Public Prayer

Whenever I am asked to pray in public, in a non-church setting, whether it is opening the Maryland Senate (three times), mealtime grace at a secular event such as Rotary meetings, or praying with a high school football team before a game, I always have alongside me in my imagination, two friends. One is Jewish and the other is an atheist. In my mind, they are listening to my prayer as members of the public who might be there. I ask myself, “How would they here this prayer?” and “Would they feel included or excluded?”

Several of my atheist, Jewish and Muslim friends have told me that their reactions to public prayer by well-meaning Christian pastors often ranges from outright offense to just feeling totally excluded. They said that Christian pastors often beat people over the head with messages about the superiority of Jesus, the exclusivity of Christianity and how if they don’t get with that pastor’s idea of Christianity, they will burn in hell with the infidels. When I hear prayers like that in public, I do not want to be identified as a Christian priest. I want to run.

A few weeks ago, the local NAACP chapter held a short walk and a prayer rally to “unify Muskogee.” While the pastors who spoke were both black and white, they were all Baptist. They were all Christian, and they would have deeply offended the friends I bring along with me in my head. I left the rally saddened and disappointed that people who organized the rally aimed at unity could not understand their choice of praying and speaking pastors represented divisiveness, exclusion and Christian superiority.

There are standard texts in the Christian scriptures that seem to give every thoughtless pastor a license to bludgeon. Here is a brief list of the old stand-bys:

  • I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the father except through me (Jn 14:6)
  • Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth (Philippians 2:9-10)
  • And my God will meet all your needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:19)
  • All things have been created through him and for him (Colossians 1:16).

These verses and many others are used not to welcome the foreigner or the stranger, but to demonstrate superiority as if being superior is going to draw people to the arms of Jesus. If you study these verses in their context, you will find they were nearly always spoken to people who had already accepted Christ. They were words used for insider members of the church, not as marketing tools to bring new people into the church.

None of these thoughts about “Christian triumphalism” are new (look it up). When I mentioned my concern about public prayer to the Muskogee Ministerial Alliance, they instantly branded me a heretic and drove me out. They used the verses I just mentioned to demonstrate the “truth” of their beliefs and as justification for why they should beat people over the head with their smug superiority.

At issue is HOW we deal with conflicts of belief. If we treat different faiths or belief systems as being at war with one another like political ideologies, economics and other human endeavors, we will never escape the cycle of religious and political violence. Ironically, the mission of Jesus was to show us a different and better way to escape endless, violent conflicts.

If you are going to be great in the kingdom of God, you must be least. If you are going to follow Jesus, you must be humble. If you claim Jesus as your Lord, then you must be a servant of all (not just members of your church or white Christians). You may be called upon to go to your cross as an obedient slave. Model your life on the actions of Jesus and don’t worry about the rest.

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