Wednesday I will be a guest at the memorial service for Nelson Mandela here in Washington, DC. I know some will criticize me for that, but, like so much here, when invited, I respectfully accept, unless there is good reason not to do so. I couldn’t find such a reason here. Yes, I have a realistic appreciation for the good and the bad of Nelson Mandela; he was not a saint and I am not a sycophant. However, as I wrote in my previous post, what Mandela did for his nation was, over all, historic, humanitarian, and laudable. No one has captured better the complexity of Mandela than Mark Tooley, President of the Institute on Religion and Democracy. He got it right in his recent opinion piece in Patheos. Please take time to read it. Mark’s thoughts will be with me during the ceremony today.
Nelson Mandela is one of the great figures of history. He will take his place now among the few world-shapers that only need one name. “Mandela” stands for something much larger than the man himself: moral courage, concern for humanity, bravery and commitment, enormous self-control, and true statesmanship.
As he told us from the start, Mandela was far from perfect. He made grievous errors and failed as so many leaders do. In the end, though, he achieved his noble objective to bring about change in South Africa, primarily by eradicating racist structures in government and society that denied justice and equity to whole classes of individuals, families, and communities.
There is much to admire about Nelson Mandela, and perhaps just as much to criticize, but as the old saying goes, “If you’re not doing anything wrong, you’re probably not doing anything.” Mandela did much, and over all, it was very good for the people of South Africa, for Africa itself, and for the world.
I know there are some that wonder about Mandela’s connections to characters like Fidel Castro and Moammar Gadhafi. They wonder about Mandela’s spirituality: Was he a communist atheist or a Muslim revolutionary? The facts are that Mandela was born to a polygamist father of African tribal religion, but was raised as a strict Methodist by his mother, and even taught Bible lessons in his church. With time, though, religion seemed to be less important to him and he did align with movements that held worldviews opposite to Christianity. None-the-less, he never renounced his Christianity and appeared to grow more spiritual as he aged. He did invoke God’s blessing on South Africa in his inaugural speech in 1994.
Regardless of where Mandela stood personally on the question of Christ as Lord, he certainly employed Christian principles in much of what he did, including forgiving and loving his enemies. His gift of freedom to the indigenous and other non-white peoples of South Africa was also something consistent with biblical revelation on the nature of God. From what I’ve read of Mandela, I have no doubt that he was greatly influenced and substantively informed by his exposure to the Gospel and Christian people during his younger days.
I’m grateful to have lived through the period of Mandela’s life and work. If we can learn anything from him, it’s the importance of standing on your principles no mater the cost, eschewing violence and retribution, and doing our work for God and good with graciousness, aplomb, and even humor. Mandela’s long life has done us all a great service–and that’s just what he announced as his intention when he emerged from his long dark imprisonment: “I stand before you here, not as a prophet, but as a humble servant of you, the people.”
Well done, Mr. Mandela.
I wish you could’ve been with us yesterday when hundreds of onlookers inside and outside government offices stopped to watch, listen, and take endless photos of Mary, Joseph, a cooing Baby Jesus, and the rest of the Live Nativity players! What makes this spectacle on Capitol Hill so meaningful is that the Gospel of CHRISTmas is right at the heart of the display! We do no preaching during the Live Nativity–just a reading of the Gospel account of that first Bethlehem Christmas from Luke 2. But these powerful words are heard against the backdrop of the Manger Scene in the shadow of the Capitol Dome and US Supreme Court!
Today we re-staged the Live Nativity on the set of the Fox News Network in midtown Manhattan in New York City. Our actors and live animals–including Junior the Camel, his donkey friend, two sheep, and a calf–were featured live on Fox and Friends and were part of taping for the Fox Christmas Special to be aired later this month. Someone asked me why we do this Live Nativity program. Well, the answer is for two reasons: 1) Christmas is a unique time of the year when hearts and minds are open to the Christian message in ways they just aren’t at any other time. That’s as true here in Washington as it is anywhere else. 2) The Live Nativity is a compelling way of communicating the Gospel in a micro-burst of imagery–just what “This Town” needs with its incurable attention deficit!
Every year more people follow along as our Nativity procession winds its way in front of the offices of US senators and between the US Capitol and Supreme Court. The only time a voice was heard in the drama was when I read the nativity narrative from Luke 2, and when recording artist Nathan Kistler sang beautifully the classic Christmas hymns O Come, O Come Immanuel, O Holy Night, and Silent Night. Otherwise the event is non-stop iconography in motion.
One of our visiting pastors told me his impression of the Live Nativity was its completely positive witness. How could it be anything else? CHRISTmas is about the Good News that a Savior has been born to us, “Christ the Lord!” It’s about “Peace on Earth and good will to men.” It’s a positive message for a desperate people.
This “new tradition” we’ve started on Capitol Hill is fast becoming a much anticipated event. Throughout the year members of congress, White House officials, even judges have asked, “Are you doing the Nativity this year?” I want to assure them we will stage the Live Nativity again next year–and every year after until Jesus returns! I can only do that, however, if friends like you help us with generous financial support. Will you take a moment to make a tax-deductible gift for the Live Nativity? Your contribution will mean even more people in America’s capital city will see and hear the Christmas Gospel.
Please make your tax-deductible gift online now. You may also phone in your gift to Patty Bills at 202-734-8732, or mail your check or money order to Faith and Action, 109 2nd St, NE, Washington, DC 20002. If you believe it’s important to portray and proclaim the true Christmas message–the real reason for this season–please help with your online gift now!
A blessed Advent and Merry CHRISTmas to you and yours!
Your grateful missionary to Washington, DC,
Rev. Rob Schenck
Right on the tails of the big Supreme case over public prayer (one that I have a personal connection to through the pastor at the center of it) comes another one: Today, the United States Supreme Court granted “certiorari” (Latin for “review”) of Sebelius, Secretary of Health and Human Services, et al, V. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. “Sebelius,” of course, refers to Katherine Sebelius, a member of the cabinet for President Obama, and the point person for the implementation of Obamacare, or “The Affordable Care Act.”
A critical part of the law creating a government administered health insurance apparatus, is a mandate that requires employers of a certain scale to provide insurance to their employees that include abortion-inducing drugs. Many employers, especially those that are Christian, have objected to this provision because it forces them to compromise their deeply held pro-life religious beliefs and practices. One such large-scale employer is Hobby Lobby, a chain of very popular arts and crafts stores owned by David and Barbara Green of Oklahoma City. I know the Greens and they have been friends of our ministry at Faith and Action. Here’s the story . . .
Years ago I was in Wisconsin to speak to a Church men’s retreat. It was August but it was freezing way up north. I had packed only warm weather gear, so I headed for the only shopping option anywhere within reach of the remote camp venue. It turned out to be a Walmart. I plucked up the first warm coat I saw on the rack. Near the check out counter I saw a display of free magazines. One of them bore a cover story about a major company that had decided to close its doors on Sundays out of religious conviction and for the sake of its employees. It intrigued me, so I snatched a copy, quickly read the article, and came away very impressed by the conviction and tenacity of David and Barbara Green, the founders and owners of Hobby Lobby, a billion dollar nationwide chain of hobby and craft stores.
In closing on Sundays, what the Greens had done was dramatic for several reasons. First, because they did it based on their conviction that Sunday is for worship, and their employees should not be prohibited from attending church because of their work schedules. They also felt that closing on Sundays would be honoring to God and beneficial for employee families. As noble as that is, the Green’s accountants and attorneys weren’t so sure. According to them, Sunday closures would mean both lost revenue and possible liability based on contracts with shopping plazas and malls. Still, the Greens were resolute. In the end, they not only survived, they thrived. Revenues went up and, as far as I know, there were no significant legal consequences.
The Greens actions were so exemplary we invited them to Washington to receive our annual Ten Commandments Leadership Award. Then Senator Don Nickles of Oklahoma joined me in presiding at the prayer-filled event in the prestigious US Senate Caucus Room in the historic Russell Building.
The Greens became friends and supporters of Faith and Action. Over the years we hosted them several times, including most recently for the National Prayer Breakfast and at a VIP invitation-only event at the Supreme Court. I was also honored to be with Steve Green, the son to David and Barbara and current CEO of the family enterprise, at the Pope’s private embassy, for a showing of the
Green family’s collection of rare and ancient biblical manuscripts and other historic religious documents. Steve is spearheading the development of the family’s vision for a mammoth national Bible museum that will house the collection and become one of the world’s premiere biblical research institutes. I spent some time persuading him to locate the facility here in the nation’s capital. I don’t know if I had any influence in their final decision, but I was delighted they did indeed chose Washington. The family recently purchased a large building not far from our ministry center as the site for their half-billion dollar project.
Now a new adventure with the Green family begins. Their case, and the four others like it that will be bundled together as another super-challenge to Obamacare, will have far-reaching consequences for every Christian owner of a large business in our country. The controversy at the core of this dispute represents what might be the most egregious violation of religious freedom in the history of the United States.We are presently deciding whether to submit a brief in this case. Please pray with us and our legal advisory team. Pray also for the Greens, the other parties in the case, and, of course, for the justices.
While I was hoping we’d have a little break in the intensity that these cases bring to us here at Faith and Action, I know this is precisely the work God intends for us to do and why He placed us across the street from the High Court.
I’ll keep you posted on this as it progresses.
Just in case there’s somebody in Washington that still doubts whether our nation owes its existence to a source greater than ourselves, here’s what our Founders said:
By the United States in Congress assembled.
IT being the indispensable duty of all Nations, not only to offer up their supplications to ALMIGHTY GOD, the giver of all good, for his gracious assistance in a time of distress, but also in a solemn and public manner to give him praise for his goodness in general, and especially for great and signal interpositions of his providence in their behalf: Therefore the United States in Congress assembled, taking into their consideration the many instances of divine goodness to these States, in the course of the important conflict in which they have been so long engaged; the present happy and promising state of public affairs; and the events of the war, in the course of the year now drawing to a close; particularly the harmony of the public Councils, which is so necessary to the success of the public cause; the perfect union and good understanding which has hitherto subsisted between them and their Allies, notwithstanding the artful and unwearied attempts of the common enemy to divide them; the success of the arms of the United States, and those of their Allies, and the acknowledgment of their independence by another European power, whose friendship and commerce must be of great and lasting advantage to these States:—– Do hereby recommend to the inhabitants of these States in general, to observe, and request the several States to interpose their authority in appointing and commanding the observation of THURSDAY the twenty-eight day of NOVEMBER next, as a day of solemn THANKSGIVING to GOD for all his mercies: and they do further recommend to all ranks, to testify to their gratitude to GOD for his goodness, by a cheerful obedience of his laws, and by promoting, each in his station, and by his influence, the practice of true and undefiled religion, which is the great foundation of public prosperity and national happiness.
Done in Congress, at Philadelphia, the eleventh day of October, in the year of our LORD one thousand seven hundred and eighty-two, and of our Sovereignty and Independence, the seventh.
JOHN HANSON, President.
Charles Thomson, Secretary.
To you and all yours: A Blessed and Happy Thanksgiving!
Last week was a big one at the Supreme Court. Maybe you saw the news about all we did surrounding another historic case on public prayer. This time it was a question on whether prayers offered by volunteer clergy (and others) before town council meetings in smallish Greece, New York (outside Rochester) can continue. For the last 16 years or so it’s been the practice of the town to invite citizens of Greece, especially religious leaders like pastors, to offer a prayer before the council convenes to do its civic business. A few years ago two women filed complaints with the town, and later with the courts, claiming they felt alienated by their local government because most of the prayers were Christian in nature. The lower courts ordered the town to adopt a policy that would ensure there were a diversity of prayers offered at the meetings. The town appealed the case all the way to the US Supreme Court which heard oral arguments by lawyers last week. I was present in the courtroom for those arguments. With me were Pastor Patrick Medeiros of Greece, who has offered many of those prayers over the years, and Dr. Wayne House, a lawyer-theologian and adviser to our ministry, as well as two of our Faith and Action stalwart supporters, Tal and Sherri Weberg of Auburn, Washington. Once again I was the first to the microphones after the case was over, which is always a benefit because we can beat the “spin doctors” and at least set a tone of truthfulness for reporters!
Now that this phase of the controversy is over, many of my friends have asked what comes next at the Court. That’s a good question and it gives me the excuse to explain the rather arcane process of an ultimate legal appeal at the nation’s highest court. So, indulge me while I do:
First, it’s important to remember the what happens at the Supreme Court is different from a “trial.” There are no “trials” at the High Court. Trials are undertaken in lower courts to establish facts. That is, in a lower court, a judge–or jury–listens to the presentation of facts that come by way of witnesses (sometimes eye witnesses or experts) and evidence (documents, photo, videos, artifacts, written testimony etc., etc), then weighs the credibility of all of it and ultimately renders a decision as to what happened and what will be the consequences of it. In a case like this, the claim is that prayers offered by clergy were mostly Christian in nature and that bias violates the sense of the First Amendment prohibition of state establishment of religion and is therefore unconstitutional. In other words, the two people that filed this lawsuit claimed that the prayers violated the highest law of the land and for that reason had to be stopped or modified. Well, that’s exactly what the lowest court (federal district level) found was the case, but the town appealed to a “circuit court.” At this level of federal court, briefs are filed and read by one or more “appellate judges.” (Briefs are long written documents that set out a record of the trial in the lower court, makes claims of errors made by that first-level court, and asks that the first decision be nullified on the basis of those errors.) In this case it was the Second Circuit Court of Appeals and it did not nullify the first finding, but instead added it’s own twist to the same decision, ordering the town to ensure that a religious diversity of prayers be offered before the town council meetings. The town then appealed this second court decision to the United States Supreme Court, claiming that serious errors were made by both lower courts and that the prayers were, in fact, fully constitutional and should continue.
Appeals like this are not accepted by the Supreme Court automatically. The first challenge for any party coming to the Court is to convince at least four of the justices that, a) a serious constitutional question exists in the facts of the case, and, 2) that the lower courts came to the wrong decision. That, of course, happened with the Greece prayer case. At least four justices agreed that there is at least the possibility a wrong decision was made in the case (or that other critical questions remain unresolved) and that, therefore, the case should be heard by the Supreme Court. And that it would, presumably, render a final opinion on the matter. (I say presumably, because the Court can come to the decision that the case should never have been heard and simply dismiss it.)
Now, before lawyers for both sides show up at the Supreme Court, a lot happens. First, “briefs” are filed by both sides. (“Brief” is a real misnomer, since these legal documents can be anything but “brief!”) These briefs are a re-telling of the whole history of the case–with the biased opinions and interpretations of each side–and may include some new information for the nine justices of the Supreme Court to consider. Then, in many cases, other individuals and groups are invited to weigh in on the controversy with their own facts and opinions. This happens in the form of what are called “amicus briefs.” Amicus is the Latin term for “friend.” That’s why these same documents are sometimes referred to as “Friend of the Court briefs.” The idea here is that these outside individuals and groups serve as “friendly parties” to the justices, providing to the Court some information or perspectives they might not otherwise consider, and will therefore enable the justices to make a better judgement about the matter at hand. (That’s what our ministry at Faith and Action did in this case–we submitted an amicus brief.) Theoretically, the justices have read these amicus briefs–along with the two major briefs from the Petitioners (the party or parties that brought the case to the court) and from the Respondents (the other party that didn’t want the case heard by the Court.) So, again, theoretically, the nine justices of the Court are thoroughly familiar with the case before the attorneys appear in front of them in the courtroom for one final chance to make their arguments for their side, and to answer any questions the justices still may have after reading all related documents. (BTW: Sometimes the volume of material in any given case may be so great that the justices rely on their assistant attorneys, called “clerks” to read the material for them, do the associated research, and provide to them memos or summaries to hurry things up.)
Once all the reading and research has been done, “oral argument” then takes place. Arguments are heard by all nine justices. (Unless one or more step aside because of a conflict of interest in the case–which only occurs rarely.) As a rule, just one hour is allowed per case. That means each side gets just 30 minutes to make their final argument. Often, the respective lawyers for each side only get to say a few words before the justices begin firing away questions at them. Court protocol requires the lawyer to stop speaking immediately as soon as a question is posed by a justice–and to remain silent until the justice finishes speaking. Then, the lawyer must give a quick answer so other justices can ask their questions. Sometimes other lawyers for other parties ask special permission to speak to the Court, but all parties and all the justices must agree to it. In many cases, this other party is the Solicitor General of the United States, the top ranking civilian lawyer in the Executive Branch, and who represents the President of the United States. This was the case in this recent Greece prayer matter. The President requested special permission of the Court to send the Solicitor General (in this case, a deputy solicitor general) to argue for the President in favor of continuing the prayers.
After each side has taken their allotted time (in this case, 20 minutes each, because there were three lawyers instead of the usual two) the Chief Justice strikes the gavel and the case is “submitted” or closed. Now, in the Greece prayer case, the arguments were heard on Wednesday, so two days later, on Friday (always the Friday AFTER oral arguments are held), all nine justices meet privately and behind closed doors–with no other persons present in the room (not even clerks)–to take an initial vote on what each thinks should be done with the case. Then, a justice is picked to write the majority brief. If the Chief Justice is in the majority (in other words agrees with the prevailing opinion of the justices), he assigns a justice–often himself–to write the majority opinion of the Court–and that becomes “settled law.” If the Chief is not with the majority, he asks the most senior member represented in the majority to write the final opinion. Of course, the justices are free to agree in part and disagree in part (called “dissent”) and file their own briefs.
There is no deadline for writing the briefs, but virtually all cases are decided within the term in which they were heard. Supreme Court “terms” run October to June, so that means virtually all the cases will be decided within that time frame. Sometimes “opinions” come out within weeks, sometimes within months, and, if they are particularly controversial or complicated, they will come out in the very last days of the term. So, in the Greece prayer case, it could be many months before a decision is announced. There is also no forewarning that a decision will be announced. It’s always a surprise. No one knows that an opinion is going to be “read” until it is read by the author of the majority opinion–from the bench–and during a regular court argument day. (Unless it’s during the very last few weeks of the Court term when oral arguments are no longer heard. In that case, the justices sit only to read decisions.)
Of course, the Supreme Court is–well–”Supreme”–and makes its own rules. It is really bound by no one or nothing, so they can change the way they do things whenever they want. They can also change their minds on a decision right up to the moment a case is announced. That’s part of what will happen over the next few weeks. Justices will be communicating with each other by way of written memos, they’ll be figuring out exactly where they stand on the matter, whether they agree completely with one or more of their colleagues, or whether they don’t and will therefore write their own briefs. Some will be seeking to change the minds of the others. So, a lot will be going on in the period that transpires before the opinions are finalized and read to the public, then published. For this reason, there is till time to pray, to write to the justices, and to hope they get this decision right!
Rob + ( www.faithandaction.org )
This week three major events will take place that have at their core important questions about religious freedom in America and around the world. My long-time friend and colleague, Dr. Joe Grieboski, often refers to religious freedom as the first and most fundamental human right. I wholeheartedly agree. What could be more basic to one’s humanity than the freedom to acknowledge the source of one’s humanity openly and without fear? Religion has to do with the transcendent, with the intimate, with the eternal, and with the profound. Religion also has to do with the conscience and with the realm of ideas, both of which are off limits to government intrusion. So, this week at Faith and Action we will celebrate, buttress, and defend religious freedom in three ways:
1) On Monday afternoon, November 4, we’ll co-host a reception with the American Center for Law and Justice in honor of Her Excellency Suzan Johnson Cook, who has just ended her tenure as United States Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom. “Dr. SuJay,” as I’ve come to know her, is a passionate advocate for religious freedom and has demonstrated her convictions in a number of ways. First, as a faith leader. “Ambassador Johnson Cook,” is also “Pastor Johnson Cook,” having served as senior pastor to two congregations in New York City, and having remained pastor to a group of believers that meet on Thursdays at noon in the Wall Street sector of Manhattan to pray and study the Scriptures together. The Ambassador also served as a chaplain to the New York Police Department for 21 years. So, Dr. SuJay knows what she’s talking about! As Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, Dr. SuJay embodied many firsts for that post: The first ordained Baptist minister; the first African American; the first woman; and the first nominee endorsed by the Evangelical Church Alliance, America’s oldest association of independent evangelical clergy. While I hate to see her go, I know the intensity of that office takes its toll and whoever serves must measure their time in it. Dr. SuJay also has her priorities straight: She has two fine sons in college and her goal is to give them the gift of debt-free ivy league educations. She simply can’t do that on limited government salary. (And neither could she accept any help from the outside while she was in office!) So, this Monday we’ll see her off in a prayerful celebration of her extraordinary tenure. Anyone in this level of office will have their critics–and SuJay has hers, even in the Christian community–but I saw up close and personal the valiant battle she fought with the Goliath of government bureaucracy simply to keep religious freedom at the top of the ever-changing list of priorities. I also saw what she was up against in the tidal wave of persecution and religious conflict found in the 199 countries under her watch, and in the internal tensions in our own country. I hope you’ll help me say thank you to SuJay for her sacrificial service at a very difficult time in our nation’s history by praying for her next ministry assignment, praying for her successor–whoever that may turn out to be–and making a generous gift to assist her and her family in a very costly transition. Make your tax-deductible love offering ( https://secure.etransfer.com/FaithandAction/JohnsonCook.cfm )
2) On Wednesday morning, November 6, I’ll be inside the US Supreme Court to listen to attorneys make arguments in one of the most watched cases this year, Town of Greece v. Galloway, Susan, et al. The controversy here is over the practice of the small town of Greece, New York, a suburb of Rochester, in which local clergy and others are invited to voluntarily offer prayers before the beginning of town council meetings. Although the practice has been going on for years, it was only recently that two women filed a law suit complaining that the prayers offended their atheism. What else is new? What makes this case so significant, though, is that the lower courts actually instructed the Town of Greece that it must ensure diversity in the content of those prayers. Well, there’s lots of reasons to object to that sort of thing, but I think the most important one is that government–on any level–is neither equipped nor authorized to dictate to anyone the content of their prayers! To do so is to commit a flagrant, grotesque violation of the First Amendment that states unambiguously:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Notice the positioning of the so-called “establishment clause”–right at the beginning of the beginning of the Bill of Rights! I’m one to believe that the Founders, who were consummate wordsmiths, didn’t just casually throw words down on paper. They chose each one carefully and placed them intentionally. The first among our rights was placed first to underscore its supremacy over all the rest.
Now, you’ve heard me say that we at Faith and Action are not lobbyists nor lawyers, so we don’t get involved in legislation or litigation, but we do make exceptions–and Wednesday will be one. (Well, sort of.) We did file what is called an amicus brief in this case, but it’s not quite the same as being one of the parties in the suit. The Latin term amicus means “friend.” An “amicus brief” is a memo to the justices of the Supreme Court that is designed to provide information to them so they can render a good decision. By filing an amicus brief we are acting not in the capacity of a petitioner, or of a complainant, nor are we acting as a respondent, but simply as “assistants” to the justices by helping them to see something in the case they wouldn’t normally see. You can read our amicus brief here ( http://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/publications/supreme_court_preview/briefs-v3/12-696_pet_amcu_fan.authcheckdam.pdf ) There are also many more briefs in favor of continuing the practice of prayer at the Greece Town Council meetings and at all legislative sessions at all levels of government. (You can find them here ( http://www.scotusblog.com/case-files/cases/town-of-greece-v-galloway/ ) And, ready for this? Even President Obama and his solicitor general (top civil lawyer in the US government and representative of the President at the Supreme Court) are on the side of continuing such prayers!
Joining me in the courtroom on Wednesday will be another long-time friend and colleague, Pastor Pat Madeiros, one of the visiting clergy to offer prayers at the Town of Greece council meetings. Pastor Pat and his congregation have been big supporters of Faith and Action over the years and he has been my good friend and confidant. Oddly, it was in the pulpit of his church that I delivered one of my first sermons 35 years ago! So, this thing is coming full circle for me. Immediately following the arguments before the justices (you can read all about that here: http://www.supremecourt.gov/visiting/visitorsguidetooralargument.aspx ) Pastor Pat and I will make statements to the media waiting outside the Supreme Court, then speak at a national news conference and prayer service in front of the main plaza of the Court. Watch for posts on all this at our website , on our Facebook page , and on Twitter (@FAADC)
3) Finally, on Wednesday night one of our own, Attorney Kelly Schakelford of Texas, will deliver a lecture to an invitation-only audience inside the Supreme Court chamber. Kelly is a wonderful friend, a real champion of the Constitution and of the First Amendment, and a deeply committed Christian. I’m thrilled Kelly was asked to make this presentation by a private society that serves as the educational and social compliment to the High Court. Plenty of our ministry friends and allies will be in attendance, bringing salt and light into a sometimes spiritually dismal place. Please pray for Kelly and for all of us as we seek to be God’s habitation at the seat of the judicial branch of our federal government!
Of course, none of this could happen without the support of our “extended missionary team.” This team is not made up of specially trained “professional missionaries” but made up of people like you; people who may not be trained but are passionate and prayerful, people that care enough to pray and to give. If you want to join our “extended missionary team” click here: ( www.whatisfaithandaction.org )
Pray for us this week as we’ll pray for you!
It’s one of the most common questions asked of me, especially when I’m escorting a guest to the front door of our ministry house and they see sculpture in our garden. Reporters, producers, journalists use the same words, but deliver them in a different tone, usually one of suspicion, as if to really ask, “So, what’s behind this display of the Ten Commandments? What political statement are you making here?” Both are fair questions and ones I’m happy to answer–and I do–a lot. I thought you might interested in those answers, so here they are.
“Why the Ten Commandments?”
This question can mean, “Of all the familiar biblical passages, why did you pick the Ten Commandments?” Or, it can mean, “With so many more elegant and beautiful biblical passages–say, the Sermon on the Mount, or the Lord’s Prayer–what would make you pick this inferior passage?” It could also mean, “Aren’t the Ten Commandments expired? Haven’t they been replaced by the two Great Commandments of Christ?” Or even, “What are you guys, some kind of legalists? You put up the law instead of celebrating grace. What are you, modern day Pharisees?”
These are just the questions from our friends! Our opponents ask with a different inflection that suggest other implications. They can range from, “OK, so you’re imposing your moral standards on the rest of the world,” to, “I see, a poetic way to make your statement against abortion and gay marriage,” to, “Man, you guys are really religiously narrow and bigoted.”
Of course, not everyone is critical. We have plenty of people that stop to admire the Commandments–even whole busloads of tourists–some of them from other countries–that stop to have their photos taken in front of the monument. They don’t even ask why we have the monument, they just thank us for having it! Still, I’d like them to ask why because there are good reasons to have the Commandments–and maybe some reasons they wouldn’t normally think about.
So, all this to set up my answer to why we have the Commandments, regardless of the inflection, the intention, the nuance, or the ulterior motive for asking it.
Why do we have the Ten Commandments etched on an 850-pound slab of granite and displayed in front of our ministry house on Capitol Hill–yes–opposite the VIP entrance to the Supreme Court, within easy view of the Capitol, and ten minutes drive from the White House? Well, just to be cute, I’ll give you The Top Ten Reasons Why We Display the Ten Commandments:
1) The Ten Commandments constitute the most universal of all basic ethical codes. Jews, Christians, and Muslims equally revere them, and virtually all major religious systems at least tacitly endorse them.
2) The Ten Commandments are the most enduring of all ancient law codes–3500 years old and still going strong! Similar moral / ethical / spiritual systems for living have faded with time, but the Ten Commandments remain current and in wide circulation.
3) Because they begin with a rule about God and end with a rule about neighbors, the Ten Commandments tie together our vertical and horizontal duties and obligations. How we treat our relationship to others correlates directly to how we treat our relationship to God.
4) The Ten Commandments tie together spiritual, moral, ethical, familial, and social rules into one memorable table, making a powerful statement that all these things are related to one another and cannot be compartmentalized. What we do or don’t do in one area of life directly affects all the other areas.
5) The Ten Commandments help us to understand how constant these ultimate and elementary responsibilities are for every human being–and how vigilant we must be to measure our behavior in reference to them.
6) For the Christian, the Ten Commandments defines sin and implies that we are all sinners because, undoubtedly, we can all remember at least once when we’ve violated one of their tenets. If, then, we are all sinners, it follows that we all need a savior.
7) Because the Ten Commandments are words from God, they carry a unique, transcendent force and issue from the ultimate authority. As a famous journalist once said about them, “They’re the Ten Commandments, not the ten suggestions!”
8) The Ten Commandments represent the fundamental system of divine ethics on which monotheistic religion was built, as well as western civilization, including British and American common law.
9) The Ten Commandments are woven into the history and imagery of our nation, from early colonial laws mandating their display in church meeting halls, to the legislatively authorized images of Moses the Law Giver that stares down on the podium in the chamber of the House of Representatives in the United States Capitol, to the bas relief of Moses holding the tablets of the Commandments in the Supreme Court’s interior south frieze and, even more notably, at the center of the building’s exterior East Pediment, above the entry used by the Justices and other dignitaries.
10) The particular Ten Commandments sculpture we installed in our garden is a replica of four monuments that once stood in front of public schools in rural Adams County, Ohio, right on the Kentucky border and the poorest county in that state. A federal court ordered the Commandments to be forcibly removed in 2003. A year later Faith and Action was given an exact replica of those monuments by the Adams County ministerial association and in 2006 it was erected in the front garden at an angle that makes it visible to the nine justices of the Supreme Court as they come and go from their building.
So, as you can see, we maintain the Ten Commandments at the front of our building for more than one good reason. No doubt there are countless more reasons to display these timeless words and we invite you to add them to the list!
“The law of the LORD is perfect, converting the soul: the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple.” Psalm 19:7 (KJV)
Most of us are familiar with the story of Joseph, the eleventh son of Israel, the firstborn of Rachel, who was sold into slavery by his own brothers (Genesis 37-41). The story is amazing enough in that Joseph goes from slavery and prison to the second most powerful man in Egypt. To the Jewish mind, though, it is not only a supremely instructive tale, it is a supremely ironic one. After all, Joseph is not just elevated from degradation to majesty, but, he, a Hebrew, a member of the ethnic group once despised, tormented, enslaved, and even mass murdered by the Egyptians, now rules over them. And who does he serve in such a capacity (at least in an earthly sense)? Pharaoh, who by definition, is not only the singular and tyrannical potentate, but fancies himself to be a sort of “god-in-flesh.”
I rehearse this story because it’s possible to compare the recent sojourn of my friend and colleague, the Reverend Dr. Suzan D. Johnson-Cook, to the Joseph account. Dr. Johnson-Cook, or “SuJay” (as Cheryl and I and all her friends know her) recently left her post as United States Ambassador-at-Large for International Freedom, the President’s top adviser on matters of religious freedom around the world. She was also the guardian of the persecuted: investigating, reporting on, and recommending what to do with countries where religious believers are directly or indirectly denied their paramount God-given right to practice their faith and are punished by their own governments because of it.
Before I say more, let me rehearse the astounding story of how I came to know and work with this extraordinary servant of God and public official:
It began back in 2009 when I was part of an ever-increasing number of people distressed over the fact that President Obama had failed to name an ambassador for this all-important diplomatic post. I’ve argued in the past that the Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom is the most important ambassadorship that exists. After all, what’s more important than our freedom to worship God? Not only so, but what principle is more at the core of our American concept of freedom than this–the very first of all God-given human rights? Yet, the President was very slow to fill this critical position. Then, in early 2010, while I was in Bronx, New York, to lead a week of prayer for one of our anchor churches, I received a call from a colleague in Washington, who told me he had just come from a high-level meeting at the State Department. During that conference it was announced that President Obama had selected a New York pastor named Suzan Johnson-Cook as his nominee for the religious freedom post.
“You’re in Bronx now, aren’t you?” Me friend asked.
When I answered yes, he urged me to locate Dr. Johnson-Cook and get to know her. I asked my host pastor if he had ever heard of her, and he said,” Of course. I see her regularly at ministers’ fellowship meetings.” I asked if he would track her down and introduce me. He said he would try. On my last day in New York, the pastor and I had breakfast with Dr. Johnson-Cook.
After an initial exchange of niceties, I asked Dr. Johnson-Cook, “May I be one of the first to congratulate you on your appointment?”
She looked at me quizzically.
“What appointment?” She asked, wrinkling her brow and staring me down suspiciously.
“Why, your appointment to the ambassadorship,” I said.
“What ambassadorship?” She demanded.
“Well, your nomination as Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom,” I said, now wrinkling my brow.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she responded, almost indignantly.
The exchange left me dumbstruck. I wasn’t sure if I had the wrong person, or if I had just committed a faux pas.
“I’m so sorry,” I told her, blushing and searching my mind for an explanation as to why I knew something about her she didn’t seem to know. “If you have contacts at the White House, perhaps you should call them,” I sheepishly suggested.
We both agreed to leave the table and make calls to our respective Washington people. I called the friend who had started all of this and demanded he confirm it. He asked me a series of questions:
“Is her name Suzan D. Johnson-Cook?”
“Is she a pastor in the Bronx?”
“Is she African-American?”
“Is she in her fifties?”
“I wouldn’t dare ask.”
“Well, that’s her,” he said confidently. “She’s the President’s pick for the post.”
To be honest, I was flabbergasted. I already knew Pastor Johnson-Cook was a born again, Bible-believing, Spirit-filled Christian with the same core doctrinal beliefs and moral convictions that I have. Frankly, I didn’t expect President Obama to pick her type of religious leader to represent his administration.
When we returned to the breakfast table after our respective calls to Washington, we were both shocked.
“Well,” Dr. Johnson-Cook said. “I have an important question. Now that I’m the nominee, what can you tell me about the job? What does an ambassador-at-large for international freedom do?”
I didn’t know the full answer to that question, so I recommended she come to Washington so we could spend a day talking to the people who wrote the law that created the post in 1998. Just a couple weeks later she did, and we went on a whirlwind itinerary. Every person who knew anything about this difficult diplomatic portfolio warned her that she was in for more than was apparent. Advancing the American concept of religious freedom in a post-9-11 world would be difficult enough, but the internal politics surrounding this controversial ambassadorial position would prove even more problematic.
They were right.
From the every beginning, Dr. Johnson-Cook was caught between three tectonic plates: An administration that was, at best, ambivalent about promoting religious freedom; a State Department that has resented the imposition of an office it considers highly politicized and redundant; and a Congress that has become so partisan that one side basically doesn’t want to give the other side any of its nominees, period. Exacerbating this predicament was the fact that the office was basically created by Republicans, who have always felt they have a certain proprietorship over it. The audacity of a Democrat selecting “their ambassador” became a real problem. One very conservative senator told me, “I will never, ever, vote to confirm this president’s nominee for this post. Never ever.”
As now Nominee Johnson-Cook and I made the rounds on Capitol Hill, we kept bumping into the same problem. Then came a breakthrough. Senator Jim DeMint, at that time the unofficial chairman of the unofficial “Tea Party Caucus” and Virginia congressman Frank Wolf, a long-time advocate for victims of religious persecution, got behind SuJay. So did a host of non-governmental agencies and leaders. At the same time, the White House seemed to become less interested in (and maybe even a bit hostile toward) their own nominee. They dragged their feet in promoting her and eventually allowed her nomination to lapse. Though she never said this to me, it seemed to me the very administration that nominated her now hoped she would withdraw. She didn’t. In fact, she became more convinced that God had called he to this post and that she had a divine mission to fulfill in it. I agreed. After watching previous ambassadors marginalized to the point of ineffectiveness, I knew it would take a strong and assertive believer to get anything done.
After an exhausting tour of offices, meetings, and public relations exercises, the White House did renew the nomination of Dr. Johnson-Cook and a second conformation hearing was held by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. When the ultra-conservative Sen. DeMint joined the ultra-liberal Sen. Barbara Boxer in recommending SuJay to the whole Senate for confirmation, I knew it meant victory. In the end, Dr. Johnson-Cook received not just a majority or super majority of votes, she received a unanimous 100!
The victory didn’t mean a cake-walk. In fact, it only made her job harder by setting up often conflicting expectations from the two sides of a wide political divide. With lots of help, lots of prayer, and lots of support from even Christian conservative groups, the newly minted United States Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom eventually did get her footing. Internal and external resistance to her leadership was a constant frustration, but never before was a true “believer” needed so badly in this post. She would go on to tirelessly advocate for the persecuted, relentlessly work internally to keep religious freedom at the top of the list of American diplomatic concerns, and–I wish I could detail this but can’t–she kept the office from being abused, exploited, corrupted, and driven off its mission.
Sujay knew when she accepted this post that it would a thankless one, and many of my colleagues have proven her right in their unwarranted criticism. The media, of course, always complains, and, sadly, in this case, that includes the Christian media. I haven’t joined in their denunciations, though, because I know what went on behind-the-scenes–and just how bad things could have been if it weren’t for this courageous, determined, and sacrificial handmaiden of the Lord. Sure, we could have had a pompous, self-impressed blow-hard of an academic that may have bamboozled everyone with a lot of inflated talk, but what we got was a quiet, humble servant that did all she could do to keep the mission of this critically important diplomatic post on course. For that, I thank God and I thank her.
Well done, Madam Ambassador. I will miss your leadership.