Take a 52 seconds to watch this video, if you haven't already.
Here’s the background, according to MSN: “Roy Costner IV wrote a speech for his graduation, submitted it to the school for approval and was prepared to read it to the crowd on Saturday afternoon. But the South Carolina valedictorian stunned everyone when he tore up his prepared words and recited the Lord's Prayer instead….Costner was reportedly protesting the school district's decision not to include prayers at this year's graduation ceremonies.”
From the cheers of the crowds to the MSN comments to the multiple times I’ve seen this video posted on Facebook, the response to this has been pretty universally positive. Except for those angry atheists who probably convinced the school district to remove prayer in the first place.
Well, in honor of Be a Heretic Monday, I’m going to join the angry atheists for a while here. Except without the “angry” or “atheist” part.
Let me explain. I am a Christian, and one who believes strongly that public expressions of faith are beneficial for our country (even though I think the claim that we’re a “Christian nation” is kind of sagging for lack of evidence). The Lord’s Prayer is actually one of my favorite passages of Scripture, because it has a beauty that comes from truth put simply.
But I still have a hard time knowing how to respond to the graduation speech video.
Because what if the student had recited a traditional Buddhist hymn? Or a passage from the Koran? Or even the creed of some obscure Satanic cult he belonged to?
Would the Christian reaction to the speech be the same in those cases? Would we still applaud a student for having the courage to take a stand for his religious beliefs when we don’t share those beliefs?
I don’t know, exactly. This is one issue that I’m extremely hesitant to make firm conclusions on yet. So here are some thoughts, along with some related questions that I’m going to start thinking about. In case you haven’t figured this out, I’m very open to changing my mind about them and would love to hear different perspectives.
Thought One: I think a valedictorian at a public high school graduation should be able to express religious beliefs. It’s silly to say you can quote Ghandi or Martin Luther King but not Jesus. If everyone was forced to participate in a group prayer, that’s one thing. Letting an important area of your life (your faith) inform a speech is quite another. To me, the difference between the government establishing a state religion, or even officially endorsing one, and letting an individual express his religious views is pretty clear. That being said, I can remember being uncomfortable and annoyed when speakers have articulated a religious opinion different than my own. It’s hard not to have a double standard on this one.
Question: How should we, as Christians, react when others use their freedom of speech to respectfully articulate philosophies that we strongly disagree with?
Thought Two: When it comes to the prayers that are still allowed at graduations, I wonder how much God is honored by generic public-school-approved prayers anyway. There is a place, I think, for prayer in a public setting, even a mostly secular setting, particularly if it is said by a person who truly believes the words he’s saying. But sometimes I think “official” prayers mean about as much as the rhyming sing-song “blessings” I’ve heard kids recite before snacktime in state-funded daycares. On the other hand, we are at least acknowledging God in both of those cases, which has to mean something.
Question: When it comes to prayer, is it the thought that counts, not necessarily the depth of theology in the prayer or the faith of everyone listening?
Thought Three: Another nagging problem is the fact that, in the Lord’s Prayer case, the valedictorian was told to present a speech to be pre-approved by the school. And then he abandoned that and did what he was told not to do anyway. A Christian’s relationship to authority can sometimes be a tricky one to navigate, but alarms go off in my head whenever there seems to be deception and disrespect involved. There are hints of that in this case, I think.
Christians are commanded to obey the governing authorities in everything except something that would violate commands from God. Many who thing this graduation speech was an act of heroism cite Acts 5:29, “We must obey God rather than man,” a statement made by Peter to the religious censorship board of the day (Jewish authorities) when they commanded him and the other apostles not to preach in the name of Jesus. I can certainly see parallels here with atheist groups banning prayer in graduation speeches. However, there is also a difference between banning all evangelism and banning prayer at a public school event.
And imagine this with me for a moment: what if Peter had said instead, “Okay, I won’t preach about Jesus. Here’s a list of the things I’ll talk about. Mostly ethics and inspiration and stuff.” The Jewish authorities would have signed off on that. And then Peter runs off and starts preaching in the synagogue, ripping up his scroll of good, bland Jewish ethics, and preaching about the death and resurrection of Jesus anyway. Haha! Gotcha.
Good theatrics, sure. Good theology? I’m not convinced. I say, if you’re going to take a stand, take it from the very beginning instead of playing a bait-and-switch game with the school authorities. If this kid had talked to his school officials about the importance of his faith to him, and the way that acknowledging religious heritage really isn’t going against freedom of religion at all, we wouldn’t have had a dramatic story. But I wonder if that might have been a more responsible course of action. Can God honor little stands like that just as much as the viral video ones? Yep. I think so.
Question: How far does the government have to go in order to violate the “unless it goes against a command of God” clause in the Christian view of obeying authority?
So, there are some thoughts and some questions. Feel free to add your thoughts or questions to the comments section.
I’m not going to pretend this one is easy, people. And maybe oversimplifying these things is a mistake we make too often in the Christian community anyway. So let's talk about it.