I am an atheist--albeit a Bible-reading, theology-obsessed atheist.
I rejoiced when in his address yesterday Obama said that the strength of this nation is its patchwork of cultures and beliefs, including those of atheists and agnostics.
But I was also very moved by many of the Christian images and metaphors used throughout yesterday's inauguration, despite my usual concerns about the blurring of the separation of church and state.
Every time I read Obama's words or listen to him speak, I am conscious of how intensely he seeks to live ethically. He seems to recognize that the support he personally gets from the African American Christian tradition can be provided for others by a myriad of other religious faiths and non-religious philosophies. I don't mean he does not find ultimate truth in his own beliefs and practices--just that he recognizes that that "truth" has many voices.
Many ethical traditions have tried to address the difficult fit between two competing values: justice and mercy. Faiths often imagine God as a representative of one or the other, or both. Within my own tradition of Judaism, we say the Avinu Malkeinu prayer calling on both emanations of God: the Merciful Parent, and the Ruler of Strict Justice. Many other philosophies and religions call upon humans to live up to these values as well.
Christianity within the white community often tends to emphasize the characteristics of humility and mercy a little more heavily. African American Christianity, on the other hand, often places a greater emphasis on justice and images from the Old Testament.
Although of course both traditions discuss both values, this difference was even seen to a degree yesterday. The conservative white Rick Warren spent much of his prayer praising God for being loving to all and asking God for continued forgiveness and mercy. The progressive black Joseph Lowery, on the other hand, asked for God to inspire humans to work toward a more just world.
Fundamentally, the deep link between justice and love seemed to be at the core of the entire inauguration ceremony.
Poet Elizabeth Alexander talked subtly about America's long history of injustice. She spoke of the "thorn and din" of noise that happens as we speak with the history of "each one of our ancestors on our tongues." We think not of what is just or what is right. Instead we think of our struggles: what profoundly divides us, or even just what we have to do just to get through the everyday.
She, following the long tradition of Christians and non-Christians, sees love as the strongest weapon against evil. "What if the mightiest word is love?" she writes. The "love with no need to preempt grievance" is not all-forgiving. Love does not deny injustice. Instead, it is the highest form of justice, and one shaped by something deeper than laws.
Alexander, I think, is taking her image from Corinthians 13: "If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal."
This specific Bible verse continues, "'Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. '"
Lowery drew on exactly this text: "And now, Lord, in the complex arena of human relations, help us to make choices on the side of love, not hate; on the side of inclusion, not exclusion; tolerance, not intolerance," he said. (Yes--love is a theme of much of the New Testament, but these lines of Lowery's are more clearly linked to this particular passage than any other I can think of.)
Interestingly, Obama was also quoting Corinthians 13 when he talked about putting away childish things.
Obama said explicitly that it is merciful love which will lead us forward: "It is the kindness to take in a stranger when the levees break, the selflessness of workers who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose their job which sees us through our darkest hours. It is the firefighter's courage to storm a stairway filled with smoke, but also a parent's willingness to nurture a child, that finally decides our fate."
It is love, in its expression through justice and in its expression through mercy, that holds the power to transform. It is agape that can lead us to a better world.
Reverend Lowery ended the celebration with this call to both sides of this our better nature: "Let all those who do justice and love mercy say amen."
Lowery: "Say amen!"
Lowery: "And amen!"
Now that is an amen an atheist can believe in.