Last Update: 05 Feb 00
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Recently, our office put together a "pot luck" lunch in honor of two of our own who are moving on to another assignment. There was lots of food and fellowship and a good time was being had by all. After a short awards-presentation ceremony for the guests of honor, the crowd began to line up around the long tables where mass quantities of food were waiting to be consumed. As those in line began to load up their plates, a single voice was heard above the moderate conversational hubbub asking for the guests' attention and silence so that a blessing could be asked for the food. The crowd fell silent, a short prayer was offered, and the assembled mass renewed their assault upon the waiting food.
Such public prayers, of course, are not an uncommon or unusual thing and few people think twice about them. Even those of us who are not religious will normally be respectful of the ceremony. What moved me to write this essay, however, was not the prayer itself, but a thought that struck me as the final sentence of the prayer was spoken. That sentence (again, not an uncommon one) was "In Jesus' name we pray".
The thought that struck me was a realization that such a sentence seems to make a huge assumption about the crowd. The assumption is that all members of the crowd pray to Jesus -- or, in fact, that they pray to any deity at all. Of the three major Yahvistic religions (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam), only Christians pray to Jesus. Muslims, in fact, would consider praying to Jesus (or any deity other than Allah/God) to be a serious heresy. Anyone who is not an adherent of any of those religions may not wish to be asked to pray to a deity whom they do not worship. Admittedly, the majority of the assembled crowd was likely to be Christian, but does that justify a seeming disregard for the beliefs of the others?
Any public prayer which invokes a specific deity by name would have the same problem. Of course, any attempt to squelch public prayer entirely would not be acceptable, either. So, what's the best solution?
I feel that the best solution starts with understanding that prayers do not have to be spoken aloud in order to be offered. Therefore, why not ask for a moment of silence from the crowd so that each person in attendance can have the opportunity to offer thanks, prayers or contemplation each in their own way? This way, everybody can do what their own beliefs demand -- or they could do nothing at all and not feel as though others might be imposing their own beliefs upon them -- and there will be no potential conflicts affecting those whose personal beliefs are not in the majority.
What about those who might feel that no ceremony at all is necessary prior to attacking the food tables? Observing a moment of silence should present little, if any, problem for them. There are few people who can't benefit in some way from taking a moment to reflect upon themselves, their lives, and their friends. At worst, they'll just eat a moment later than they otherwise would have. Speaking as one of those who feel no need for such ceremonies, I can say that a requested moment of silence is no problem. I'd even go so far as to say that it could be a good thing to observe.
As a side note in closing, one of the great television commercials of the past year was a Snickers commercial which takes place in a pre-game football locker room. The coach tells the players that they must be "more politically-correct with the team prayer". He then proceeds to introduce a long line of priests, rabbis, shamans, monks and other assorted clerics who each offer their own prayer for the team's success. While this leads to a very funny commercial in which we hear the announcing asking "Not going anywhere for a while?", one can't help but think that the situation would easily have been avoided by the coach asking for a generic moment of silence rather than offering deity- or religion-specific prayers. That probably wouldn't have sold very many Snickers bars, though...
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