The Politics of Prayer

Rumor has it I will have a book published sometime in the coming months. I classify it as still at the rumor stage because, although I received word from Wipf and Stock Publishers in mid-March that they had accepted my proposal, and although I submitted all the requested materials necessary for them to draw up a contract nearly a month ago, I have yet to receive the contract. With the track record I have established in my job search over the past fifteen months—so many near misses, interviews that didn’t pan out, and seemingly ideal opportunities that have gone nowhere—I’m determined not to count my chickens until the mail carrier delivers the omelet to my table. When I have signed the contract, I will celebrate. Not before.

The book’s working title is Our Father Who Aren’t in Heaven: Subversive Reflections on the Lord’s Prayer. In it I look at this most famous and universal of Christian prayers from a decidedly this-worldly perspective. I seek to avoid a spiritualized interpretation of the Prayer, as though Jesus had as his primary concern the saving of souls and the eternal destiny of his individual followers. He did not. He didn’t have that luxury.

Image: " Jesus Christ Pantocrator " is in the public domain

Image: "Jesus Christ Pantocrator" is in the public domain

Jesus lived in a time of oppression, military occupation, and pervasive injustice. He drew his followers from the ranks of peasants and impoverished people who held no worldly power or clout and who generally found themselves at the mercy of their more prosperous, better-connected neighbors. Jesus very likely hailed from those ranks himself.

What made Jesus different (apart from being the Son of God—I’m looking from a humanistic point of view, and I am not at all sure the historical Jesus knew he was or thought of himself as the Son of God, Messiah, or Savior, all honorifics the church applied to him after the resurrection)—what made him different from the powerless and destitute people around him was that he had a vision and a plan. He knew of a way for the powerless to discover power and to use it to redress their grievances, establish justice, and work toward the goal he called the kingdom, or reign, of God.

They couldn’t do it alone, however. They needed to stick together if they wanted to accomplish the goal. What Jesus was doing in his campaign of teaching, healing, and organizing, then, was to build an alternative community whose bonds did not derive from the traditional sources of tribe, clan, or class, but rather from a shared commitment to God’s reign. His was a countercultural community that valued the contributions of women; that made no status distinctions; that rejected the rigid systems of patriarchy and honor/shame; that welcomed all comers, including (or especially) outcasts and “sinners”; and that rejected violence and domination in all its forms.

I see the Lord’s Prayer as a manifesto of this community (or communities, since Jesus’s sending out of the Twelve and the Seventy[-two] clearly signaled an effort to spread the movement into new areas). The Prayer addresses several key issues of vital importance to these communities—issues that sat on the front burner of their awareness all the time and frequently threatened to boil over. These issues included debt, hunger, the use and misuse of power, how to live with dignity under occupation without sinking to the level and tactics of the occupiers, and the matter of allegiance to God in a dangerous and idolatrous age. These issues relate to life in this world, not to some airy, insubstantial, other-worldly future.

In this sense the Lord’s Prayer is a political prayer, and Jesus was a political figure. (That’s right, I went there.) If politics addresses the questions of Who Gets What, When, and How, as Harold Lasswell once observed, then Jesus was unquestionably concerned with political questions. Living in a society in which the wealthy used debt as a lever to pry away peasants’ land made Jesus political. Seeing his friends and their children suffer from hunger while the Herodians and the temple caste lived in gluttonous, wasteful splendor made Jesus political. Facing the daily shame of being at the mercy of occupation forces, and being tempted to take up arms against his oppressors made Jesus political. Seeing the sorry fate of those who succumbed to that temptation, and wishing to prevent others from meeting that fate, made Jesus political.

All of these issues find expression in the Lord’s Prayer, and in my book I tease them out and reflect on their implications not only for Jesus and his contemporaries, but also, of more immediate importance, for us. How does the Lord’s Prayer speak to those of us who live in and benefit from the global hegemony of an empire far greater than even mighty Rome? More particularly, how does it speak to those of us who have pledged allegiance to Jesus’s countercultural community while also having one foot (usually more than one) in imperial America? What can the North American church learn from the politics of Jesus, and how can we get political in our time and place in service to the kingdom of God?

I will keep you updated on the progress of the publication of the book, and I hope when it finally does see the light of day in print (and as a Kindle e-book) that you will pick it up and read it. More later.