13 February 2020

Prayer and politics

At its very heart the Christian life and identity is a process of incorporation into a new social organism, a new community. Spirituality cannot exist apart from this social context.
-- Kenneth Leech (1992), The Eye of the Storm: Spiritual Resources for the Pursuit of Justice

If but one man or woman were raised up by his power, to stand and live in the same spirit, that the Prophets and Apostles were in, who gave forth the Scriptures, that man or woman should shake all the country in their professions for ten miles around.
-- George Fox (1652)

Is there good news for the poor that isn't politics?
-- David Dark (earlier today) on Twitter
Prayer can be thought of as a particular aspect of theology. Theologians try to think coherently about God and about God's relationship to creation, and to communicate with others about their thoughts and questions. In prayer, we're not just thinking about God; we actually include God in those thoughts and questions. It's true that those who pray don't always think of themselves as theologians. However, to the extent that they think about what they're doing in prayer, and with Whom, they are thinking theologically.

In fact, theology shapes prayer. When we pray, we are expressing our relationship with our Creator, and that relationship does or does not include expectations of God's trustworthiness, God's promises and how we know about them, and God's care for us.

(And who are "us"?)

Our theology may not be fixed for all time, and it may have space for ambiguity and uncertainty. Today I may be utterly trusting and tomorrow I may be consumed by doubt. Our theology may be carefully pieced together from various sources, or it may be composed largely of inherited assumptions. In any case, we are also in a theological relationship with the culture that shaped those sources and assumptions, and which encourages or limits our freedom to choose.

Kenneth Leech's book The Eye of the Storm begins with a chapter on culture, specifically the individualistic culture of much of the English-speaking world. The separation of "spirituality" from social and political awareness in this culture is a relatively recent development -- a separation that was not part of the wider church's teachings during most of the history of Christianity. That earlier teaching voice of the church was not always a pure Gospel message; it was warped at times to serve earthly empires rather than the Kingdom of God. Now that the church's capacity to teach is far more fragmented, we still find distortions and enmeshments with earthly power. Nevertheless, the point remains: the idea that our individual salvation is distinct from the fate of the larger community is a novelty with important implications for our theology of prayer.

Doug Gwyn has written (in, among other places, Heaven on Earth: Quakers and the Second Coming, co-authored with Ben Pink Dandelion and Timothy Peat) that our Quaker movement began in a time in the life of England when many people were anticipating the end of history. Quakers responded to those times with a particular synthesis of two apocalyptic streams of thought:
  • First, a proclamation that the true apostolic Gospel message was again being preached after a long night of apostasy -- a message that had the power to form covenant communities who would behave in accordance with that message. 
  • Second, the confirmation of God's grace and power was not the stamp of a monarch's or bishop's approval but the inward working of the Holy Spirit. 
(Don't blame Doug, Ben, or Tim for this compressed summary!)

This combined message valued the experience of the individual believer but also provided a strong social context within which the Scriptures were interpreted, the Friends "testimonies" (important principles of spiritual and ethical discipleship) were taught, evangelists and prophets were sent into much of the world, and community members facing hardship received care.

The new Quaker movement made revolutionary claims. Not only was the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus a decisive moment in world history, but, in the midst of the mid-17th-century political chaos in England, the renewed proclamation of God's intervention in history was (for early Quakers) also a decisive moment. As Quakers conducted their nonstop campaigns of petition-writing and lobbying of rulers and parliaments -- at first on their own behalf, then increasingly on behalf of others -- their private and inward spiritual exercises were matched by their demands for public righteousness.

Granted, we've calmed down a lot since then (too much?), but the heart of every meeting for business of the Quaker congregation is still a prayer: "God, what would you have us say and do in this time and place?" Our ability to listen for God's answer, and to obey, is partly determined by our diligence in private devotion, Bible study, and time alone with God, but also our awareness of what is going on in the world around us. Our own personal focus might be a ten-block radius around our meetinghouse, or it might be the impact of American trade policy on the textile industry in Bangladesh. Together, as we worship and pray in our churches, yearly meetings, wider associations, and ecumenical relationships, as we ask God what we are to say and do with the concerns we bring prayerfully to the community, we can cover the planet.

A couple of weeks ago ("Our life is politics," quoting the Palestinian teenager) I listed a division of labor based on spiritual gifts, in the hopes that "covering the planet" in these tense and fragile times might seem less daunting. There are two other important aspects to this division of labor:
  • Praying for each other, and letting each other know that we're praying for each other. During the peak months of 2014's Russian-Ukrainian crisis, when it became politically fashionable to blame everything on the USA, we tried not to take the increasingly hostile atmosphere personally. (Even in Moscow Friends Meeting, a bit of hostility erupted!) We knew who was praying for us back in the USA, and that was a wonderful help in keeping our perspective.
  • Giving each other respite care. We can't all keep up a 100% commitment level continuously. Some of us need to get off social media or committee assignments for a season, but others will be able to take up the slack. Get some rest!
(Prayer and politics, part two.)

Among the many powerful case studies of the revolutionary Quaker message in its early years, including its inseparable social and spiritual aspects, is the story of Katharine Evans and Sarah Chevers, which I summarized here.

The series of online "conversations" organized by the Quaker Religious Education Collaborative presents this theme for February: Quakers, Death and New Life: RE for Lent, Easter, Passover. Choose between this coming Tuesday, 1 p.m. Eastern US time, and Thursday, 8 p.m. Eastern. More information and registration at their Web site.

Quaker House of Fayetteville, North Carolina, USA, recommends our attendance (in person or by streaming online) at the presentation of the final report on national service of the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service. Registration information is here.

John Fea continues his public service to the faithful remnant of evangelical Christians who reject the enmeshment of white American evangelicalism with the personality cult of the U.S. president. Here are his thoughts on the problem with the "reluctant" Trump voter.

Lawfare's summary of the Trump/Barr/Stone scandal. I loved this line about 3/4 of the way down: "Let's start with the nonnefarious possibilities."

Have you heard about the Putin elevator prank?

A respite from politics!! What we learned from New Horizons photographic study of Arrokoth, a billion miles beyond Pluto.

More from Samantha Fish ... this time with Mike Zito:

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