Why I Pray: Part 3, Choosing Sides

The second reason I pray has to do with issues of politics and allegiance. Some quotes I find helpful in this regard:

When the Romans archons (magistrates) ordered the early Christians to worship the imperial spirit or genius, they refused, kneeling instead and offering prayers on the emperor's behalf to God. This seemingly innocuous act was far more exasperating and revolutionary than outright rebellion would have been. Rebellion simply acknowledges the absoluteness and ultimacy of the emperor's power, and attempts to seize it. Prayer denies that ultimacy altogether by acknowledging a higher power...prayer challenged the very spirituality of the empire itself and called the empire's "angel," as it where, before the judgment seat of God.
--Walter Wink

Prayer is not "talking" with God, to God, or about God. It is not asking God for anything whatsoever. It is not bargaining with God. It has no similarity to conjuring, fantasizing, sentimental indulgence or superstitious practice...More specifically, prayer is not personal in the sense of a private transaction occurring in the void, disconnected with everyone and everything else, but is is so personal that it reveals (I have chosen this verb conscientiously) every connection with everyone and everything else in the creation throughout time. A person in the estate of prayer is identified in relation to alpha and omega--in relationship to the inception of everything and to the fulfillment of everything...Prayer, in quintessence, therefore, is a political action--an audacious one, at that--bridging the gap between immediate realities and ultimate hope, between ethics and eschatology, between the world as it is and the Kingdom that is vouchsafed.

...the practice of prayer is essentially political--a matter of attention to events and of intercession and advocacy for the needs of human life and of the life of the whole creation. Prayer, in this sense, is not pietistic but, on the contrary, radical involvement in the world...
--William Stringfellow

Consequently, whether people serve themselves or serve others is not in their power to choose. This is decided wholly in terms of the kind of world in which they think they live, in terms of the kind of power that they see ruling the roost. The issue lies at the level of the god they worship and not in the kind of person that they may want to be. In New Testament terms, they live or die according to the king that holds them and the kingdom to which they belong.
--Arthur McGill

You may be an ambassador to England or France,
You may like to gamble, you might like to dance,
You may be the heavyweight champion of the world,
You may be a socialite with a long string of pearls

But you're gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You're gonna have to serve somebody,
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you're gonna have to serve somebody.
--Bob Dylan
I can't say it much better than these quotes. Prayer is, simply, pledging allegiance. Consequently, prayer is political and a form of resistance and protest.

Prayer specifies your God, your kingdom, your hope, your ethic.

When you pray you choose sides.

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10 thoughts on “Why I Pray: Part 3, Choosing Sides”

  1. And, as the Stringfellow quote also illustrates, prayer is mystical communion with God and creation, whether you "feel" anything or not. You can't "commune" with God unless you also commune with everyone and everything else. If the Christian God and the true nature of man are revealed in Jesus of Nazareth, and if the relation to creation is as the NT seems to outline, then I want to join with that and prayer (though my own rule of prayer sucks) seems to be the way to do so.

  2. As with his comments on the resurrection, so with his comments on prayer I find Stringfellow exasperating. He can come out with such brilliant insights on key Christian doctrines-his depiction of the resurrection as the defeat of the power of death which enables to live truly human lives is moving and true-and then ruin it for me by reducing those doctrines to just those insights, in line with the strictest liberal theology.

    So here for example, I love his depiction of the early Christians' prayer as a direct challenge to the spirituality of empire, but I find myself objecting strongly to his claim that prayer is NOT talking to God and NOT asking for anything...how could he POSSIBLY say this in light of the Lord's prayer, the very heart of Jesus' practice, which ADDRESSES 'Our Father' and ASKS that His will be done, that He give us our daily bread and that He deliver us from evil. Or how about Jesus' prayer in the garden that the cup pass from him...how is that not bargaining with God, or at the very least wrestling with His will?

    Much as I agree with the view that prayer is a statement of allegiance and a challenge to the powers of this world, I have to say that prayer is also communication.

  3. Note that the Lord's Prayer is entirely 'us' and 'our'. It's a communal prayer, not an individual pietistic one. It's what we pray together (communion with others) to God. And God does give us our daily bread. After all, Jesus is the bread that comes down from heaven. Our eternal manna.

    Or at least those are my thoughts from the brief quote. I'm not particularly familiar with Stringfellow. But I do think the quote above is closer to reality than much of what I hear within my evangelical context.

  4. I agree with JD Walters. Stringfellow's main point is well taken, but perhaps it would have been better for him to say, "NOT merely" rather than "NOT." Jesus' prayers and his teaching about prayer are filled with asking.

    Luke 18:1-3
    Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. He said: "In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared about men. And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, 'Grant me justice against my adversary.'"

    John 16:24
    "Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask, and you will receive and your joy will be complete."

    Dallas Willard--
    "Ask. The first thing we should do is emphatically and repeatedly express to Jesus our desire to see him more fully as he really is. Remember, the rule of the kingdom is to ask. We ask to see him, not just as he is represented in the Gospels, but also as he has lived and lives through history and now, and in his reality as the one who literally holds the universe in existence. He will certainly be aware of our request, just as you would be aware of anyone expressing his or her desires to you in your house."

  5. I'm with JD and Dave. Stringfellow's comments don't seem to make a lot of sense in light of MOST of Jesus' words on prayer.

    And I'm not sure I understand how Stringfellow can make the following statements:
    - Prayer is "not asking God for anything whatsoever."
    - Prayer is "...a matter of attention to events and of intercession and advocacy for the needs of human life and of the life of the whole creation."

    Do I misunderstand the words 'intercession' and 'advocacy?' Is my support and pleading on behalf of another not asking something?

    I do, however, like the idea of prayer as choosing sides. I just don't like it to the exclusion of asking God for things and conversing with him.

  6. I agree that Stringfellow's quote is extreme. But what I like about it is that it is helpful if a person struggles with prayer at precisely the points he is hitting on. And I think there are people who do struggle with those aspects of prayer. And for those who do his quote has the potential of clearing their way back into prayer.

    In short, don't think Stringfellow's quote is or should be the consensus view on prayer, but his ideas might be helpful to lead people who doubt a lot back into a vibrant prayer life.

  7. Stringfellow orients prayer as provisional, inclusive, in-process, and radically connected with creation. I think he is spot on and not extreme at all. Petitioning a diety is often seen as "prayer" but Stringfellow helps us see beyond our own desires and needs, ultimately to a place of universal empathy, loving one's enemy, and feeling another's pain as if it is your own.

  8. @jd/dave/jamesbrett:

    I don't think Stringfellow buys all the things that you buy about Jesus and his prayers. I think Stringfellow meant what he said.

    Richard, what Stringfellow is that from? I'd like to read it in context.

    Also, if praying to God pledges allegiance to God, I'm interested to know who think you're pledging allegiance to when you don't pray. I'm pretty sure it's not the devil.

  9. The problem of thinking that you are talking to the air when you are praying is mostly a problem with not understanding the language with which God is using to talk back to you. I find it is my deficiency when I can't hear him, rather than he is not speaking.

    I do like the ways that you've been able to engage in prayer even though it doesn't feel like a conversation.

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