National Prayer Breakfast is normally a time for reaffirming
spiritual truths and testifying to the power of faith in
people’s individual lives, but not so much a moment for
prophetic and controversial social utterances. There have been
exceptions – when Sen. Mark Hatfield spoke courageously about
the moral "shame" of the Vietnam War in the presence of Richard
Nixon and Henry Kissinger (I know a lot about that prayer
breakfast speech because I helped write it when I was a
seminarian in Chicago); when Mother Theresa spoke about the
sacredness of life and raised the issue of abortion with the
Clintons on hand; and yesterday, when Bono spoke like a
modern-day prophet about extreme global poverty and pandemic
disease and called upon the American government, with George
Bush and Congressional leaders present, to do much more.
The speech, published below, was the most explicit about
religion and the role of faith that I had ever heard Bono
deliver, and his insistence on the biblical requirements of
justice and not just charity was reiterated over and over again.
In a small session with religious editors afterward, Bono spoke
about how the churches had led on the issue of debt cancellation
with the Jubilee 2000 campaign, on HIV/AIDS, and now on global
poverty reduction. "You’re the bigger crowd," he said, "much
more than my stadium audiences." He said the church will just
hear "fanfare" from musicians.
But Bono is offering far more than fanfare, as his talk below
demonstrates. To the religious editors he stressed how the
justice issue is "really it," and said that the churches had to
figure out how to make that clear to people and that "movement
is the way" we will finally succeed. Bono said he believed that
something is moving now and we have to create the momentum to
accomplish our goals. On the way to the car afterward, we spoke
together about how really crucial that movement building is, how
nothing else will suffice to make the changes in our world that
are so vitally and morally necessary, and how the strategy in
the religious community is so key. We also talked about the
Isaiah 58 passage he had quoted in his speech – that when we
respond to the poor as the prophet instructs, "God will cover
your back." This is one speech you will want to read and pass on
to your friends.
I did, and I do…
you’re wondering what I’m doing here, at a prayer
breakfast, well, so am I. I’m
certainly not here as a man of the cloth, unless that cloth is
leather. It’s certainly not
because I’m a rock star. Which
leaves one possible explanation:
I’m here because I’ve got a messianic
it’s true. And for anyone who
knows me, it’s hardly a revelation.
I’m the first to admit that there’s something
unnatural…something unseemly…about rock stars mounting the
pulpit and preaching at presidents,
and then disappearing to their villas in the south of
France. Talk about a fish out of
water. It was weird enough when Jesse
Helms showed up at a U2 concert…but this is really weird,
know, one of the things I love about this country is its
of church and state. Although I have to
say: in inviting me here, both church and state have been
from something else completely: their mind.
President, are you sure about this?
very humbling and I will try to keep my homily brief. But be
warned – I’m Irish.
like to talk about the laws of man, here in this city where
laws are written. And I’d like to
talk about higher laws. It would be
great to assume that the one serves the other; that the laws of
serve these higher laws…but of course, they don’t
always. And I presume that, in a sense,
is why you’re here.
presume the reason for this gathering is that all of us
here – Muslims, Jews, Christians – all are searching our
souls for how to better serve our family, our community, our
nation, our God.
I am. Searching, I mean. And that, I suppose, is what led me
it’s odd, having a rock star here – but maybe it’s
odder for me than for you. You see, I
avoided religious people most of my life. Maybe it had something
to do with having a father
who was Protestant and a mother who was Catholic in a country
the line between the two was, quite literally, a battle
line. Where the line between church and
state was…well, a little blurry, and hard to
remember how my mother would bring us to chapel on Sundays…
and my father used to wait outside. One
of the things that I picked up from my father and my mother was
sense that religion often gets in the way of God.
me, at least, it got in the way. Seeing
what religious people, in the name of God, did to my native
land…and in this country, seeing God’s second-hand
car salesmen on the cable TV channels, offering indulgences for
cash…in fact, all over the world, seeing the
self-righteousness roll down like a mighty stream from certain
corners of the religious establishment…
confess, I changed the channel. I
wanted my MTV.
though I was a believer.
because I was a believer.
cynical…not about God, but about God’s
politics. (There you are,
in 1997, a couple of eccentric, septuagenarian British
went and ruined my shtick – my reproachfulness. They did it by
describing the millennium, the year
2000, as a Jubilee year, as an opportunity to cancel the chronic
debts of the world’s poorest people. They had the audacity to
renew the Lord’s
call – and were joined by Pope John Paul II, who, from an Irish
half-Catholic’s point of view, may have had a more direct
line to the Almighty.
‘Jubilee’ – why
was this year of Jubilee, this year of our Lord’s favor?
always read the scriptures, even the obscure stuff. There it was
your brother becomes poor,’ the scriptures say, ‘and
cannot maintain himself…you shall maintain
him…. You shall not lend him your
money at interest, not give him your food for
such an important idea, Jubilee, that Jesus begins his ministry
with this. Jesus is a young man, he’s met with the rabbis,
impressed everyone, people are talking.
The elders say, he’s a clever guy, this Jesus, but he
hasn’t done much…yet. He
hasn’t spoken in public before…
he does, is first words are from Isaiah: ‘The Spirit of the
Lord is upon me,’ he says, ‘because He has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.’
And Jesus proclaims the year of the Lord’s favour, the year
of Jubilee (Luke 4:18).
he was really talking about was an era of grace – and
we’re still in it.
fast-forward 2,000 years. That same
thought, grace, was made incarnate – in a movement of all kinds
of people. It wasn’t a bless-me
club… it wasn’t a holy huddle. These religious guys were
willing to get out in
the streets, get their boots dirty, wave the placards, follow
convictions with actions…making
it really hard for people like me to keep their
distance. It was amazing. I almost started to like these church
then my cynicism got another helping hand.
what Colin Powell, a five-star general, called the greatest
of them all: a tiny little virus called AIDS. And the religious
community, in large part, missed
it. The ones that didn’t
miss it could only see it as divine retribution for bad
behaviour. Even on children…even [though the] fastest growing
group of HIV infections were married, faithful
there they go again! I thought to
myself judgmentalism is back!
truth, I was wrong again. The church
was slow but the church got busy on this the leprosy of our
was on the move.
was on the move.
was on the move.
people of all kinds to work with others they had never met,
would have cared to meet…conservative church groups hanging
out with spokesmen for the gay
community, all singing off the same hymn sheet on
AIDS…soccer moms and
quarterbacks…hip-hop stars and country
stars. This is what happens when
God gets on the move: crazy stuff happens!
were seen wearing sunglasses!
Helms was seen with a ghetto blaster!
stuff. Evidence of the
breathtaking. Literally. It stopped the world in its tracks.
churches started demonstrating on debt, governments
listened – and acted. When churches
starting organising, petitioning, and even – that most unholy
of acts today, God forbid, lobbying…on AIDS and
global health, governments listened – and acted.
here today in all humility to say: you changed minds; you
policy; you changed the world.
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
the poor. In fact, the poor are where
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
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
yoke from your midst, the pointing of the finger and speaking
wickedness, and if you give yourself to the hungry and satisfy
desire of the afflicted, then your light will rise in darkness
your gloom with become like midday and the Lord will continually
guide you and satisfy your desire in scorched
not a coincidence that in the scriptures, poverty is mentioned
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 poor.
some good news for the president. After
9/11 we were told America would have no time for the world’s
poor. America would be taken up with
its own problems of safety. And
it’s true these are dangerous times, but America has not
drawn the blinds and double-locked the doors.
fact, you have doubled aid to Africa.
You have tripled funding for global health. Mr. President, your
emergency plan for AIDS relief
and support for the Global Fund – you and Congress – have
put 700,000 people onto life-saving anti-retroviral drugs and
provided 8 million bed nets to protect children from
Counterintuitive. Historic. Be very, very proud.
here’s the bad news. From charity to justice, the good news
is yet to come. There is much
more to do. There’s a gigantic
chasm between the scale of the emergency and the scale of the
finally, it’s not about charity after all, is it? It’s about
repeat that: It’s not about
charity, it’s about justice.
that’s too bad.
you’re good at charity.
Americans, like the Irish, are good at it. We like to give, and
we give a lot, even those who
can’t afford it.
justice is a higher standard. Africa
makes a fool of our idea of justice; it makes a farce of our
of equality. It mocks our pieties, it
doubts our concern, it questions our commitment.
Africans are still dying every day of a preventable, treatable
disease, for lack of drugs we can buy at any drug
store. This is not about charity,
this is about justice and equality.
Because there’s no way we can
look at what’s happening in Africa and, if we’re honest,
conclude that deep down, we really accept that Africans are
to us. Anywhere else in the world, we
wouldn’t accept it. Look at what
happened in South East Asia with the tsunami. 150,000 lives lost
to that misnomer of all
misnomers, "mother nature."
In Africa, 150,000 lives are lost every month. A tsunami every
month. And it’s a completely avoidable
It’s annoying but justice
and equality are mates. Aren’t
they? Justice always wants to hang out
with equality. And equality is a
know, think of those Jewish sheep-herders going to meet the
Pharaoh, mud on their shoes, and the Pharaoh says,
"Equal?" A preposterous
idea: rich and poor are equal? And they say,
"Yeah, ‘equal,’ that’s what it says here in
this book. We’re all made in the
image of God."
eventually the Pharaoh says, "OK, I can accept
that. I can accept the Jews – but
not the blacks."
the women. Not the gays. Not the Irish. No way,
we go with our journey of equality.
go in the pursuit of justice.
hear that call in the ONE Campaign, a growing movement of more
2 million Americans…Left and Right
together… united in the belief
that where you live should no longer determine
whether you live.
hear that call even more powerfully today, as we mourn the loss
Coretta Scott King – mother of a movement for equality, one
that changed the world but is only just getting
started. These issues are as alive as
they ever were; they just change shape and cross the
the poorest of the poor from selling their products while we
the virtues of the free market…that’s a justice
issue. Holding children to ransom for
the debts of their grandparents…that’s a justice
issue. Withholding life-saving
medicines out of deference to the Office of Patents…that’s a
while the law is what we say it is, God is not silent on the
why I say there’s the law of the land�. And then there
is a higher standard. There’s the
law of the land, and we can hire experts to write them so they
benefit us, so the laws say it’s OK to protect our
agriculture but it’s not OK for African farmers to do the
same, to earn a living?
laws of man are written, that’s what they say.
will not accept that.
won’t, at least. Will
close this morning on…very…thin…ice.
is a dangerous idea I’ve put on the table: my God vs. your
God, their God vs. our God…vs. no God. It is very easy, in
these times, to see religion
as a force for division rather than unity.
this is a town – Washington – that knows something of
the reason I am here, and the reason I keep coming back to
Washington, is because this is a town that is proving it can
together on behalf of what the scriptures call the least of
is not a Republican idea. It is not a
Democratic idea. It is not even, with
all due respect, an American idea. Nor
it is unique to any one faith.
others as you would have them do to you’ (Luke 6:30). Jesus says
is this: that one should…give away wealth out of love for
him to the near of kin and the orphans and the needy and the
wayfarer and the beggars and for the emancipation of the
captives.’ The Koran says
sayeth the Lord: ‘Bring the homeless poor into the house,
when you see the naked, cover him, then your light will break
like the dawn and your recovery will speedily spring fourth,
your Lord will be your rear guard.’ The Jewish scripture says
that. Isaiah 58 again.
is a powerful incentive: ‘The Lord will watch your
back.’ Sounds like a good deal to
me, right now.
number of years ago, I met a wise man who changed my
life. In countless ways, large and
small, I was always seeking the Lord’s blessing. I was saying,
you know, I have a new song, look
after it�. I have a family,
please look after them�. I have
this crazy idea…
this wise man said: stop.
said, stop asking God to bless what you’re doing.
involved in what God is doing – because it’s already
God, as I said, is with the poor. That,
I believe, is what God is doing.
that is what he’s calling us to do.
amazed when I first got to this country and I learned how much
churchgoers tithe. Up to 10% of
the family budget. Well, how does that
compare with the federal budget, the budget for the entire
family? How much of that goes to the
poorest people in the world? Less than
President, Congress, people of faith, people of America:
to suggest to you today that you see the flow of effective
assistance as tithing…. Which,
to be truly meaningful, will mean an additional 1% of the
federal budget tithed to the poor.
1% is not merely a number on a balance sheet.
1% is the girl in Africa who gets to go to school, thanks to
you. 1% is the AIDS patient
who gets her medicine, thanks to you. 1% is the African
entrepreneur who can start a small family business thanks to
1% is not redecorating
presidential palaces or money flowing down a rat hole. This 1%
is digging waterholes to provide clean water.
1% is a new partnership with Africa, not paternalism toward
Africa, where increased assistance flows toward improved
and initiatives with proven track records and away from
and white elephants of every description.
less than 1% now. We’re asking
for an extra 1% to change the world. to transform millions
of lives – but not just that and I
say this to the military men now – to transform the way that
they see us.
1% is national security, enlightened economic self-interest,
and a better, safer world rolled into one. Sounds to me that in
town of deals and compromises, 1% is the best bargain
goals – clean water for all; school for every child; medicine
for the afflicted, an end to extreme and senseless
poverty – these are not just any goals; they are the Millennium
Development goals, which this country supports. And they are
than that. They are the Beatitudes for a globalised
I’m very lucky. I don’t
have to sit on any budget committees.
And I certainly don’t have to sit where you do, Mr.
President. I don’t have to make
the tough choices.
can tell you this:
give 1% more is right.
It’s smart. And it’s
is a continent – Africa – being consumed by
truly believe that when the history books are written, our age
be remembered for three things: the war
on terror, the digital revolution, and what we did – or did not
to – to put the fire out in Africa.
like God, is watching what we do.
you. Thank you, America, and God bless