A couple of weekends ago, in Houston, Texas, a group of organizers staged a huge rally to pray for our nation. Governor Rick Perry of Texas, one of the organizers of the rally, called out the reasons, as he sees it, for prayer at this time: “discord at home . . . fear in the marketplace . . . anger in the halls of government.” The motivation, Perry claimed, is that “our hearts break for America,” and in the end, our “only hope” is from God. He prayed as well for President Obama.
I have no idea what I think of Rick Perry as a governor or presidential hopeful. I know very little about him. But don’t we find ourselves asking: Was this rally politically motivated? Should prayer be used in that way? Some even asked, if a sitting governor is involved, isn’t there an issue of separation of church and state?
And then, as I was thinking through what I thought about such a rally, I ran into something quite disturbing. Frank Bruni, one of The New York Times regular Sunday columnists, said that the rally “presented a spectacle that — let’s be honest — most of us in the news media don’t really get.” Such an event “strikes us as too much hope invested in too magical a solution.” It “defies rigorous reason.”
What we need, Bruni proposes, is “nimbleness and open-mindedness to evaluate progress dispassionately and adapt our strategy accordingly.” For Bruni, the answer is simple and blunt: “Faith and prayer just won’t cut it,” he says: “In fact, they’ll get in the way.”
How condescending. I am offended by these assumptions about prayer — prayer as “too magical a solution,” prayer defying “rigorous reason,” prayer as something other than “open-mindedness” — this is the deep cynicism of our secular culture.
But still, how do we pray for our nation?
I found myself remembering that of one of America’s important leaders, Abraham Lincoln, in one of the greatest speeches ever delivered in our history, the Second Inaugural Address, takes on this question of how we might pray, even when we are a divided nation.
As the Civil War was nearing its bloody close, Lincoln surprisingly offers a stern challenge for both sides. In this great conflict, Lincoln says, both sides “read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other.” As we face our own huge political and cultural divide, be careful, Lincoln admonishes, search the Scriptures and pray to God cautiously, humbly, because our opponents may be praying too.
But there is a danger here, and Lincoln spots it head on. That we come to different conclusions reading the same Bible and praying to the same God cannot cause us to slip into a kind of cynical paralysis of relativism.
No, no, the Bible calls us to something true, the truth of God’s justice, the power of reconciliation, the mandate of dignity for all human beings, a vision of human flourishing. There is a “truth to tell” here, as Lesslie Newbigin says. That we disagree calls us to dig deeper, to search more carefully, to act more humbly, to pray more earnestly.
“It may seem strange,” Lincoln continues, “that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces.” In other words, if we turn to the Scriptures, and if we pray earnestly for what is right, we find there a God who condemns all the profound suffering of slavery, a God who loves each human being, a God who yearns for human flourishing among his children. “Wringing . . . bread from the sweat of other men’s faces” is not right; it is not just; it is not the way of truth and goodness.
Lincoln then utters some of the most eloquent words in all of American history: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
This is Lincoln’s surprising message of reconciliation and forgiveness and grace. It is not a message of revenge and condemnation. Perhaps for the Frank Brunis of our world, it is indeed “too magical a solution,” one that “defies rigorous reason,” but it is the answer to Lincoln’s kind of humble prayer.
“With firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right” — Lincoln’s wise solution is to act with firmness on our convictions, but at the same time — and here is the tension we must live with — recognize that it is God who “gives us to see the right.” That’s why we need to pray. I trust that’s the way people were praying in Houston.