Wednesday, September 5, 2007

20,000 Prayers, No Answer Required

Excerpt from an email sent by Sojourners, the progressive evangelical group:

As people of faith, we believe in the power of prayer to soften the hardest of hearts and open the way to peace and reconciliation. So, as General Petraeus testifies, we're planning to match his surge with one of our own – 20,000 prayers for Congress to bring an end to this war.

I'm a big fan of Sojourners and its SojoMail e-bulletins and related blog. I like knowing what liberal religious people are thinking and talking about; I especially like knowing that there are liberal religious people out there pushing back against the pernicious idea, promulgated by our current president, that religion is the property of conservatives. The Sojourners crew is smart and earnest and on the right side of every issue I can think of.

But this email bothers me, because it seems to me that when any grassroots group begins asking people to pray for change in national policy, the group's all but admitted its utter inability to do anything but pray. And when a religious group sets up a fusillade of prayer directed at recalcitrant politicians, it only suggests how irrelevant it is to the political process.

I know the folks at Sojourners would take umbrage; they'd say prayer is an essential expression of spiritual integrity and power, and that it's capable of almost anything. But is it? Personally, there's no doubt that prayer can be transformative. But not politically. Surely flipping through the pages of any history book should be enough to convince anyone of that fundamental truth. Is there even the slightest evidence that prayer has ever been effective in changing the course of historical, or even natural, events, if by changing we mean improving? No. Yet religious people persist in claiming that prayers make a difference. If (and I'm assuming there must surely be condition or two) they're sincere enough, or plentiful enough, or something enough.

It's easy to be disdainful of certain religious practices, but that's not what I'm doing here. Taking cheap shots at Christians doesn't interest me, and especially not Sojourners, which is providing much-needed public pushback to the wizened, mean-spirited brand of Christianity that has found so much public expression in the last decade.

But yet, I'm confused about the implications of this "prayer surge." If, after 20,000 prayers, Congress doesn't bring an end to the Iraq war, what shall we conclude? That God supports the war? That God wasn't listening to the prayers? Or rather, that he was listening, but decided that letting the war run its course would for some reason be better than ending it?

In a way it doesn't matter, because prayer of this type is a win-win for God. He gets credit no matter what he does, something or nothing, because he's all-knowing and always makes the best decision for us. Nor can he be held accountable for any bad outcome, because, after all, we created our own mess and are to blame for any suffering that results from it. All the credit, none of the blame, no real responsibility. This is God as Christians understand him?

Which is exactly why I thought many Christians had more or less given up intercessory prayer. It makes us all look a little bit foolish. God, too, when you think about it.


DRPI said...

Great post - you raise several points that are in never ending dispute.

Prayer does not change God, but it changes him who prays.
~Søren Kierkegaard

I prayed for twenty years but received no answer until I prayed with my legs.
~Frederick Douglass, escaped slave

The most ridiculous concept ever perpetrated by Homo Sapiens is that the Lord God of Creation, Shaper and Ruler of the Universes, wants the sacharrine adoration of his creations, that he can be persuaded by their prayers, and becomes petulant if he does not recieve this flattery. Yet this ridiculous notion, without one real shred of evidence to bolster it, has gone on to found one of the oldest, largest and least productive industries in history. ~Robert Heinlein

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