The Grief Ritual of American Civic Religion
I didn’t watch the Sandy Hook Interfaith Prayer Vigil when it took place, because I already knew what it would be. It was predictable. It would be the grief ritual of American civic religion. There would be clergy from different Christian confessions as well as those from other religions such as Judaism and Islam. Many of them would be in some form of liturgical vestments. There would be an opening address which would emphasize the unity of the different participants as they gathered together to grieve and support one another. There would be readings from the Bible and the sacred texts of the other religions present. There would be brief homilies based on those texts and prayers that sounded more like homilies. There would be comforting religious songs. Civic leaders would speak along with the religious figures, and in this case I had already heard that President Obama would speak. There would be some kind of closing benediction. You could bank on it.
Of course, at the time I didn’t know that a LCMS clergy member would be taking part and that it would become a topic of discussion in both synodical and national circles. After seeing much of the discussion during the last few days, I have watched it on You Tube, and it turns out that I was pretty much dead on. I suppose there really weren’t any religious songs, but there was chanting in Hebrew and Arabic by a Jew and a Muslim.
In the discussion that has taken place thus far, I believe that a crucial category has been missing in the analysis of this event and what we should learn from it as we move forward as a synod. That category is ritual. Ritual is a central part of the human experience that helps to shape and reinforce the beliefs of a culture (and of course of religions) in individuals. Ritual facilitates times of transition. It is also very important for promoting a sense of well being during times of crisis and grief.
What took place in the setting of Sandy Hook was the grief ritual of American civic religion. As Mollie Hemingway has nicely summarized the issue in her recent post (“Covering opposition to syncretism in a syncretized world”; http://www.patheos.com/blogs/getreligion/2013/02/explaining-opposition-to-syncretism-in-a-syncretized-world/), “Civil religion has many components but one aspect is that it rather tries to transcend all religions while including them. All religions and all gods are to be equally tolerated, honored and respected everywhere. One of the most important aspects of American civil religion is participation in interfaith — or syncretistic — worship services.” One can go beyond this and observe that in our pluralistic, post-modern religious culture all religions are treated as if they are merely alternate ways to the same divine reality. In a world where every religious view is permitted and honored, the one thing that is anathema is to say that one religion is the only way to salvation.
The grief ritual of American civic religion is a religious service. There really should be no need to establish its religious character. After all it focuses upon religious leaders in their liturgical vestments reading sacred texts and praying to the God/gods presented in those texts. As a religious ritual, it is also a service. It is a corporate, organized whole with an opening, a body, and a closing. This fact is readily apparent to the uninvolved observer. Thus the recent piece in the New York Times was entitled “Pastor Apologizes to His Denomination for Role in Sandy Hook Interfaith Service” (emphasis added) and went on to call it an “interfaith prayer service” (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/08/nyregion/lutheran-pastor-explains-role-in-sandy-hook-interfaithservice.html?nl=todaysheadlines&emc=edit_th_20130208&_r=0).