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Friday, October 6, 2017

Saying Grace–A Metaphor For National Unity

Laura Brown grew up in a religious family.  Neither evangelical, fundamentalist, Opus Dei, or Hasidic but simple believers in God, his generosity, forgiveness, and divine care.
At every meal, the family bowed their heads while Laura or one of her brothers and sisters  said grace.
Bless us, Oh Lord,
and these thy gifts which
we are about to receive from thy bounty,
through Christ, Our Lord.
Amen.
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A simple prayer of thanksgiving, a statement of faith, an acknowledgment that both they and the food on the table were gifts, a blessing from God.  Gifts, however, can be taken away; and saying grace was both an expression of gratefulness for God’s attention and an implicit promise to honor and respect him.

After a while the prayer became so routine that it was simply part of the meal, but it’s meaning was never ignored.  It was a salutation, an introduction, and a short note of spiritual purpose and belonging; and no matter how often it was repeated, neither Laura nor her family could ever entirely dismiss it.

Laura’s less religious friends were uncomfortable when the family said grace, and Laura even more so.  No matter how much she believed in God and the place of grace at the table, she could not help feel their unspoken criticism. To them saying grace was a cultural throwback, a Norman Rockwell moment, something out of America’s rural, farmland past; but irrelevant to the intensely secular, complex, multicultural world of New Brighton.   

The Catholic Church, the most traditional of all Christian denominations, has simplified its liturgy, removed medieval-sounding refrains, and become more approachable.

Vatican II convened by Pope John XXIII and closed by Pope Paul VI instituted radical changes in the Catholic Mass.  Latin was to be replaced by vernacular languages; the officiating priest was to face the congregation, not the altar and the cross; a progressive disuse of ornate clerical regalia; and the revision of Eucharistic prayers.

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Prayer in the Catholic Church has always been central to the faith, but in a formal way, always spoken within the context of tradition.  The Rosary, for example, a practiced repetition of a single prayer recited for centuries, was central to Catholic veneration and still is.  Nevertheless, however configured or modified, Catholic prayer is a unique way of expressing belief; and by its repetitive, liturgical nature, a way of participating in the community of believers.

Prayer in Protestantism, especially in its more fundamental and charismatic branches, was seen differently.  It was never formulaic or traditional but always as personal as the faithful’s intimate relationship with Jesus Christ.  Prayer was central to devotion, an expression of love, obedience, supplication, and hope of salvation.  For the most religious, prayer was not restricted to church, to grace, or to bedtime.  It was frequent, normal, and circumstantial. 

Laura’s secular friends had no idea of the centrality of prayer in the life of the faithful and could never appreciate grace.  For them it was an interruption, an intrusion of belief at best, and an impolite imposition of a strange ritual at a normally purely social occasion.

They could never understand why saying grace was so important.  For Laura’s family grace was never an imposition but a privilege.  Praying at the table not only joined the family together, but joined them in the larger communion of believers.  There was a unity in faith, and although they did not attend church and were as suspicious of the megachurch revivals organized to physically unite the faithful as their secular friends, they felt that their simple family prayers were even closer to Christ’s ideal than any more public, mass expressions of belief.
 
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It is this sense of community, reflected in the universal recitation of grace, which is relevant to secular society. 

The fact that America is divided, fractious, and angry;  that identity groups increasingly and often violently demand their rights; and that consideration of the commonweal and respect for national integrity have become secondary is no longer news.  In fact, the most common adjective to describe the country and its current state of affairs is ‘divided’.   Yet despite the lament, few are willing to give up their demands.

Not so many decades ago, Americans did espouse a universal ethos – in fact that written into the Bill of Rights by Thomas Jefferson and his colleagues.  Americans were granted the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness by their Creator; and were therefore both fortunate for the gift, and responsible for its stewardship.  The pursuit of happiness never meant the right to individual satisfaction per se but only within the context of the larger community of which the individual was a part. 

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No activity therefore could be excluded from the framework of God the Creator and Man the Executor.  Jefferson of course never had the imposition of any religion in mind when he wrote those words; but only that a good citizen should be mindful of his origins and his responsibilities to himself, his community, and his nation.

A universal belief in God, and in the case of 18th century America, a Christian God, was central to the new republic.  The values, traditions, and expectations of Christianity were commonly recognized and respected.  There was more to being an American than just being an individualist, an entrepreneur, or a free citizen. Americans from one end of the continent to the other subscribed to the same principles, adhered to the same beliefs, and acted according to the same code.

More or less, of course.  America has also been a lawless place of Robber Barons, Wild West cattle thieves, Wall Street manipulators, dirty politics, and greed.

Yet it has been because of a disrespect for this common, universal code of right behavior and  justice that the country has veered from its Jeffersonian beginnings.  There might have been no way for the ethos to have survived periods of great opportunity, the chance for great wealth, land, and property.  Erosion of common values might be the inevitable by-product of individualism and individual enterprise.

The erosion of this national ethos, or national philosophical culture, has been accelerated not because of increased immigration and the introduction of cultures and beliefs far removed from our early Christian heritage, but because these cultural identities have been given a special, unique status never before seen in America.  In previous decades of immigration to America, new arrivals were expected to quickly assimilate – to speak English, to respect not only the laws of the land but its traditions and values, and to become as American as those born here.   Not so now.

The movement for racial justice, begun in the Sixties through a coalition of white and black Americans dedicated to integration not separatism, has become fractured and militant.  What was a progressive assumption of black Americans into the white mainstream through equal opportunity, education, and moral and social responsibility, is now a confrontational affair.  Black identity has been valued over American identity, and the cause of true integration has been set back decades.

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“America is not a Christian country!” has been the slogan of advocates of progressive multiculturalism.  According to them, no country with significant proportions of foreign-born, many espousing other religions, cannot possibly be Christian.

However recent polls suggest that while drifting down, the percentage of Americans who say they are Christian remains close to 75 percent. 

More importantly, however, is that within a generation even those who are neither Christian, nor white European descendants, become very American and indistinguishable from anyone else.  They have come to America for opportunity and advantage; and have left poverty, oppression and civil disorder behind.  Even more than a Jeffersonian ethic, America is about economic and social opportunity; and it still makes good on those promises.

The cultural ‘Christian’ ethos still prevails because it is no different than that of other religions.  The Ten Commandments are universal, and Christian precepts about community, love, respect, and tolerance are common, in one form or another, to all religions.

Yet the economic ethos is progressively replacing the cultural one which is becoming eroded quickly.  The country is now one of fractious identity groups all demanding a greater share of the pie with little thought to any consequences. 

Is it too late to reverse course? To encourage commonality rather than identity?  The commonweal rather than individual interests? A renewed belief in and respect for ‘Christian’ values which have been the foundation of civilization long before Jesus Christ.

Cato the Elder was a Roman statesman and educator who prepared a curriculum for future leaders of the Empire.  It was based on honor, courage, respect, decency, compassion, honesty, and responsibility as much as on political philosophy and principles of governance.  Ancient Greece, China, Persia, and India relied on these values to ensure the social integrity if not harmony.

Image result for images cato the elder

Saying grace is a metaphor for the same code of honor taught by Cato the Elder and reiterated by Jefferson.  We enjoy God-given rights, gifts from our Creator, and owe him and and those living under his guidance, consideration and respect.

The metaphor should not be taken too literally.  Non-believers as well as the faithful can say this metaphorical grace; and by so doing commit themselves to something more than their own, personal, individual aspirations. 


At its most general, grace is simply a way of becoming more committed to universal values, and through the profession of this commitment, engaging others.  Not quite a radical movement by today’s standards, but a movement nonetheless. 

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