Their Prayers Are Not Our Prayers

Commentary
By John J. Thatamanil 2-20-2018
A student protester chants at a rally calling for more gun control in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., U.S., Feb. 17, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Drake
 

When NRA-funded Republicans offer their “thoughts and prayers” after mass shootings, to which God are they praying? Republicans cannot be praying to the Jesus who said, “Those who live by the sword shall die by the sword.” Surely, they cannot be praying to the prophet Isaiah’s God who heralds the coming of a day when God will cause people to:

“…beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more. (Isaiah 2:4)

Who then is being worshipped? Abrahamic traditions teach that worship can be misdirected through either 1) idolatry or 2) falseness and inauthenticity.

The first and most obvious form of misdirected worship is idolatry, devotion to a false god. The prophets insist that Israelites ought not to be worshipping Baal and a hundred other readily available local deities.

These days, idolatry does not seem a pressing problem. Baal is not particularly popular, and theologians from a variety of traditions reject the notion that other religious traditions are false. We are realizing that God has many names.

But the danger of idolatry persists: Even when we believe that we worship the true God, we might unknowingly fall into the worship of idols. Even when Christians believe that they are devoted followers of Christ, their true allegiance might be given to false gods like money, power, the nation, or the gun.

Jesus warned of this possibility when he said, “No one can serve two masters … You cannot serve God and wealth” (Mat 6:24). Nonetheless, many routinely try. So, how can we discern whether we have unwittingly fallen into idolatry when false gods do not stand up and announce themselves?

The twentieth century theologian, Paul Tillich offers insight. Tillich wrote, “Faith is the state of being grasped by an ultimate concern.” For Tillich, the object of our ultimate concern is our god. He would have us ask: To what are we finally devoted? Among the many claims upon our time and energies, what is the last to go? To whom or what do we offer sacrifice? Whom do we love and serve?

For Republican legislators, the answer is increasingly transparent. They sacrifice to the NRA the blood of the nation’s children and gleefully fill their coffers with tainted campaign contributions. Then, they pray. Such depraved prayer is idolatrous blasphemy. God’s name may be on their lips, but God is not the object of the heart’s reverence. Gun money is.

There is a second and subtler form of misdirected worship that the Bible also condemns. Even when we worship the true God with the right rituals and liturgies, our worship fails if our lives do not accord with our prayers. Ritual correctness and church going are undone when we fail to do what God commands.

Isaiah is again instructive. When the people complain to God, “We pray and fast, and yet you do not answer,” the divine response is striking:

Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day,
and oppress all your workers.
Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to strike with a wicked fist….
Will you call this a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?” (Isaiah 58: 4-7)

The Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament both insist that piety disconnected from morality is vacuous. If you wound the vulnerable as you pray, your prayers are for naught. When prayers ascend but deeds descend, the contradiction nullifies prayer. God will not listen.

The writer of I John puts it this way: “God is light and in God there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with God while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true.” For this writer, truth rests not just in our statements and sentiments but in our deeds. Prayerful platitudes alone are woefully inadequate.

Republican public piety is both idolatrous and inauthentic. They accept millions from the NRA while the blood of our children stains the nation’s classrooms and cafeterias. Our children and their parents are beginning to see that when Republican legislators pray, their prayers are misdirected and meaningless. Their prayers are not our prayers. They pray and serve the gun alone. Their Jesus is not our Jesus.

John J. Thatamanil is Associate Professor of Theology and World Religions at Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York. He is the author of The Immanent Divine: God, Creation, and the Human Predicament

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