Would Jesus Pray at a City Council Meeting?

May 7th, 2014

The more that I think about the recent Supreme Court ruling defending the use of explicitly Christian prayer to open government meetings, the more it offends me. I have no problem praying in public. I do it all the time walking on the sidewalk mumbling the Jesus Prayer to myself with my prayer beads. When somebody else needs prayer, I don’t have any problem laying hands on them in the middle of a Walmart or any other public space. I don’t want to be the pastor who says, “I’ll pray for you” in the disingenuous way that we say “Let’s do lunch sometime” instead of actually praying for people right then and there. But prayer as a pro forma function of “civic religion” really bugs me. And Jesus himself had something to say about it in the sermon that is more widely ignored by supposedly “biblical” American Christians than any other biblical text.

And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray on the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6:5-6 NRSV)

That is Jesus’ most explicit teaching on prayer. So which Christian leader submitted it as an amicus brief to the Supreme Court to peruse as part of its deliberation on public prayer? The basic problem with prayer that Jesus identifies is that it’s often used disingenuously as a pretend conversation with God whose primary purpose is to confer status upon ourselves before other people. The most abominable form of this occurs in Christian Internet debates when we say, “I’ll pray for you” to our opponents as a way of expressing our disapproval. Yes, I’ve done it before, and it was no less sacrilegious than when Sarah Palin said that “waterboarding is how we baptize terrorists.”

Nothing is more disrespectful to God than to use our supposed conversation with him as a way of leveraging our own legitimacy. That’s the cheap “reward” that Jesus talks about in his teaching. It’s not only cheap and shallow, but it actively sabotages the secret reward that God wants to give us through prayer. How can I have intimacy with God if my conversation with God is a public performance and an inner farce? There is nothing in the world like the rich intimacy that we receive from a true spiritual connection with God. And the way we gain this intimacy is when we pray in secret. Jesus did this over and over again in his ministry life: He would always retreat to a quiet place to pray.

To me, prayer is primarily about creating a monastery where we can sit and enjoy the presence of God. It’s awesome when we can share that monastery with other people. The world needs that monastery more desperately than ever in our era of spiritually alienating constant “connectivity.” Part of my vision for the campus ministry I’m going to be starting this summer at Tulane University is to offer the monastery of prayer in public space on a regular basis.

We can and should bring the monastery of prayer into public, but it must take the form of sharing a secret with others if they are to receive the secret reward that God wants to give them. If praying in public is about marking turf and standing up for the “rights” of “persecuted” Christians, then the secret reward is utterly lost. No inner monastery is created by a prayer that has been clipped onto the beginning of a secular meeting. When communication with God becomes “official,” it loses its intimacy. This is because God can only truly reign over us in secret; when his reign is made “official” through invoking his name in government ceremonies, that means that somebody is hijacking God to baptize their own authority. And if I personally amen this blasphemous baptism, then “God” ceases to be the voice that I strive to hear in prayer and becomes instead the great big yes-man in the clouds who approves my political tribe.

The most sacrilegious statement that politicians make is when they end their speeches by saying “God bless America,” because they aren’t really talking to God and they aren’t really asking for America’s blessing. They’re using God’s name in vain to anoint their own legitimacy. Democrats and Republicans alike do this. Christians who care about the dignity of God’s name should be actively protesting its blasphemy in civil “religious” events. Maybe if the plaintiffs in the next government prayer lawsuit were all Christians protesting the sabotage of our secret conversations with God, then the Supreme Court will reconsider its ruling.

This post originally appeared on Morgan Guyton's blog, Mercy Not Sacrifice

comments powered by Disqus