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On Facebook someone recently encouraged me to pray. This encouragement was in response to one of my many enraged posts about a policy change that would affect the poor. Pray? Did you say PRAY!? The comment sent me into orbit.
Full disclosure: anything can send me into orbit these days. Like many progressive Christians, I am enraged by the current administration's rhetoric about the other, be they poor, Muslim, minorities, transgendered, et al. While commuting in my trusted mini van, angry rebuttals are shouted as I listen to NPR-- as if the commentator can hear me on the other side of the radio. Spiritually centered? Nope. Not these days. Concerned deeply for justice? Got that covered.
Let us return to prayer before I digress into a debate about health care reform.
After I calmed down, just a little, I wondered why this well meaning person’s post suggesting I pray made me so angry. Could it be that I found prayer anemic in the face of millions of Americans losing their health care? Martin Luther King Jr reminded his white colleagues, who often encouraged patience and prayer, that he took prayer too seriously to use it as an excuse for avoiding responsibility. Prayer is not going to ensure that millions of Americans keep health care.
It occurred to me in that moment that prayer is a tool, not an objective. As one who follows Jesus, my ultimate objective is not for a more prayerful world, but a more just and equitable world. Prayer, along with activism and community organizing, are tools Christians are called to employ to seek the kingdom of God here on Earth.
My Facebook friend was not wrong to suggest I pray. I admire great Christian activists, like Dorothy Day, who were committed to daily prayer. Too often, however, prayer is mistaken as the only Christian resource, or worse, the end goal of spiritual life. The American evangelical movement has been overly concerned with personal piety. As long as someone has a prayer life, it doesn’t seem to matter, for example, if they pay their employees a living wage. (The Walton Family, owners of Walmart, are a case in point.) Just a perusal of a Christian book store will confirm this: so many books on prayer, so few on justice.
This singular attention to prayer misrepresents Jesus’ ministry. Jesus’ ministry--his very work-- was to turn the social order upside down. He sought justice for the poor, healing for the sick, protection for the most vulnerable, and inclusion for the excluded. He prayed in private more than in public. Mostly he stirred the pot. His sermons were like protest marches, his healing subversive. At his first public appearance in his hometown synagogue (Luke 4) he reads from the prophet Isaiah:
[God] has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners. (Isaiah 61:1)
In this moment, Jesus makes clear the objectives of his ministry. His “stump speech” makes no mention of prayer; it’s all about hope, and mercy, and liberation.
Personal piety was not a prerequisite for Jesus’ disciples, or for Jesus. More often than not, Jesus prayed alone, away from the crowds, for the courage and energy to continue. In this way, Jesus used prayer as a tool. In a rare moment when Jesus speaks of prayer, he describes it as a private affair: “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others . . . But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret.” (Matthew 6:5-6). Jesus never admonishes his followers to pray without ceasing. Paul does, not Jesus.
Activism--phone calls, protesting, marching, writing letters, meeting with legislators, voting--and prayer, but not prayer alone-- will help ensure that an elderly person in Iowa has the medication they need and that a young mother in Texas can take her feverish newborn to the hospital. As one who follows Jesus, my goal is the kingdom-- a kingdom in which all people have health care, not just those who can afford it. Prayer is a tool for achieving God’s kingdom. Jesus sought after this kingdom, working hard to to create it, and he prayed along the way, but he did much more. So shall we.
Rev. Abigail A Henrich (ehm!) is an ordained minister who earned her stripes at Princeton Theological Seminary and Colgate University. That said, Abby is really a mother-pastor-spouse who lives in a kinetic state of chaos as she moves from her many vocations: folding laundry, preaching, returning phone calls, sorting lunch boxes, answering e-mails, and occasionally thinking deep thoughts in the shower. Unabashedly she is a progressive Christian who believes some shaking up has got to happen in the church.