Prayer and the Nation-State

When I came back to publishing on this blog last month (after a three-month hiatus), I purposed to publish articles with a specific audience in mind: CHBC. Therefore, while I could have published this much sooner, I have purposefully delayed. I delayed in the hopes that this article would be read thoughtfully. I desired to wait till the nonsensical rhetoric, and ad hominem responses died down, so that we could ponder this important issue together.

As most know by now, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg excluded all clergy (Catholic, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Baptist, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, etc.) from participating in the 10th Anniversary 9/11 Memorial events at Ground Zero this past month. As one might imagine, the Mayor’s position sparked a firestorm of opposition. Here is a short sample:

“What he is doing is sending a message that radical Islam takes precedence over the Judeo-Christian tradition in New York City and throughout the country. He’s sending a message that terrorists are welcome in New York City. That’s not the message that one should be sending on 9/11,” said attorney Larry Klayman, who founded Judicial Watch and now is of Freedom Watch. “His actions are an absolute disgrace to all Americans, whatever their race, color or creed,” he said.

And again,

Some 62,000 Americans signed petitions assembled by the Family Research Council asking him to relent. Jay Sekulow of the American Center for Law and Justice wrote that the United States “has a long and cherished history of prayer, from the first prayer in Congress in 1774 to the National Day of Prayer celebrated each year. Even the Supreme Court acknowledges our religious heritage.” (read the full article from WorldNetDaily here).

Besides the logical fallacies found within these two paragraphs; something else is amiss. It appears that Mayor Bloomberg may understand the biblical gospel better than some evangelical leaders who see this exclusion as some tragic form of religious intolerance. Yet, consider the following text:

1 Timothy 2:1–7 (ESV) — First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, 2 for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. 3 This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, 4 who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. 5 For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, 6 who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time (emphasis added). 7 For this I was appointed a preacher and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying), a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.

What Mayor Bloomberg seems to have grasped, and what some evangelicals have forgotten: Christian prayer is to a particular Triune God, from a particular covenant people, for God’s will to be done for the glory of His namesake. Prayer is not generic words, to a generic God, from a generic people, for their selfish human interests to be accomplished.

So, what is it, exactly, that has upset evangelical protestant Christ-followers? Most likely, we have forgotten what prayer is, and what prayer is not. Michael Horton helps redirect our focus on prayer when he aptly points out: (the following are short excerpts. You can read Horton’s entire article here)

Nowhere in Mr. Sekulow’s article is prayer defined in its vertical relation, as an act of worship directed to a particular deity – much less, through a particular mediator. Rather, the therapeutic idiom takes over. At least in the public argument, the idea is that prayer’s value lies in its subjective effect. The references are to “the many Americans who find solace and healing in prayer,” helping victims and their families “cope with the lost of loved ones.”

As the matter was put by another critic of the mayor’s decision, “Prayer is not always about religion, it is instead often about relief and repose.”

But all of this presses the question: Is the purpose of prayer mainly therapeutic: personal and national catharsis? Is it basically horizontal-human-centered (whether in individual or national images)? Or is it a solemn act of “calling on the name of the LORD” (i.e., Yahweh, the Father of Jesus Christ)? Does such an act have a personal object? Is that personal object the God who is revealed in Scripture as the Holy Trinity? Is the prayer directed to the Father, through the mediation of the incarnate Son, in the power of the Holy Spirit by whom we confess “Jesus as Lord”?

Imagine Elijah calling for a revival by trying to negotiate a public prayer or perhaps series of public prayers led by the prophets of Baal and the prophets of Yahweh. Israel, after all, has always been a religious nation. Isn’t it more important for the nation to acknowledge its piety than to become too obsessed with the theological specifics? The nation was divided, after all, and the point is to bring the people together through prayer, to bring them consolation in the face of national disaster. Of course, this isn’t how the story plays out at Mount Carmel, as the God of Israel proved that he alone is God and Baal is a helpless idol.

We don’t live under the old covenant, driving the prophets of Baal through with the sword. Rather, we have the privilege of religious freedom for true and false worship in this country. Nevertheless, we do not expect the state to create opportunities for the advance of Christ’s kingdom through his means of grace (emphasis added).

It is in churches where we confess our sins and our faith in Christ as He is clothed in the gospel. Here, we gather as a communion of saints gathered “from every tribe, tongue, people and nation” (Rev 5:9), not as a modern nation-state. We call upon the name of the LORD, which is none other than Jesus Christ, not merely for therapeutic consolation in our troubles (though this aspect is included), but for salvation from the guilt and tyranny of sin and the death penalty that it imposes. Here, with our brothers and sisters and before the face of the Triune God, our prayers acknowledge God’s justice in our condemnation and joy in God’s grace to us in his Son. With Christ as our Mediator, we are free to enter the Father’s presence with boldness, interceding for ourselves and for others, for needs pertaining to body and soul.

Prayer is also an act of witness. What are we testifying to when we seek state acts of generic devotion to the Unknown God? To what-or whom-are we witnessing when we give the impression that people can find consolation from any “God” apart from the Father who is known only in his Son and is otherwise a judge who will not let sinners go unpunished? (emphasis added) True prayer arises as a Spirit-given response to the Word that proclaims God’s righteous judgment and gracious forgiveness in Jesus Christ.

The power [of prayer] lies not in its ability to negotiate general piety for a national soul, but in its most particular and offensive message: the gospel of Christ. We don’t evacuate the public square that we share with our neighbors – even the “prophets of Baal.” Rather, we testify there that Christ alone is Lord, that he alone has conquered death and hell, that our greatest terror and consolation have to do with headlines much more serious and all-encompassing than the genuine tragedy of 9/11. We don’t need Mayor Bloomberg to help us with that. In fact, in the very act of doing so, we have to surrender the most important things we are called to say.

It is precisely because God is more important than we are, sin is much greater than something that others do to us, redemption is far greater than therapeutic consolation, and love for our neighbors encourages us to proclaim the everlasting consolation of the gospel, that we dare not trivialize that dangerous, wonderful and absolutely effective act of calling on the name of the Lord in life and in death.

As Christ-followers, we need to seriously consider what prayer is, and to Whom prayer is directed, before we insist on prayer being put on public display in a nation-state which values all gods the same. And once we have considered what prayer is, and to Whom it is directed, only then can we begin to consider how to rightly appropriate prayer (which declares that Christ is alone Lord) in the public sphere without abandoning the gospel.


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