6 February 2006

Bono at the National Prayer Breakfast

Bono addressed the National Prayer Breakfast last week, showing up politicians as only a global rock star can do.  Here’s one of my favorite passages from his speech:

Look, whatever thoughts you have about God, who He is or if He
exists, most will agree that if there is a God, He has a special place
for the poor.  In fact, the poor are where God lives. 

Check Judaism.  Check Islam.  Check pretty much anyone.

mean, God may well be with us in our mansions on the hill…  I hope so. 
He may well be with us as in all manner of controversial stuff… maybe,
maybe not…  But the one thing we can all agree, all faiths and
ideologies, is that God is with the vulnerable and poor. 

is in the slums, in the cardboard boxes where the poor play house… God
is in the silence of a mother who has infected her child with a virus
that will end both their lives… God is in the cries heard under the
rubble of war… God is in the debris of wasted opportunity and lives,
and God is with us if we are with them.  “If you remove the yolk from
your midst, the pointing of the finger and speaking wickedness, and if
you give yourself to the hungry and satisfy the desire of the
afflicted, then your light will rise in darkness and your gloom with
become like midday and the Lord will continually guide you and satisfy
your desire in scorched places”

It’s not a coincidence
that in the Scriptures, poverty is mentioned more than 2,100 times. 
It’s not an accident.  That’s a lot of air time, 2,100 mentions.  [You
know, the only time Christ is judgmental is on the subject of the
poor.]   ‘As you have done it unto the least of these my brethren, you
have done it unto me.’  (Matthew 25:40).   As I say, good news to the

It occurs to me that Bono believes with all of his heart, sould, mind, and strength that we have the ability to end the sort of poverty we see in places like Africa today.  That seems so impossible that I can only describe it as the leap of faith.  As he has said to a variety of audiences, “I’m a believer in grace, not karma.”  And it’s only if you believe in a form of grace that you could have the audacity to think that we have the ability and the duty to end extreme poverty.

And it shows up these politicians each time they get near him.  In the face of Bono’s simple pleas on behalf of those who can’t get to National Prayer Breakfasts, insincerity shows its falsity, power is afflicted, and humanity incarnate shines.

He really does believe all this.  It’s much more belief than many of us can muster.  It can seem simplistic, unreal, childish.  And he takes a lot of flak for it.  But as he says, “Grace makes beauty from ugly things.”  For Bono, justice is the beautiful result of grace.

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6 Responses to “Bono at the National Prayer Breakfast”

  1. Matt Says:

    Is it really such a leap to believe that we have the ability to end such poverty? In world-historical terms, there’s been such little effort in that direction (compare U.S. expenditures on poverty aid with, for example, the budget of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars) that it seems, on the contrary, an extraordinary leap to suggest that objective limitations have anything to do with it at all. If Bono is an idealist (and he is), it is in his attending the prayer breakfast in the first place, more than in anything he said there. After all, isn’t a national prayer breakfast itself an affront to the clear-eyed perception of politics and social crises? Speaking on behalf of the poor at the breakfast is one thing. But who there is listening? For most of the attendees (today and historically, in their creeds and institutions) isn’t it precisely the view that God is with the poor, and that the poor will always be with them, that has so often naturalized a distribution of social goods that is anything but natural?

  2. PP Says:

    In response to Matt’s comment the “natural” distribution of wealth is fairly Darwinian. It goes against peoples nature and instinct to be purely altruistic. Therefore true charity comes from the creeds and institutions that cause us to move away from the grabbing hands mentality and towards the giving hands.

  3. Matt Says:

    Some belief systems encourage people to be generous rather than selfish; some even succeed to varying degrees in persuading people to be more generous than they otherwise would be. Other belief systems convince people that selfishness is natural and inevitable, even beneficial. One of the latter systems currently dominates our politics and our economic policies. Its adherents sometimes try to dignify it by associating with a scientific name, such as that of Darwin. But, as I’m sure you know, Darwin has next to nothing to say about social relations among human beings. Indeed, the whole point of his theory of natural selection is that it is incapable of analyzing events on such a narrow historical scale. So you’ll have to find another reason to believe that people are naturally selfish, regardless of the social relations which they are living. The failure of your first assertion, however, has no effect on your definition of “charity,” which seems quite sound.

  4. Nate Says:

    Quoting the above:

    After all, isn’t a national prayer breakfast itself an affront to the clear-eyed perception of politics and social crises? Speaking on behalf of the poor at the breakfast is one thing. But who there is listening? For most of the attendees (today and historically, in their creeds and institutions) isn’t it precisely the view that God is with the poor, and that the poor will always be with them, that has so often naturalized a distribution of social goods that is anything but natural?

    Why not challenge the hypocrisy of the politicians? I agree with some of your basic point, but I’m not sure why the venue seems less than ideal. Also, why is a prayer breakfast taking away from clear perception? not disagreeing (yet), just seeking to understand.

  5. Matt Says:

    I assumed the hypocrisy of politicians was a given! I should add that my aim wasn’t to point out Bono’s hypocrisy. As for the prayer breakfast, the first question to ask is, Why does this event happen? Is it because a collection of spiritual leaders gathering with politicians at a media event is a particularly good way to get things done — to, as Bono would have it, help the poor? As a student of politics, you know the answer very well: of course not. U.S. politicians showcase their religious beliefs (with few exceptions, their Protestantism, of one stripe or another) as part of their overall effort to sell their image. The spiritual leaders show up in large part to secure their own dominions by liaising with the gatekeepers of Geld, the politicians. No doubt some of the spiritual types take an interest in charity or good works or wealth redistribution, and so on, but the last great effort in the U.S. to do anything substantive about poverty (besides exacerbate it) was under L.B.J. — and there have been lots of prayer breakfasts since. (In terms of world poverty, we should also note the dark flip side of this history, that Johnson was also the man who waged ruthless and socially devastating war against the peasants of Indochina. The war on poverty, indeed.) The churches themselves have fully given up what minuscule commitments they once had to an egalitarian (or even a materially better) world civilization. (This notwithstanding the persistence of missionaries who travel all over the place doing some good works, but mainly trying to — in the best sixteenth-century fashion — convert the ignorant natives. Many of these are Protestants trying, astonishingly, to convert Catholics in Latin America and Africa — rather an old grudge to keep pushing, if you ask me. Not that Catholic soul-harvesting has earned a good name.) The most important point is that in any country, but above all in a secular liberal one that also happens to be the world hegemon, a “national prayer breakfast” is ideological in the old, textbook sense: it’s a distraction from real life, an effort to secure the consent of the people through the manipulation of images and words. “God bless America.” The sentence that ends virtually every U.S. presidential speech (and not just Bush’s speeches, either) — that is what the prayer breakfast is about. It’s like the old song: “You don’t ask any questions when God is on your side.” Bono is there because he’s making some sort of effort at reform of institutions, and some of the big guys show up at this kind of event and it gives him a platform to, as you say, show up the politicos. And as far as I’m concerned, the more often self-proclaimed “Christians” are reminded of the radical demands that their religion really puts on them — of the absolute social transformation that Jesus Christ demanded — the better. But talk is cheap, even when it’s done over coffee and eggs and called “prayer.” And, if I may, Christ would be the first one to say that you just don’t get off that easily. Prayer breakfast, schmayer breakfast. Show me the money.

  6. Nate Says:

    I think Bono stood in that role. He’s there telling the politicians that they may have done something for global poverty and HIV, but it’s not enough and they won’t get off easy. You’re right: Christ wouldn’t let them off easy either.

    You’re right, talk is cheap. But we all see and know how Bono puts words behind his actions, gathering money, setting up a think-tank, meeting with world leaders (and changing their minds, sometimes), spending much of his time in Africa, taking economics seminars, and pushing ever more action. When a man like that shows up and tells the audience they need to do more, because they can and because their professed God requires it, it creates shame. And when he reminds them that many of their constituents, especially active Christians all over the spectrum, are active and holding politicians accountable, then they have further motivation.

    The vinegar’s sweetened by the honey, but it’s still got some bite.