(RNS) After Baton Rouge, St. Paul, and Dallas, what are people of faith supposed to do?
What does leadership of faith communities look like in a moment like this?
One thing we know we can and must do is pray. It’s not all we can do. But it is something we must do. Prayer not only addresses God with the heartfelt concerns of the people; it also forms the community that prays.
But what kind of prayer could be suitable for a moment like this? If you were writing a prayer that a large Christian congregation could pray together, what would you write?
On Sunday (July 10) at First Baptist Church in Decatur, Ga., where I am preaching, I added a few lines to my pastoral prayer.
I said: “We pray for our country after a painful week of violence and racial division. We pray for social unity, racial reconciliation, and wise leadership from our religious, police, and government leaders.” And in my sermon, I alluded to our human tendency to take pride in our ideology and politics and look with contempt on those on the other side, something we are seeing right now quite a bit in America.
Yesterday in Atlanta, Catholic Archbishop Wilton Gregory sent out a prayer that he asked all pastors to pray for alongside their congregants. It was better and far more complete than mine. I offer it here exactly as it was written, with a few comments of my own:
For all who serve us in public life as first responders and who daily place their lives at risk for our safety. We pray especially for the police officers who died in the horrific violence in Dallas, for their families, their loved ones, and those who served alongside them. We pray for a restoration of the respect and honor that is due to those in public life whose civic service makes our nation both secure and free.
Let us lift our voices in support for all those who too frequently find themselves victims of bigotry, injustice, and racism. May the laws of our nation be followed so that the brutal and unjust treatment of any citizen is both acknowledged and rectified. For peace in our streets and within our hearts.
For a restoration of civility, decorum, and respect in public discourse. May those who have a voice in media, politics, religion, or government speak honestly, with integrity, in a manner that seeks to heal and unite rather than divide and inflame.
Gregory’s prayer makes an effort at comprehensiveness that I appreciate in the Catholic Church. It covers first responders, police officers, and in particular, the Dallas victims and those who most grieve them. It covers victims of bigotry, injustice and racism, and any who are treated brutally, unjustly and criminally.
And it broadens its gaze to call on all who are leaders in the relevant sectors — media, politics, religion, government — to lead in a healing and uniting way, to bring us back to civility, decorum and respect.
The archbishop’s prayer is more concrete about the police victims than the victims of police. Thus: Dallas is named, while Baton Rouge and St. Paul are not.
It alludes to but does not specifically mention systemic mistreatment of African-Americans, in particular, by criminal justice authorities.
It never mentions that all the victims of violence in the news last week were killed with guns.
I see my own prayers’ flaws even more in light of the archbishop’s more comprehensive prayer.
It is so much safer to stay abstract. This is always true in ethics, and in politics. The more concrete and specific you are, the more people really know what you are saying, and can take sides against each other and against you.
I like how the archbishop’s prayer so aptly names a yearning for national leadership away from and beyond division, toward healing. It speaks to our sense of national brokenness, and the apparent lack of any voices that speak for all of us rather than for just some of us.
We are a fragmented people, and any who speak publicly seem to speak only for fragments of our population, rather than the whole of us — only enhancing our fragmentation.
Prayer is more than political, but at times it is unmistakably political.
To pray concretely for Jews in Nazi Germany in 1933 was a political act, and one that could get you in serious trouble. To pray for an end to disrespect for the police, on the one hand, or an end to police mistreatment of black people, on the other, is also political. I think we need to pray (and work) for both. But to do so in our divided nation takes real courage. That this should be the case illustrates just how broken America is right now.
(David Gushee is Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics and Director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University. His RNS column is titled “Christians, Conflict and Change.”)