Last night, the nearly unending sound of sirens, aircraft, and broken glass engulfed Minneapolis and St. Paul. Power was shut off as buildings burned through the night. Two days running, communities are crying for justice! Where do we gather, in a world of COVID-19, to comfort our neighbors, support our colleagues, and right these systems of oppression? A broken humanity cries and searches for help.
Our ancient traditions, as Christians, bring hope. I have found help through the words of a wise colleague, Dr. Russell Jeung. Prayer, Jeung asserts, is a significant tool for social justice. Prayer subverts evil and uproots injustice. Prayer drives the devil out of systems and structures that perpetuate evil. And, it is the suffering, marginalized, and oppressed who are often most intimately acquainted with the power of prayer.
Prayer has inspired activists throughout history. Abolitionists and suffragists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries labored together in prayer—an activism that forged better translations of Scripture to demonstrate God’s call to liberate slaves and women. Despite years of proslavery and patriarchal Christian rhetoric, prayer enabled preachers to show that God’s Word was antislavery. Though several passages were used to condone the “letter of subjugation of slaves and women,” prayer clarified the human dignity of slaves and women as inseparable from the teachings of Scripture and our liberation in Christ.
Prayer also drove the Civil Rights Movement, opening strategies and collaboration throughout its leadership that grew increasingly diverse and broadly based in its support. Strikingly, prayer exposed a lack of empathy, gender and race role distinctions, impunity, and dominance, all of which are the four hallmarks of injustice and abuse. As civil rights gained momentum, and as the US Constitution was amended, leaders fell to their knees on roads throughout our country in gratitude for answered prayer. They also rose from prayer in the hope of a better future.
Prayer leads Christ’s followers into the deepest places of human suffering. Here the church becomes the church militia—toppling injustice with the weapons of prayer, service, resistance, and community building. Leaders like Sojourner Truth showed how a life transformed by prayer leads to communities of transformation. Mystics and monastics throughout history were always social reformers because the two are inseparable. For this reason, Richard Rohr leads the Center for Action and Contemplation, recognizing the necessary interdependence of social action and contemplative prayer.
In a similar way, George Floyd is remembered today for his life of Christian faith and social action, not only in the Third Ward in Houston, a historically black neighborhood, but in the racially divided communities of Minneapolis where his leadership was so desperately needed. We have lost a brother, a leader, and a man of peace. Engulfed by broken hearts, frayed souls, and disillusioned spirits, we call for prayer and trust our ancient faith to lead the way.
Acquainted with great suffering, the Christian writer Flannery O’Connor wrote: “To know oneself is, above all, to know what one lacks. It is to measure oneself against Truth, and not the other way around. The first product of self-knowledge is humility.” I believe prayer will bring us to repentance through the path of self-awareness. That has been the journey of CBE through our work on race and gender over the past several years.
May we fall to our knees as a community, asking God to make us the church militia—one that resists injustice and works for peace, like Mr. Floyd has shown us. In solidarity with those who suffer, we can also supplement our prayers with fasting. Going without food brings clarity to the voice of the Holy Spirit as we pray. Diving headlong into God’s presence, we ask Christ to overcome our apathy, self-centeredness, and moral blindness. Curled up underneath God’s motherly, warm wings, we seek repentance, courage, and right action.
We trust as best we can that the prayers of the oppressed have more power than a thousand armies of warriors. Prayer unleashes a spiritual force more powerful than evil. Come, Holy Spirit, fill us, cloth us in Christ, renew our faith in your power to do more than we think or imagine possible.