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Remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast

February 03, 1994

Thank you very much. Thank you very much, Senator Stevens. Ladies and gentlemen, you have to forgive me; my voice has not quite returned. The Vice President said earlier that being on the same program with Mother Teresa reminded him of the basketball player who scored one point in a game where Michael Jordan scored 68, and then he said for the rest of his life, "Well, we scored 69 points together." I feel like the guy who comes in with 5 seconds left to go with—the team's gotten a 40-point lead, and all I have to do is hold the ball until the buzzer rings. [Laughter]

First of all, I thank you, Mother Teresa, for your moving words and more importantly for the lifetime of commitment, for you have truly lived by what you say, something we would all do well to emulate, and I thank you for that.

Like all of you, I was so moved by the profession of faith and the experiences of Mother Teresa that almost anything that any of us could say would be anticlimactic. However, I would like to make these points as briefly as I can, for we come here to pray for those in authority, those given, by the people of the United States under our Constitution and laws, responsibility and the opportunity of making decisions every day which affect all of us.

First, I say that this prayer breakfast is an important time to reaffirm that in this Nation where we have freedom of religion, we need not seek freedom from religion. The genius of the book which I have promoted almost shamelessly for the last several months, "The Culture of Disbelief," by Professor Stephen Carter, is that very point, that we should all seek to know and to do God's will, even when we differ.

Second, if we really seek to do that, it requires certain personal characteristics that, very frankly, all of us in this room who have ever been elected to anything have abandoned from time to time, including me. It requires first that we be humble, that we know that even as we seek to do God's will, we remember what President Lincoln said, "The Almighty has his own purposes, and we are not capable of fully knowing them." It requires, second, that we be honest and that we be fair. Sometimes I think the commandment we most like to overlook in this city is, "Thou shalt not bear false witness." Third, it requires that we give our bitterness and our resentments up.

I was thinking of this when Mother Teresa told the story of the person who died in her arms saying simply, "Thank you," not "I'm cold, I'm hungry," a simple thank-you; someone with more cause to be resentful, more cause to be bitter, more cause to be angry than anyone in this room could ever be bitter or angry or resentful because of what one of us has said or done to the other, and still dying with a simple thank-you. Somehow we all have to give up our resentments. We have to find the courage and the faith to forgive ourselves and to forgive our foes. And if we cannot, we will surely fail.

Finally, that will permit us to do what Mother Teresa has done, to focus every day on other people. If Christ said we would all be judged by how we treated the least of these—the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the strangers, the imprisoned—how can we meet that test in a town where we all spend so much time obsessed with ourselves and how we stand on the totem pole and how we look in the morning paper? Five years from now, it will be nothing. Five hundred years from now, the papers will be dust. And all that will endure is the strength and the integrity and the beauty of what we felt and what we did.

Today this headline is in our papers: "Nineteen Children Found Amid Squalor in Chicago Apartment," not in Calcutta but in Chicago, 19 children living amid human waste and cockroaches, fighting a dog for food.

I say to you, we will always have our differences; we will never know the whole truth. Of course, that is true. But if we have learned today, again, that we must seek to know the will of God and live by it, that to do it we have to give up our bitterness and our resentment, we have to learn to forgive ourselves and one another, and we have to fight, as hard as it is, to be honest and fair, and if we can be focused on others and not ourselves, realizing that we did not get one whit of power from the Constitution and laws from the framers to do anything for ourselves, it all comes for the purpose of helping others, then perhaps we can do honor to the faith and to the God who has brought us all here today.

Thank you, and God bless you all.

NOTE: The President spoke at 9:47 a.m. in the Cabinet Room at the Washington Hilton Hotel.

William J. Clinton, Remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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