Thursday, May 5, 2011

The Scandal of Officially Sanctioned Prayer


The transcendence that counts is not a power from beyond that is now leashed to favor us, but the affirmation of values beyond our control to which we are committed, calling us to be ministers of peace and of justice above, beyond, and maybe even against our own interest. Ask not what God can do for America; ask what America owes humankind.
John Howard Yoder

Today, the United States government, still hungover from the orgy of chest-thumping and flag-waving over the assassination of Osama bin Laden, will officially endorse the National Day of Prayer for the 60th consecutive year. President Obama, who ironically has been castigated by leaders of the Religious Right for unfounded rumors like "being Muslim" and "canceling the National Day of Prayer," announced yet again that the national government will call upon Americans to pray for the country on this first Thursday of May (the standard date since the Reagan years).

At the helm of the National Prayer bobsled is Shirley Dobson, the woman behind Focus on the Family, whose $1,000,000 annual budget advertises the event for the 75% of the US population rooted in the Judeo-Christian ethic. This year's timely National Day of Prayer Task Force theme is "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God," from the title of Martin Luther's classic hymn and, of course, originally from the holy war tradition of the Hebrew Bible (Psalm 91--called "the Soldier's Prayer" by some in the US). Dobson explains why this Day is so vital for the United States:

As God’s name continues to be stripped from our national government, the Task Force is committed to standing strong for America’s freedoms of religious expression.

Ironically, the Task Force plays off American fear and ignorance by confusing the intent of the Constitution's very first 1st Amendment. In his Head & Heart: A History of Christianity in America, historian Garry Wills chronicles "how unprecedented it was to launch a nation with no officially invoked divine protection." Indeed, the only original American contribution to the world is the Establishment Clause which officially strips the national government from any endorsement of religion, precisely what Christian leaders like Roger Williams and William Penn uniquely demanded during their colonial experiments.

Instead of obsessing over the loss of God's name within our national government (something that the Framers never intended in the first place), communities who pledge allegiance to the cross of the Prince of Peace (not the flag) ought to lament the way our national government and their sponsoring churches profane God's name through the violent and torturous acts it commits on her enemies.

Jesus named the scapegoated tax collector as his model prayer warrior (Luke 18) and called for his disciples to pray with humility in their closets to avoid the hypocrisy of the official religionists of his day. However, when Christian communities come out of the prayer closet and militantly fight for official recognition from the government (whether in courtrooms, congress, coinage or sanctioned days of prayer), they commit what John Howard Yoder called "Constintinian concubinage." They break their prayerfully covenantal plea (“may Your kingdom come”) by pledging to Caesar in order to make God’s name known in America.

This year, on the National Day of Prayer, when President Obama travels to Ground Zero to celebrate the death of Osama bin Laden with families of victims of 9/11, may we remember the biblical trend of finding God on the margins. When God's Reign was inaugurated in 1st century Palestine, "the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness" (Luke 3:1-3). Not to Caesar in Rome. Not to Pontius Pilate in Caesarea. Not to Herod in Jerusalem. Today, and every day of the year, may we pray for our leaders (from parents to Presidents), that they will "recognize on this day the things that make for peace" (Luke 19:42).

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