Dinner Highlights - 2008

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Congressman Emanuel Cleaver, II

Congressman Emanuel Cleaver, II has served in the House of Representatives since 2005 and is currently serving his third term representing the Fifth District of Missouri. He currently sits on the exclusive Financial Services Committee and the Speaker's Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming. Congressman Cleaver was an activist and pastor until 1979 when he was elected to the City Council of Kansas City, where he served three terms before he ran for, and was elected to, the office of Mayor, making history as the first African American to hold the City's highest office.

Speaking at the 7th Annual Religious Liberty Dinner in June 2009, Congressman Cleaver sparked applause from the audience when he said, "The choice to privately or publicly practice a religious belief, as well as the choice to abstain from religious beliefs, the choice to change one’s own religious beliefs, and the practicing of one’s religion is unmistakable and fundamental to human rights. Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, freedom of conscience, and freedom of religion."


I appreciate the very generous introduction and the kind invitation to share with you tonight. You are fortunate in that we were just notified just moments ago that we are going to be called back into Session. We did something today which you will probably see, read about the in news tomorrow. We set a record today. We started voting at 10:34 and ended at about 6:25. We voted on 59 different measures during that period. Prior to today the record was 25! So there are not a lot of healthy religious freedoms among the members tonight. Most of this was based on parliamentary procedure where people were just trying to keep some legislation from coming to the floor. So I apologize that this chat will be brief—I’m sorry. You’re happy, I’m sorry. [Laughter]

My daughter—I have three sons and a daughter—she went to a Catholic school. One Sunday she brought two of her classmates from St. Theresa’s Academy in Kansas City to our worship service. This was quite an event, because these two young girls had never attended a non-Catholic worship service, and certainly they had never attended a church that was predominantly African-American. So this was quite an experience for them. The two young girls were constantly asking my daughter, “Well, what does that mean? What is that? What is the cross for? What is this?” And my sermon, as I do all the time on Sunday, trying to be a little precise, I always take my watch out and set it on the podium. So the girls asked my daughter, “What does that mean?” My daughter said, “Absolutely nothing.” [Laughter]

I do think that some things I at least hope to share with you tonight will mean something. Frank and I are in different parties, but we are twins as it relates to religious freedom. I think that one of the great tragedies of this moment in our history is that our nation, this nation, has become so ideologically polarized that it paralyzes our ability to do the best for this nation; and it inhibits dealing with issues like this at a level that it demands. So I am happy to be here with you to be among some of the people who’ve been in this struggle for quite a while. I’m certainly always glad to be with Rabbi Saperstein. He and I have crossed paths, as you might expect, many, many, many times over the years.

It’s also an honor to be here to celebrate the work of the International Religious Liberty Association, Liberty magazine, the North American Religious Liberty Association, and the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Your remarkable struggle for religious liberty should be celebrated. And surely our hosts understand the plight of those persecuted for their religious beliefs, particularly in the recent wake of a report by the French inter-ministerial mission to fight against sectarian deviation calling for the changes to French law that would contest alleged abuses of sects, not sex. This report openly promotes enacting a system of reference of movements and practices showing cultish behavior, and recommends policies targeting these sects including protecting children from their parents’ beliefs. Including protecting children!

Many of us watched in horror just three weeks ago when a mother kidnapped her own son to prevent him from receiving treatment for cancer. Even though the doctors clearly stated that without treatment, this boy would surely die. But her religious beliefs prohibited her from taking medicine, so she used her religion—baptized her son with her religion—and then put his life in jeopardy.

In the face of persecution of religion in this country and around the world (and I did say in this country), it seems to me that this gathering has great significance. I hope the Seventh-day Adventists continue to stand up and speak out for freedom of conscience and religious liberty, not just for themselves, but for all the people of all faiths. Because religious freedom is a God-given gift that transcends political party, race, nationality, denomination. It is a sacred right and a matter of fundamental human dignity.

I don’t want to be a part of a religion that tells me to condemn others. I don’t want to be a part of a religion that will give me permission to oppress others. I don’t want to be a part of a religion that says, “I am superior to anybody.” That’s not the God I want to serve. And frankly, that God would be too small to be my God.

This, I think, is a principle on which our nation was founded—a God-given premise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness. Indeed, the premise of stable democracy requiring religious equality, however, supposes a shared belief by the political leadership as well as their electorate. In the United States, separation of church and state powers contributes favorably to promoting religious freedom and tolerance.

Now, in the United States we’ve got to be particularly careful about separating church from state. And I know that sounds strange coming from an ordained United Methodist pastor, with a Master’s degree in theology. But I am absolutely convinced that if we are tired of the United States progressing, all we need to do, all we can do to turn it around, is to allow my own narrow theological orthodoxy to trespass on public policy. [Applause] What I believe has no business finding its way into public policy. That, I think, would be dangerous for the survival of this nation.

Many times we have a problem with religious freedom unconsciously. For example, who would think that the H1N1 virus had implications related to religion? I’m always thinking, I’ve got it, I know. Think about this: If you’re a pig farmer in Egypt, the chances are very high you’re neither Jewish nor Muslim. (Laughter) Therefore, when the pigs are slaughtered, it means that the pigs belonging to the Christians have been slaughtered.

Now, in the New Testament we have a story about a Jewish guy by the name of Jesus. My grandmother—boy, she lived a long time, and she was a fabulous person—my grandmother almost hit me. I think she was in her 80s then, and we were sitting around the Christmas dinner table. I’m holding court with my family. We’re talking religion and theology and Bible. And I said, “Of course Jesus was a Jew.” And my grandmother looked at me and said, “If you say that one more time…” She says, “Everybody knows Jesus was a Christian!” [Laughter]

But we’re told that, in my religious tradition we report that Jesus goes into a local community and there is a man who is by today’s standards considered insane. Two thousand years ago he was diagnosed as being possessed by demons. To do the Reader’s Digest version, Jesus and His disciples show up. The guy is on a mountaintop. He’s cutting himself, he’s screaming, the chamber of commerce is upset because people don’t want to come to town. The word’s been out in all the newspapers. The Jerusalem Post has reported that there’s this crazy guy who runs around cutting himself. People are afraid. And he’s hanging out in the cemetery.

So Jesus, as He usually does, interrogates the man, asks the man his name. And he says, “I’m legion.” Well, his name wasn’t Legion. But the—if you delve into it—a Roman legion consisted of 6,000 troops. So the man was saying, “There are many of me, about 6,000 of me at least.” And then the story reports that Jesus then cast the demons out into 3,000 pigs. That’s two demons per pig—is that right? [Laughter] So then the pigs, according to the New Testament, jump off the mountain and kill themselves, mass suicide.

And then the surprising part of the story comes when the townspeople come to the cemetery and see the man. The Bible says he’s “clothed and in his right mind.” So you think they’re going to have a banquet now and give this guy Jesus an award? “You’re the man of the year, you’ve changed the image of the community, got rid of this man who’s crazy.” But they asked him to leave. “Get out of town, we don’t want you here!” Well, why? The pigs belong to them. They own the pigs.

And that’s what happens today when the pigs are killed in Egypt. They belong to somebody. Pigs always belong to somebody. And so we end up having a problem because not all of the oppression of religion is being committed with great intentionality. A lot of it is, we just don’t think!

To show you we’ve got a lot of work to do, when I was sworn in as mayor of Kansas City, it was a weird kind of thing. We had a huge turnout for the inauguration (not as big as the one we just had here). We had probably never had over 200 people, and at my inauguration we had about 8,000 that showed up. So I’m the first African American, and then I’m sworn in by my closest friend who’s a federal judge, with one hand on the Bible and my lifelong friend Michael Zedek (?), who was a rabbi at Temple B’nai Jehudah at the time. So I’m being sworn in with two sacred books, trying to demonstrate the connection that the two religions have. They are two of the three monotheistic religions in the world, and there’s a connection. And I’m always amazed when people say, “Is he a Jewish rabbi?” No, he’s a Presbyterian rabbi.” [Laughter]

We’re making progress, I think. There’s no question about it. Look in this room and you can tell, we’re making progress. The point is, we need to make more! We need to continue the struggle that we’re in the middle of today. In many cases religious belief is exploited by governments fearful of losing control and actively exercising power. Perhaps a timely and potent example is the one I just shared. Our president has made important strides in his foreign policy. Most recently in Cairo the president sought a new beginning between the United States and Muslims, one, and I quote, “based upon mutual interest and mutual respect, and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive and need not be in competition. Instead, they overlap and share common principles—principles of justice and progress, tolerance, and the dignity of all human beings,” unquote.

Forging a relationship based on commonalities, not differences, is a unifying force between people of dissimilar beliefs. We are all different. And that is the beauty of this world God has given us—that we’re different. Just think about how boring the world would be if everyone was like you! [Laughter] Now, I’m not trying to be personal; I don’t know anything about any of you. You do, though. And the greatness, the grandeur of this world is that we’re different. And so we can enjoy and celebrate each other and learn about each other.

I just had the privilege of preaching in an Episcopalian church in Havana. I was told before I went that, you know, there’s a religious suppression of the people there. Of course the best thing that happened while I was preaching is that the Methodist church down the street turned out early so they could come and hear me. Which was about right for Methodists since they can only do about an hour in church, and the Episcopalians can only do 45 minutes. [Laughter] So we had to struggle to make sure that everybody understood that I was not going to shorten my sermon.

But the point I wanted to make is that I had an opportunity to talk to pastors. Right in the middle of Havana, the ministers have built a monument in the middle of Havana to Martin Luther King Jr. We were there on April 4, the anniversary of his assassination. We had this massive march downtown in Havana. Not in Washington, Havana, with clergy from all of the churches in Havana. It was an amazing experience. So I constantly talk to them, you know, “Can you worship in freedom?” “Absolutely,” they said. “Now, did anybody try to get you to change your sermon?” No. And then I came back, and a radio commentator said that during my sermon, because I had an interpreter, that they were saying something other than what I was saying. Now, this commentator wasn’t there, and didn’t bother to know that the interpreter was from Washington! [Laughter]

We don’t need to create enemies to make ourselves feel better. Any place where human beings are able to practice religion, it calls for celebration! I mean, why do I need to have an enemy? That’s what’s going on in our world today. People are looking for enemies. Let us look for commonalities.

One of the things that I love is when members of Congress are allowed, of course, to bring their children on the floor. Every time I see someone who in my head I’ve decided is a mean person, with their children, it always causes me to do a reevaluation. And I always think, Actually, he’s just like me. She’s just like me. If we look at commonalities, there is absolutely no limit to the beauty we can create, the great religious bouquet that we can craft. And I am convinced that that’s what God wants. [Applause]

I don’t understand how anybody can be a part of a religion and not get something out of it. One Sunday after I had delivered a powerful and very meaningful and profound sermon [Laughter], I did what I do every Sunday, which is to go back in my office. All the little kids come in, and I keep candy and stuff, and so I’m giving the candy. And there’s one little boy who is just kind of hanging around, so I could tell he wanted to talk to me. After most of the people left, I went over and I said, “Did you want to say something to me?” And he said, “Yes, Rev.” And I said, “What is it?” And he said, “How much did you get?” And he looked around like, you know, this is big secret stuff. And I said, “What do you mean?” And I’m thinking, Your parents should have taught you, you don’t ask people how much salary they earn, even at the church! And so he said, “No, no, no, Rev. How much did you get?” And I don’t get it. “What are you talking about?” He said, “You know, when they pass that little plate around filled with money, how much did you get out?” He said, “I got ten today! Here, see?” [Laughter] I said, “No, Billy, that’s not the way it’s supposed to work.” And then I thought about it. I thought, This guy, maybe eight years old, is really profound. ‘Cause any time you have a religious experience, you ought to get something out of it! [Applause]

If we believe in whatever we believe in, it means we ought to get something out of it! We can’t have a faith that doesn’t give us anything. If we can’t take anything from it, we ought to leave from it! All religions are valuable. All religions can help make this world what it ought to be. And that is my commitment. The International Religious Freedom Caucus, of which I am co-founder, has an aim of advocating for those persecuted around the world for their religious beliefs. We do meetings, public briefings, and round-table discussions. We just had one a few weeks ago. We meet with religious leaders from all backgrounds to gain further insight into the atrocities being committed around the world. The International Religious Freedom Caucus sends an unmistakable message to the world at large:

The choice to privately or publicly practice a religious belief, as well as the choice to abstain from religious beliefs, the choice to change one’s own religious beliefs, and the practicing of one’s religion is unmistakable and fundamental to human rights. Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, freedom of conscience, and freedom of religion. [Applause] But prosecutions and persecutions are still taking place.

I played football in high school and college. In fact, I got a football scholarship, went off to college with a goal of playing professional football, not thinking anything about English or math. My goal was football, and if I learned a little math along the way, like “hup one, hup two, hup three” then that would be fine. But the Vietnam war was raging, and I was out playing football at Murray State.

Well, I came home at the Christmas break. Football season had ended. And many of my teammates were over at my parents’ home. Everybody’s sitting around, lying, of course, about all the girls who were chasing them and how great their first year in football was. And then we looked and saw Leonard, who was our wide receiver in high school and also the shooting guard on our basketball team, walking up the sidewalk, so we ran out and greeted him. Leonard didn’t go to college, he had some issues. So he and another friend of ours had joined (and some of you guys will probably remember this, if you’re from the Vietnam era), they always called it “the buddy system” where two individuals, if they joined the military at the same time, they would be guaranteed that they would remain together during their entire stay.

So after we were all sitting around for a while, somebody raised a question. “Leonard, where’s Henry?” And I can remember—I was sitting on the sofa right in front of him—and when he dropped his head I knew something was wrong. And then he began to tell us. He said they were not far from Saigon and they were caught in a crossfire. The lieutenant told them all to get into this crater where they would fight until they could radio for air support. Leonard runs to the crater and gets down, and he looks out, and there’s Henry standing with is rifle in his arms and bleeding from almost every part of his body. Leonard had been with Henry since day one, and now Henry is standing. And as Leonard described it, Henry’s eyes are opening and shutting. Leonard of course tried to get out to go get Henry. The sergeant told him to get back in. He said, “Look, you can see that Henry’s already dead. He standing, but he’s not going to survive this.”

Leonard, Henry and I grew up in the projects, federally subsidized public housing together, and Leonard couldn’t allow Henry to remain there. So ignoring orders from the sergeant and even the lieutenant, he jumps out of the crater and crawls over to where Henry has fallen. And Henry is bleeding everywhere except in the head. When Leonard reaches him, he puts his hand under his head and he says, “Hold on, Henry, I’m gonna get you back.” And Henry said, “No, no, no. But I just want you to know, Leonard, when I fell down I knew you’d come.”

One of the things that I hope is that the men and women who are struggling around the world and even here at home, trying to practice what they believe, that they will be able to say of those of us here tonight and those of us who share our hopes and dreams, “We knew you’d come. We knew that you would come.” Thank you.