13 March 2012

Prayer as subversive activity

I recently mentioned the National Secular Society’s victory over Bideford Town Council re prayers on the agenda of its business meetings as a vehicle for sharing Matthew Parris’s entertaining cross-bench view of Christianity as social ‘Evo-Stik’. But the case does raise the issue of the place of Christian prayer in modern society.

I find myself asking what on earth the people who want Christian prayers on the agendas of political bodies such as the House of Commons think they are doing? Do they seriously want God to guide their business? Or are they (in line with the Evo-Stik view of religion) merely invoking the name of God to give the proceedings a veneer of religious respectability?

I suspect the latter because prayer as I understand it is incorrigibly subversive of the status quo. Not at all the kind of thing people who are seeking to maintain the system are likely to be comfortable with.

Jeremiah (29:7) called upon the exiles to 'seek the peace of the city whither I have caused you to be carried away captives, and pray unto the LORD for it: for in the peace thereof shall ye have peace.' That call to pray for the peace of the community in which we find ourselves applies no less to Christians today. But this is much more than asking for violence to be restrained or even for the harmonious maintenance of the status quo because shalom is so much more than a mere absence of violence or discord. In his book Not the Way it’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin, Cornelius Plantinga describes shalom thus:
The prophets…dreamed of a new age in which human crookedness would be straightened out, rough places made plain. The foolish would be made wise, and wise, humble. The dreamed of a time when the deserts would flower, the mountains would run with wine, weeping would cease, and people could go to sleep without weapons on their laps. People would work in peace and work to fruitful effect.
…The webbing together of God, humans, and all creation in justice, fulfillment, and delight is what the Hebrew prophets call shalom. We call it peace, but it means far more than mere peace of mind or a cease-fire between enemies. In the Bible, shalom means universal flourishing, wholeness and delight – a rich state of affairs in which natural needs are satisfied and natural gifts fruitfully employed; a state of affairs that inspires joyful wonder as its Creator and Savior opens doors and welcomes the creatures in whom he delights. Shalom, in other words, is the way things ought to be.
This is what we are calling down upon the communities when we pray for the ‘peace’ of the city. And implicit in it is the final overthrow of business as usual.

And that is not just the view of the Old Testament. Turning to the Lord's Prayer – the model for all Christian prayer – we read ‘Thy Kingdom come’. This is nothing less than a heartfelt plea for the present political powers to be swept away by the reign of God. To pray for this is to commit ourselves to a permanent critique of the society in which we find ourselves because all societies belonging to this saeculum inevitably fall short of the Kingdom. (How many of our MPs and peers realize this when they daily assent to a prayer that concludes ‘so may your kingdom come and your name be hallowed’?)

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