashion into one united people the multitudes brought hither out of many kindreds and tongues. Endue with the spirit of wisdom those to whom in thy Name we entrust the authority of government, that there may be justice and peace at home, and that, through obedience to thy law, we may show forth thy praise among the nations of the earth. In the time of prosperity, fill our hearts with thankfulness, and in the day of trouble, suffer not our trust in thee to fail; all which we ask through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (BCP, p.820)
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The prayer’s first two sentences seem to embody “American exceptionalism,” the idea that, to put it colloquially, “God is an American.” Thereafter, though, comes recognition that our history always has been messy and will continue to be, followed by a plea for national unity. Interestingly, this plea is based upon the notion that we are “a nation of immigrants,” at a time when immigration policy is a “third rail” in American politics. There follows a request for wisdom on the part of those who govern and–believe it or not–that, by our obedience to law, we may set an example for the rest of the world. The concluding sentence has haunted me since I first encountered this prayer: “In the time of prosperity, fill our hearts with thankfulness, and in the day of trouble, suffer not our trust in thee to fail. . . .”
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As I type this, I have no idea how things will turn out between now and January 20. I simply offer the “Prayer for our Country” for those of you who, like me, are uneasy about our nation’s immediate future and pray for better days ahead. Let’s hope that, a year from now, we can face the future with renewed confidence and energy, as we continue working to achieve Dr. King’s goal of the “beloved community.”
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For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject: