I have been privileged to attend the National Prayer Breakfasts (NPB) in Washington DC almost every year since 2004. I was there too one week ago at the 65th annual National Prayer Breakfast. A number of people involved from the US and other countries, or who frequently attend the event, officially or unofficially, are my good friends who love Jesus and are committed to serving other people faithfully. Meeting them, even if for a short time, is often more precious than attending the diverse events that make up the four-day long spiritually refreshing feast known as the National Prayer Breakfast (NPB).
The way NPB works is that thousands of US and international leaders attend a number of different programs organized geographically. For example, European guests would attend a set of luncheons and dinners that are separate from those attended by South-Pacific or African guests. And then there are a few events that gather together all of the guests. The event that would bring the greatest number of people together – a few thousand – is the actual National Prayer Breakfast on Thursday morning of NPB week.
But whether we speak of the International Luncheon, the European Dinner, the Middle East Breakfast, the Closing Dinner, or the actual Prayer Breakfast, or any other local, regional or international NPB event, you will always hear the same set of encouraging messages – about loving God and one’s neighbor, even the enemies; and about reconciliation, unity, brotherhood of all people, and about following Jesus. The intention of the organizers is that the name of Jesus be lifted up in the presence of the national and international leaders, including those from Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu and other backgrounds.
Occasionally, for a moment or two, one might even wonder if NPB is a gathering of religious syncretists worshiping different gods, only to have your fears corrected by a straightforward Gospel proclamation. I loved hearing some guests commenting on the powerful keynote message of the U.S. Senate Chaplain Dr. Barry Black soon after the NPB 2017 was over. One of them enthusiastically said: “We haven’t heard the Gospel so clearly presented for many years.” Equally powerful and very moving was the Closing Dinner message delivered by Dr. Rick Warren, the founder and senior pastor of the Saddleback Church, an evangelical megachurch in Lake Forest, California. He used the story of his own family tragedy to deliver a strong and encouraging message of hope. Even the Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who would a day or two later approve of the latest sanctions on Iran, preached like a church pastor as he delivered his message at the International Luncheon. If you wouldn’t know he is a politician, you would surely think he is a church minister.
In many ways the 2017 National Prayer Breakfast was very much like any other in previous years, except the message of the freshman US President Donald Trump. His remarks were out of character with the spirit of the gathering. It was overly political to say the least, although somewhat less tense than most of his public addresses until now. We saw a regular Donald Trump nevertheless, unaccustomed to the fact that he was a guest at the biggest leadership prayer event of national and international outreach. For one brief moment, I thought he was about to execute yet another executive order, one in which he would praise himself for restoring religious freedom to America. I especially felt uncomfortable when the President assumed almost a messianic posture saying: “The world is in trouble, but we’re going to straighten it out. Okay? That’s what I do. I fix things. Believe me.”
I was actually troubled with the message from the President. I was not troubled with the fact that the President was speaking at NPB 2017. Since the time of the President Dwight Eisenhower all presidents spoken at the National Prayer Breakfast. What troubled me was the ease, enthusiasm and appreciation with which his message was received by the majority of domestic guests, although there was hardly anything in his message that an informed follower of Jesus could approve of. Some of my international friends have expressed their dismay with its content. One of them wrote: “I found Trump’s speech at the NPB extremely disturbing – on so many levels. He respects nothing and no one. But so many Christians still adore him. I just don’t get it. There was absolutely nothing in his speech that was acceptable for the occasion. Most of it would not have been acceptable at any occasion”.
But the most of the American guests at the 2017 National Prayer Breakfast didn’t mind the inappropriateness of the President’s message. They didn’t mind the joke about Arnold Schwarzenegger and the low ratings of the current TV seasons of The Celebrity Apprentice, nor the reference to Donald Trump’s unpolished telephone conversations with world leaders. Nor did they see as problematic his complaint about how the US “is being taken advantage of by virtually every nation of the world”. Never mind that many among the thousands of guests were international delegates, many of them prominent government leaders from many countries. Most of the domestic guests attending the event were his political and spiritual admirers, mesmerized by his presence, and nothing would get in the way of their enjoyment of the occasion. What mattered was that their godly president, for whom they prayed and about whom they prophesied for the last two years, was finally speaking from the podium of the most known prayer breakfast in the world. Afterwards, in the corridors of the Washington Hilton Hotel, one could hear their approving comments. One of them said: “Wasn’t Trump good! Just a few more touches of refinement and he would be just fine.” In their views the President appeared to have been a humble and gentle servant, whose countenance and spiritual maturity is changing for the better every day.
And there was something else that troubled me in addition to the inappropriate remarks of the President. No, there was nothing sinister about the event itself. It did not look as if it had been hijacked by the political sway of the moment. What troubled me was the prevailing atmosphere of surrealism given the context of the current political confusion that reigned immediately outside the walls of the 2017 NPB sanctuary, with far reaching consequences.
Let me give you an illustration, former Norwegian Prime Minister Kjell Magne Bondevik, barely made it to the 2017 National Prayer Breakfast only because his passport contained a few stamps that revealed to US custom officers that he had previously visited a couple of Muslim countries that had been only few days earlier placed on the list of seven banned countries by the president’s executive order. A Slovak member of the European Parliament, Branislav Škripek was less fortunate. He, too, previously visited some of the countries on the banned list, and was denied on technicalities to enter the plane to the US at the Istanbul Airport.
The point of the illustration is this: the system that almost kept a former prime minister of a friendly country from attending NPB 2017, and made it impossible for another to board the plane was endorsed and embraced by many of the same leaders who one week ago raised their voices in praise to the Lord at the latest National Prayer Breakfast. I wonder if we are going to hear more stories of people who, although invited, weren’t able to attend thanks to the new regulations reflecting the latest chain of the president’s executive orders, hastily put in place during the first two weeks of his presidency?
I have experienced enough of National Prayer Breakfasts to want to believe that the intentions of the organizers are noble in character. Those among them who I know personally I know as people of good character, with hearts dedicated to service and genuine commitment to following Jesus. There is a place for a ministry that desires to bring the leaders of the world closer to Jesus. But I would not be honest if I wouldn’t say that that more than ever before I felt a tension separating the two worlds: one that existed within the boundaries of this international mega prayer event, full of declaration of love, grace and brotherhood; and the other one evolving fast only a few feet away, full of nationalism, bigotry, falls sense of greatness and designed paranoia. What created this tension was the awareness that many beneficiaries of, and contributors to both worlds, were the same people, who at one moment would joyfully and innocently lift their voices in praise to Jesus who said “Whatever you did for the least of these you did for me”, while at another, without any hesitation or a second thought, would self-righteously embrace the executive orders that are about building borders and closing the doors of America to the homeless and persecuted of the world.