By now, you’ve probably seen the clip. If not, trust me, it’s odd.
Last Sunday, the 117th Congress met for the first time in 2021. As is customary, an opening prayer was offered to mark the beginning of a new year and new session. With heads bowed across the room, a man approached the microphone wearing a dark suit and white mask. Standing beneath the chiseled phrase “IN GOD WE TRUST,” he prayed an eloquent prayer that ended in an inelegant way. After repeating the words of Aaron (“The LORD bless you and keep you…”), he finished by saying, “Amen,” and after a slight pause then added, “And A-woman.”
I had to listen to it twice. Then three times. Then four. I was sure it was an SNL skit or some fake video. But it wasn’t. It sounded like something the always-awkward Michael Scott would say. Cringey. Puzzling. Out-of-Place. Odd.
The initial assumption was that he was making a kind of subversive, progressive statement. His gender-bending phrase implied a gender-bending agenda. That hypothesis was partially correct. He later said that (by adding “A-woman”) he “intended to recognize the record number of women serving in the new Congress.” True, that is a milestone worth commemorating. But his worthwhile gesture was completely lost because of his downright weird word choice.
An Amen Primer
Let’s start with the basics. The word “amen” is the English version of a Greek word that comes from a Hebrew word. It has no gender. It means “truly” or “so be it.” (Or as the Mandalorian says, “This is the way.”) It shows up in Old and New Testament songs, curses, blessings, and as a group response of affirmation. It may have been used by the patriarchs, but it is not some buzzword for the patriarchy.
Prayer is where we most often find it though. Paul punctuates several of his doxological outbursts this way. (See Romans 1:25, 9:5, 11:36). In Romans 15:33, he draws the entire letter to a close by praying for the church, “Now the God of peace be with you all. Amen.” The word “amen” here expresses a desire – “let this be so” or “may this become true.” Paul closes all his letters this way. He asks God to bless the church and ends each such request with the familiar, final plea, “let it be.”
Now some might say, “Ok, but that’s a lot of Bible for a congressman to know. You’re being too hard on the guy.” Well, that might be true if he were just a congressman. But he isn’t. Emmanuel Cleaver (the man who prayed) is not just a senator representing Missouri’s 5th district; he is also a reverend, representing the United Methodist Church. Yes, Cleaver is an ordained, seminary-trained pastor.
To be fair, Cleaver basically admitted that what he said was linguistically silly. He later referred to it as a “lighthearted pun.” But he also insisted that he was trying to make a point and that all the negative press was missing his point. But that, I think, may be the point for us to learn.
The Medium is the Message
We Baptists (and all Christians) should learn from this Methodist’s mistake. As I tell my preaching students, “Prefer clear to clever and accurate to alliterated.” Goofy wordplay does not often work the way that we hope. Religious bumper stickers and Facebook memes tend to have the opposite effect that we intend.
For instance, I once saw a t-shirt printed with the bold words, “HEAVY DRINKER” emblazoned across the chest. The small print beneath it read, “If any man thirsts, let Him come to me and drink. John 7:37.” Really?! Is that supposed to make me want to become a Christian? And who hasn’t seen the unfunny rip-off logos about “Faithbook” or “Bloodweiser.” Dare I say it, we’re not making Christianity better; we’re making t-shirts and bumper stickers worse.
Copycatting the world is either a desperate attempt to market the culture (ugh) or a smarmy attempt to mock the culture (yikes). Neither is wise or fruitful.
Cheesy Christianity appears to promote our message when it really undermines its legitimacy. There’s an old truism in communication, “The medium is the message.” Have you ever noticed that the commercial for “Billy Bob’s Used Car Mart” is loud and obnoxious while the Lexus ad right after it is elegant, sexy, and appealing? One says: “Cheap!” while the other says, “Success!” without ever using those words. The medium (that is, the way something is presented or packaged) says just as much as the words themselves. True, “what we say is more important than how we say it, but how we say it has never been more important.” And Cleaver’s “A-woman” proves my point. Maybe what he said was well-intended (to recognize the new women serving in Congress) but his approach upended that goal.
Before we castigate him for his disastrous quip, I think we must admit that some of us evangelicals have been guilty of the same. Lifeway and Mardel wouldn’t sell those t-shirts and stickers if people weren’t buying them. We must ask: is it worse to twist Christian words in a liberal way that promotes a progressive agenda or to twist them in a conservative way to promote a materialistic agenda? Is it better to be a den of leftists or a “den of thieves?” Maybe we should avoid both dens.
The Worst Part
But Cleaver’s conclusion, which got all the attention, was by far the least concerning part of his prayer. Did you listen to the whole thing? I did. I liked much of it at first. His tone was reverent. He acknowledged God’s “sacred supremacy” asking for grace, guidance, and forgiveness. But that’s where he lost me. Just before the “A-woman” remark, Cleaver said these words in his prayer:
“…We ask it in the name of the monotheistic god, Brahma, and god known by many names, (and) by many different faiths. Amen. And A-woman.”
Wow! How on earth was that not the headline: “PASTOR PUBLICLY DENIES CORE DOCTRINE OF THE FAITH?!” Maybe I’m alone, but I’ll take a bad pun over such bad theology any day. The “A-woman” remark will amuse people, but the “god known by many names, by many different faiths” will mislead and condemn people.
I suspect that Cleaver does not represent every person connected to the UMC. But, we should pray for them. And while we’re at it, let’s pray for each other that we would “in speech…be an example to those who believe.” (1 Tim 4:12)