Biden, former presidents urge Americans to forgive and unite at National Prayer Breakfast

Former Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter called for unity and forgiveness during the National Prayer Breakfast. Donald Trump was notably absent.

People from around the globe recite the Lord’s Prayer during the the 2021 National Prayer Breakfast. Video screengrab

(RNS) — The message of the 2021 National Prayer Breakfast can be summed up in the title of a book by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Nobel Prize-winning South African cleric: “No Future Without Forgiveness.”

Indeed, Andrew Young, civil rights leader and former ambassador to the United Nations, referenced the title of the book in his prerecorded message during this year’s National Prayer Breakfast Thursday morning (Feb. 4). The theme came up again and again at the virtual event.

Despite the nation’s past struggles, prayer and forgiveness can help Americans find a way forward, Young argued.

Young, a longtime participant in the National Prayer Breakfast and in congressional prayer events, said praying with other leaders led him to form friendships with those he disagreed with.

“Our prayers were always confession — we talked about our needs,” he said. “We prayed for each other and we became friends.”

He cited the words of Jesus in the Lord’s Prayer — which was recited earlier in the virtual prayer breakfast by participants around the world, from Kenya and Russia to Fiji and Costa Rica.

That prayer, Young said, links a person’s forgiveness to the person’s ability to forgive others. That is wise advice for divided Americans to follow.

Andrew Young, civil rights leader and former ambassador to the United Nations, speaks during the the 2021 National Prayer Breakfast. Video screengrab

Andrew Young, civil rights leader and former ambassador to the United Nations, speaks during the the 2021 National Prayer Breakfast. Video screengrab

“We are commanded, we are advised and we must find a pathway to unity, and that path is the path of forgiveness,” he said. “America has sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”

RELATED: National Prayer Breakfast organizers hope prayer can unify nation in divided times

Held annually since the 1950s, the National Prayer Breakfast has been controversial in recent years, mainly because of the secretive nature of the Fellowship, the nonprofit that runs the event with help from members of Congress. Always on the first Thursday in February, the breakfast draws thousands of leaders from around the world and features a host of side events and meetings before and afterward.

This year’s event was stripped down, due to the pandemic. It featured no in-person meetings and a focused, bipartisan message of national unity and faith. Among the participants who spoke by video were three former U.S. presidents: Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and George W. Bush, who filmed messages to participants. Jimmy Carter also sent a letter that was read aloud during the meeting. Former President Donald Trump did not participate. 

Politicians who are political foes read Scripture and spoke of the power of faith.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, who like President Joe Biden is Catholic, read a passage from the Prophet Isaiah, about God’s glory and the passing nature of human power and a reminder that those who trust in God “will soar on wings like eagles.”

Sen. James Lankford, a Republican from Oklahoma, read from a passage in the New Testament Book of Second Corinthians, about the “ministry of reconciliation.” Obama cited from the same book, with a message about enduring hardship: “We are hard-pressed on all sides, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.”

Biden, in brief remarks, noted the bipartisan nature of the event and the long tradition, dating back to Dwight Eisenhower, of presidents taking part in it. He thanked Americans for their prayers and recounted the challenges facing the country: a global pandemic, economic struggles, racial justice long deferred and an assault on the Capitol.

“For so many in our nation, this is a dark, dark time — so where do we turn?” he asked. “Faith.”

He then quoted a phrase from the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard about faith and suffering, one Biden has used in the past: “Faith sees best in the dark.”

“I believe that to be true. For me, in the darkest moments, faith provides hope and solace. Provides clarity and purpose as well,” Biden said. “It shows the way forward as one nation in a common purpose. To respect one another, to care for one another, to leave no one behind.”

President Joe Biden addresses the the 2021 National Prayer Breakfast. Video screengrab

President Joe Biden addresses the the 2021 National Prayer Breakfast. Video screengrab

Biden then went on to say faith and a common sense of purpose could help Americans make a way forward, despite the country’s challenges. He repeatedly emphasized that the COVID-19 virus and the fallout from the pandemic have affected all Americans, not just those of one party.

“These aren’t Democrats or Republicans losing their lives to this deadly virus. They are fellow Americans. Fellow human beings,” he said.

“This is not a nation that will stand by and simply watch this. That is not who we are. That is not who faith calls us to be. In this moment we cannot be timid or tired. There is too much work to do. It is by our work and not just our words that we are going to be judged.”

RELATED: National unity isn’t just possible, it’s worth working for

Biden closed his remarks with another of his favorite Bible passages, one he cited in his inaugural address: “Weeping may endure for a night but joy cometh in the morning.”

Thursday’s event also included music from We the Kingdom, an up-and-coming Christian band from Nashville, Tennessee, and a video excerpt from Amanda Gorman’s inaugural poem.

Former South Carolina Gov. David Beasley, now head of the World Food Program, reminded participants at the breakfast that COVID-19 has left tens of millions without food. His prayer called for action to feed the hungry and asked God to remind people that “when we fail to feed the least of these we fail to feed you.”

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