On Facebook, since the shooting on Sunday at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs just outside of San Antonio, I have read appeals for prayer posted by some of my friends, and appeals for action posted by other friends. I know and care for many of these people who are posting – both the pray-ers and the doers, and I know, because I know them, that these are predictable and authentic responses from them. There is nothing new in this.
What is new this time – and isn’t it a deeply troublesome thing to even have to say “this time”? – is that some of those who are calling for action are actually shaming the moral seriousness of those who are calling for prayer, and some of those who are calling for prayer are questioning the spiritual sincerity of those who are calling for action. This is such an unseemly and unnecessary fight.
The New Testament book of James that puts such a high spiritual premium on prayer and its efficacy (1:5-8; 4:3; 5:13-18) is the same New Testament book that explicitly rejects “painless piety.” In his novel, Martin Chuzzlewit, Charles Dickens introduced a memorable character named Mr. Pecksniff. He is the epitome of what’s been called “painless piety,” the kind of prayer that asks God to do something that will cost the one who is doing the praying nothing at all (Carroll Simcox – Prayer: The Divine Dialogue – IVP – 1985 – p. Prayer : The Divine Dialog 35). For example, Mr. Pecksniff was real good about offering a prayer before he sat down to eat that remembered the needs of all the hungry people in the world, but it was very clear from his actions that Mr. Pecksniff believed that it was God’s responsibility and not his to do something about actually feeding them (Carroll Simcox 36). This is what the book of James rejects –
14 My friends, what good is it for one of you to say that you have faith if your actions do not prove it? Can that faith save you? 15 Suppose there are brothers or sisters who need clothes and don’t have enough to eat. 16 What good is there in your saying to them, “God bless you! Keep warm and eat well!”—if you don’t give them the necessities of life? 17 So it is with faith: if it is alone and includes no actions, then it is dead. (James 2)
Two years ago, after the shooting in San Bernardino that left 14 people dead and 22 wounded, I wrote a blog I called “Why I Pray.” It was an attempt to speak to the moment then, and I believe that it still speaks to the moment now, in fact, with the public carping between pray-ers and doers that has erupted online, it may speak an even more direct word to the moment that we presently find ourselves in. Prayer is neither an evasion of responsibility, nor an excuse for inaction. And our actions are neither a denial of God’s concern or involvement, nor an adequate response all by themselves. DBS +
“Why I Pray”
By the time that Jesus was born, some Jews had already left Jerusalem, moved to the very edge of the desert to pray and wait for God’s Kingdom to break in on them from the outside. Other Jews had taken up arms. “Terrorists” is how we would describe them today, or “freedom fighters,” depending on your perspective I suppose. Anyway, other Jews carried small curved knives and used them to assassinate their oppressors, Romans and Roman sympathizers like tax collectors, every chance they got. They were going to usher in God’s Kingdom by their own efforts and in their own strength. And somewhere on the line between these two poles on the continuum of response everyone else fell. Religious folk still do today.
In 1968 Robert Raines’ Voight Lectures were published under the title The Secular Congregation (Harper & Row). What he said has become an important part of the architecture of my heart and mind. Reflecting on social events of his day like the Civil Rights Bill of 1964 and the Johnson/Goldwater Presidential race, Dr. Raines noted the two Christian responses that he observed, what he called the “Pietist” response and the “Secularist” response.
By “Pietist” he meant “church-centered” Christians who “look for God primarily in the church, its Word and sacraments and communal life,” and who see the priority as being a matter of “loving God with all the heart, soul, mind and strength.” It was Jewish “Pietists” who went to the desert to wait and pray for the Kingdom to come in Jesus’ day.
By “secularist” he meant “world-centered” Christians who “look for God primarily in the world, its words, events and communal life of the Nation, and nations,” and who regard the priority to be a matter of “loving your neighbor as yourself.” It was Jewish “Secularists” who armed themselves with knives and went hunting for Romans to bring the Kingdom in Jesus’ day.
A Pietist’s first instinct is to pray. A Secularist’s first instinct is to sign a petition, to organize a protest rally and/or to write a congressperson. And Dr. Raines’ contention was not that one of these “types” was “good” and that the other one was “bad,” but rather that they really need each other in order for us to be fully Christian. He believed that the critical challenge of the church in that day – in the 1960’s – was “to keep the Pietist and the Secularist within hearing distance of each other and to reconcile them.” Our challenge is no different today.
Since the atrocity that unfolded in San Bernardino on Wednesday, I have read the responses of friends, associates and strangers in their blogs and on their Facebook postings, and what’s being said galvanizes around these same two poles. There are Pietists, and there are Secularists. Some want to pray and others want to legislate. Some turn to God for answers, and others to Washington D.C. Some believe that God alone is going to have to fix this, and others – as the Daily News’ provocative headline on Thursday put it – believe that this is all on us.
Leon Uris wrote about this same divide in his novel Mila 18 (1961), a story about the Jewish resistance to the Nazis in the Warsaw ghetto during WW 2. Some of the people there believed that they should pray and wait for God to deliver them while others argued that it was time to do something to resist the evil that was threatening them. And I remember, when I read this book as a teenager, wondering about which argument I would have made, which side I would have taken? Even then I sensed the nobility and courage of each position.
I believe in God. I really think that God breaks into human history to reveal and redeem. And I don’t take lightly God’s promises that the Kingdom will finally and fully come in His time and by His singular action. When I pray “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” my first “take” on this petition is always eschatological, that is, I pray it as an acknowledgement of our own limitations as human beings to either completely or permanently “fix” anything, and as a desperate appeal for God’s climactic saving action to occur – for God’s Kingdom to break in upon us in the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. In days like these I pray for God’s help and deliverance because I am a Pietist.
But I also believe that we as human beings who bear the image of God are charged with the responsibility of working and keeping creation (Genesis 2:15). With Paul I readily affirm that we are God’s “fellow workers” (I Corinthians 3:9). I don’t take lightly what the Bible says about justice, righteousness, peace or compassion, and the part that we have to play in their establishment and preservation as human beings. And so when I pray “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” my second take on this petition in thoroughly ethical, that is, I pray it as a recognition of my responsibility as someone who has access to the mind of God through Jesus Christ preserved for us in the Biblical record to do what I can to try to refashion the world in such a way that it better reflects the coming Kingdom of God’s eternal will here and now. And so, in days like these I pray for God’s wisdom and resolve to do something because I am a Secularist.
Robert Raines in his Voight Lectures in 1968 argued that the only fully Christian position was the one that was simultaneously “Pietist” and “Secularist,” one that was equally adept on its knees in prayer as it was with its sleeves rolled on the frontlines of action and service. And this is the ground that I have conscientiously tried to occupy in my life and ministry. Just like the opposites on the continuum of personality traits on the Myers-Briggs test, I will admit to being more comfortable on one end of this spectrum than I am on the other. I am a hardwired Pietist. My first instinct is always to pray and engage Scripture. But when I do, I find that my “shadow” Secularist is always activated. When I close my Bible and get up off of my knees, it is always to step into the world where I know that I am called to cooperate with what it is that God is doing in anticipation of where it is that God is ultimately moving all of creation.
With the Quaker theologian Thomas Kelly (1893 -1941) I consistently experience the Christian life as a double movement: first, as God pulling me out of the world and into His heart where He names me as His own and lavishes on me His love (the way of the “Pietist”), and second, as God hurling me out of His heart and back into the world where He is asking me to help Him carry its hurts and hopes with Him in infinitely tender love (the way of the “Secularist”). And maybe it’s because I am more naturally a Pietist than I am a Secularist, someone who has to be more intentional and deliberate about the second movement of the Christian life as Thomas Kelly described it than I have to be about the first, that I find myself so impatient with my fellow Christians who try to reduce Christianity to just one of these two movements, either the Pietist or the Secularist. If I have to work on it – and I do – then I think that they should have to work on it too.
When Francis Schaeffer, one of my theological muses, wrestled with all of this – with what is God’s part in bringing about the healing of the world that talk of the Kingdom of God signifies, and what is our part as human beings – he coined the memorable phrase “substantial healing” in his book Pollution and the Death of Man (Tyndale – 1970) to describe his expectations. After exploring the full extent of the Fall in the brokenness of creation theologically (God and humanity separated from one another), psychologically (human beings separated from their own true selves), sociologically (human beings separated from one another) and ecologically (human beings separated from nature), and naming the coming of the Kingdom as the final healing of all of these breaches, Francis Schaeffer probed the question, that in a week like this one that we’ve just come through with all of its terror, violence and loss, gets posed so urgently, namely: What am I supposed to do? How am I supposed to respond? Should I be praying for God to sovereignly act, or should I be getting busy doing something, anything to get things moving in a Kingdom direction right now? Am I supposed to be fixing this on my own, or am I supposed to be waiting and watching for God to fix this for us? Here’s how Francis Schaeffer answered –
So there are these multiple divisions (theological, psychological, social and ecological), and one day, when Christ comes back (eschatologically), there is going to be a complete healing of all of them… But Christians who believe the Bible are not simply called to say that “one day” there will be healing, but that by God’s grace… substantial healing can be a reality here and now… I took a long time to settle on that word “substantially,” but it is, I think, the right word. It conveys the idea of a healing that is not yet perfect, but that is real, evident and substantial. Because of past history and future history, we are called to live this way now by faith. (67-68)
In the face of history, in the light of faith, should we be taking the Pietist’s option, or the Secularist’s? Yes! The faithful answer is yes. DBS+