William Barber warns against ‘simplistic calls for unity,’ ‘policy sin’ at Inaugural Prayer Service

William Barber
Bishop William J. Barber II, the co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, preaches a homily as part of the Washington National Cathedral's virtual presidential inaugural prayer service on Thursday, Jan. 21, 2021. |

Bishop William J. Barber II, the co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, warned President Joe Biden and others listening to the Presidential Inaugural Prayer Service Thursday against issuing “simplistic calls for unity." The progressive leader called for repentance of “policy sin.”  

The day after the inauguration, as with past transitions of power in the United States, the Washington National Cathedral hosted the National Prayer Service, also called the Presidential Inaugural Prayer Service.

This year, the service was primarily virtual due to the pandemic, with many who sang or read scripture at the Cathedral wearing face masks and socially distanced.

Barber called for people “to choose to repent of the policy sin and to repair the breach." The NAACP leader defined a breach as "a gap in the nation between what is and how God wants things to be.”

“Transposed to our time, the breach is when we say ‘one nation, under God, indivisible with liberty and justice for all’ with our lips, while we see the rich and the poor living in two very different Americas,”  the pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, North Carolina continued.

“The breach would be knowing the only way to ensure domestic tranquility is to establish justice. It is pretending that we can address the nation’s wounds with simplistic calls for unity. That is not how we can close the breach.”

The 57-year-old preacher said that he believed the violence at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 was “the result of a long history" and a "politics of division that was cynically named ‘positive polarization’ by those who thought they could use it for their own political advantage.”

“This strategy of feeding and seeding intentional racial class division into the body politic spilled over into the inevitable violence that ideas of supremacy always produce,” added Barber.  

“If we want to come out of this jam and move forward together, we cannot accept the racial disparities and racial violence and breaches that impact black, brown, native, and Asian Americans while offering collateral damage to our poor white brothers and sisters and ultimately, our entire democracy.”  

Joe Biden
Joe Biden is sworn in as the 46th president of the United States by Chief Justice John Roberts as Jill Biden holds the Bible during the 59th Presidential Inauguration at the U.S. Capitol on January 20, 2021, in Washington, D.C.. |

Delaware State University President Tony Allen, CEO of the Presidential Inaugural Committee, said in a statement on Jan. 19 that the prayer service was an important event.

“The National Prayer Service is an important tradition for our nation and for President Biden, who has always been a man guided deeply by his faith,” stated Allen.

“The program announced today will honor the role of faith in our country and provide a moment to reflect on the unprecedented challenges we face as we enter this new American chapter of healing to beat the pandemic, build back our economy better and unify our country.”

While hosted by the National Cathedral, as with past inaugural prayer services, representatives from multiple Christian denominations and other faiths participated in the ceremony.

Many faith leaders gave prayers from different locations. Among them was Jim Wallis, the founder and former head of the evangelical social justice organization Sojourners; the Reverend Otis Moss III, senior pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago; Rabbi Sharon Brous, senior rabbi of IKAR Jewish community in Los Angeles; Jonathan Nez, president of the Navajo Nation; and Sikh American activist and author Valarie Kaur.

There were scripture readings from multiple religions, with Muslim Community Network President Debbie Almontaser reading from the Quran and transgender Rev. Paula Stone Williams reading from the Old Testament book of Isaiah.

Singer-songwriter Patti LaBelle performed the national anthem, with other musical performances by Josh Groban, the Clark Sisters and the Washington National Cathedral Choir.

The Rev. Mariann Edgar Budde, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, gave introductory remarks for the service.

“As we mark, once again, the transition of political leadership and look toward the future with resolve and hope, let these sacred texts, songs, and petitions inspire us all to seek divine guidance always, care for one another, and live according to the highest aspirations to which God calls us as individuals and a nation,” said Budde.

Since being elected president, a major theme for Biden, as seen during his inauguration, has been that of unity among Americans despite political differences. 

"My whole soul is in this: bringing America together, uniting our people, and uniting our nation. I ask every American to join me in this cause," Biden said in his inauguration speech

"Uniting to fight the common foes we face: anger, resentment, hatred, extremism, lawlessness, violence, disease, joblessness, hopelessness. With unity, we can do great things — important things." 

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