Tihomir Kukolja reflects on the President’s remarks delivered at the 66th National Prayer Breakfast in Washington DC. Note that the author is not calling into question the purpose and the organization of NPB, nor the hard work and dedication of many men and women who labor hard to make this beautiful gathering of leaders possible.
Overall it was a very good, diverse and encouraging National Prayer Breakfast (Washington DC, February 6th – 9th), and in tune with its historic purpose: to lift up the name of Jesus in the presence of the world leaders.
This was the 66th National Prayer Breakfast (NPB), and no doubt many good people, committed to the cause have spent many laborious months putting this annual mega-event together for the enjoyment of the hundreds of international guests and about 3000 American participants.
To understand the intentions and workings of the National Prayer Breakfast one needs to taste more than just the big Thursday morning event at which the President speaks. Every time NPB takes place, it is surrounded by a number of international, regionally organized breakfasts, luncheons, dinners and other meetings in-between that start on Tuesday and finish on Friday during the NPB week.
The themes this time covered reconciliation, forgiveness, leadership of service, following Jesus, and praying across political divides. A number of international guests were invited to speak, share or lead a prayer. Among them were Jeannette Kagame, the wife of the Rwandan President Paul Kagame; David Beasley, Executive Director of the U.N. World Food Program; Yulia Timoshenko, former Prime Minister of Ukraine; Grace Nelson, wife of the Senator Bill Nelson; Carson Wentz, Philadelphia Eagels quarterback; Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe from Uganda; Eran Duran, the producer of the movie A New Spirit – to mention but a few whose messages captured my attention. (Keep in mind that there are number of various events taking place simultaneously, so I have missed some of the good content too.)
But the central event, the actual National Prayer Breakfast held on Thursday morning (February 8, 2018), the occasion attended by the thousands, was somewhat weak, as if put together in haste. Something was lacking.
To his credit one has to say that the message of the President Trump was more subdued this time, than the one he delivered one year ago. This time there were no verbal excesses, nor abusive or bragging comments. In fact, this was probably his most “Christian” message delivered so far. The good thing was that he did not improvise too much. He kept following the script from the beginning to the end. Most likely this was the reason why his message was somewhat monotonous and impersonal, and maybe this was also the reason why we did not witness this time the outbursts of enthusiastic applauding or endless stand-up exercises. In other words, the response of the audience was not nearly as euphoric as it was one year ago.
Many were relieved that the President Trump did not go wild with his out of control, twit-like comments, and thus they considered his speech a success. However, they ignored the real content which was dry and inappropriate because it glorified the greatness of America through the use of spiritual, Christianized language and images. So, his speech was “good” only in so far that he did not make the organizers of the event sweat in the anticipation of his unpredictable, excessive, tweet-like remarks. However, the content of his message was a far cray from a message centered in Jesus.
When I shared the link to the video of the President’s address on my Facebook page, some of my friends who did not have a luxury of attending NPB 2018 captured well what was the problem with the President’s presentation. Sometimes watching and listening from a distance helps.
One of them wrote: “He didn’t say anything I would consider “uniquely American” – but he claimed it all proved how “blessed Americans are for being American.” His remarks were a celebration of “America”. Not of prayer. Not of following Jesus. So, everyone else remains to be the second-class? But the Gospel is not about promoting “national identities” or “nations”. The examples Trump gave of goodness, faith and selflessness were good – but not unique to America alone. Followers of Jesus are not called to defend anyone’s flag. We are called to serve, protect, care for, and defend people. Not flags.”
Another friend commented: “In his speech there was not a single sentence about admitting or repenting of the national wrongs and sins. Yet those are the norms in Biblical narratives about kings, prophets and leaders. Consider Daniel, Moses, Nebuchadnezzar. Mr. Trump’s speech was a quasi-Christian speech, dominating in nationalism (America above everything else). His was not a Christian message, despite the fact that it repeatedly referred to God, and often quoted the Bible.”
While we may agree that the President’s message was free from his usual wild verbal excesses, from the beginning to the end it was a political pamphlet, a kind of mini State of the Union Address, in which he gloried in the God given American greatness, wrapped in the jargon of insincere “Christian” humility.
But one cannot preach nationalism, national greatness, and the greatness of the Gospel in one breath, and claim that through it all the name of Jesus is being lifted up. God will not accept our declarations of God’s power and glory when blended with preaching of the physical strength, toughness and exclusiveness of a nation, American or any other.
It was against this kind of idolatry that the President Abraham Lincoln spoke in his 2nd Inaugural Address on March 4, 1865. He spoke powerfully against a nation treating God as if He were their own private mascot when he said: “Each invokes His (God’s) aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces.” And this is exactly what we do when we arrogantly act as if my nation, my party, my race above all other nations, parties or races enjoys some special favors in the sight of the Almighty God.
One more thing ought to be said at the end. The exclusivity of the American nation was not a prevailing theme of the 66 National Prayer Breakfast. In fact, I do not remember any other speaker I had opportunity to listen to between Tuesday and Friday even remotely suggesting the idea.
So, the remarks of the President were out of character with the rest of this worthy international gathering of leaders. And although he did his best to be less intimidating in the choice of his words, nevertheless The President could not run away from his agenda of “making America great again”. Only this time he thought the idea would be digested easier if packaged with God.
And, while to many Americans the idea of restoring the “greatness of America” with the help of God looks like a noble plan divinely approved, to many of us international followers of Jesus the idea looks heretical and preposterous, and certainly far removed from the mission of the National Prayer Breakfast – which is to provide an opportunity for the world leaders to come closer to the Person of Jesus. For we know that the message of Jesus has nothing to do with the “national prosperity gospel”.
Read and watch the entire President’s address at NPB 2018 here.
Postscript Feb 20, 2018: I watched Donald Trump’s message delivered at the 66th National Prayer Breakfast again, couple of times, and read the script of his speech again. These are my postscript thoughts:
From the beginning to the end his speech was impregnated with the spiritualized version of a nation worship. His statements constantly shifted from giving praises to God to giving praises to the greatness of the nation, the flag, the military. His entire message assumes that America enjoys a place of unique favor in the eyes of God, as “the light unto all nations”.
A couple of statements reveal this subtle blend of the nation and God worship. One of them was: “We place our hands on our hearts as we recite the Pledge of Allegiance and proclaim we are one nation under God.” Another one was: “Today we praise God for how truly blessed we are to be American”. Although it is a blessing to be American in many ways, in the context of the current White House narrative this statement sounds more like the statement of an arrogant Pharisee recorded in the Gospels: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people…, or even like this tax collector” Luke 18:11.
There are many good, truthful and benevolent things listed in the presentation of the President about America, its people, and about God’s kindness and providence. One of them is: “Across our land we see the splendor of God’s creation. Throughout our history, we see the story of God’s providence. And in every city and town we see the Lord’s grace all around us through a million acts of kindness, courage and generosity.” However those features are just as true for many other nations in the world, and not for America alone.
Considering that the President spoke at the National Prayer Breakfast and not at a political or election rally, his presentation was lacking the features that have marked the prayers of all great Godly leaders throughout the history. The President’s message lacked in humility, repentance for the nation’s sins, and empathy for the oppressed and the otherwise disadvantaged.
For example, there was no room in his address for the refugees, immigrants, vulnerable people regularly separated from their families and deported just because they entered the US undocumented as children. Likewise, there was no word of empathy uttered for the homeless, jobless, the poor.
Moreover, it is a simply proven fact that there is more exhibited hatred and anger in the US today than two years ago. Unfortunately, all kinds of white supremacist and alt-right groups feel at home in the US today. In the light of those facts the President’s message was shallow, incomplete, one sided, and unconvincing.
On the other hand, considering the speaker this was probably the best speech he delivered to date. The President refrained from using his otherwise well known, tweet-like, wild and cynical comments, and other verbal excesses. At least he did not insult or humiliate anyone this time.