Sunday, April 5, 2009

Praying for Social Justice through the Years

Being in a Catholic church on Thursday night, surrounded by a variety of Christians, a hunger for social justice bringing us together, reminded me of an earlier experience of mine.

In 1986, I had a summer job with Lutheran Social Services of the Washington, D.C. area. I had returned eagerly because I had worked for them the summer before. But in the summer of 1985, we had all sorts of community projects, and I really felt we were making a difference. In 1986, my job consisted of answering the phone to tell people that the agency had no money to offer.

People who called didn't respond by saying, "O.K., thank you." They told me sadder stories, as if I had a secret stash of money that I might give them. They reacted with anger.

One night in June of 1986, I went to a prayer service in downtown D.C. to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Soweto uprising and to pray for peace and an end to apartheid in South Africa. I didn't labor under any delusions that we were creating change, but I drew a certain comfort from the ritual. My friend wore a "Free Nelson Mandela" t-shirt, but we didn't really think it would happen.

When Nelson Mandela was released from prison a few years later, I thought of that prayer service. When South Africans stood in line for days to vote for him, I wept. And I thought of that prayer service.

My atheist friends will ask me (rather indignantly) if I really think that our prayers made a difference. I answer, "I don't know." But what does it hurt to pray? Why do my atheist friends get so outraged at the idea? Again, I don't know.

Walter Wink reminds us that even if we believe in free will, this belief doesn't mean that God can't act in the world. But God won't act if we don't ask or demand it: "This is a God who works with us and for us, to make and keep human life humane. And what God does depends on the intercessions of those who care enough to try to shape a future more humane than the present" (Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination, page 301).

And even if we're not sure we believe in prayer, Marcus Borg, who has his doubts about prayer, has words for us: "And this leads to my final reason for continuing to do prayers of petition and intercession. To refuse to do them because I can't imagine how prayer works would be an act of intellectual pride: if I can't imagine how something works, then it can't work. To think thus involves more than a bit of hubris" (The Heart of Christianity, page 197).

It's important to remember that there are many ways to work for justice, and one of the most important is to keep in our minds a vision of a better world, a place of peace and justice. Too many of us succumb to despair. We can't believe that change will come. Yet the history of the late twentieth century teaches us that social change may come in what appears to be a sudden instant, although observant people have been preparing for years or decades.

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