The attacks in Paris have unleashed a flood of reactions, many infused with rage and a desire for immediate vengeance. They have also reminded some of us that similar attacks have taken place in Beirut and Kenya, places generally out of our European oriented line of sight. They have raised for me a series of observations and questions.
One of my young friends fired off a FaceBook rant demanding that we stop messing around with useless prayers for Paris and start dropping bombs. No more ‘huggy’ words of sympathy, let’s get tough an start shooting. What is it that makes prayer seem like nothing, but bombing seem like something? One part seems like a theological question while the other seems psychological, but more than a few of the Psalms put the two together, more or less as my young friend has. Consider Psalm 89 for instance. It professes faith in God, but goes on to accuse God of not following up on his commitments, and demands that God wreak revenge on the enemies of the nation. There is something in human nature that distrusts God to actually do anything. There is something in human nature that triggers a visceral desire to escalate the violence through retributive vengeance. If God won’t do it, then, by god, we will! You hit me and I will obliterate you.
Are prayers so useless? Are they only the tools of spineless pacifists and milquetoast pastors who don’t understand the realities of the world? It would seem that way not only to many contemporary Americans but to a good many ancient Israelites as well, and, considering the centuries of wars, to most human beings in between. Following Jesus is a great idea for an hour on Sunday morning. After that, maybe not. Discipleship, it seems, is for the few, not the many, because it just doesn’t make sense in a dangerous world where looking out for number one is what does make sense.
So what about dropping bombs? On who? Where? What would it accomplish? It takes only a brief review of past military actions in the Middle East to learn that a part of what we are facing today was sown through our own actions in the region. We cannot undo the mistakes of the past, but we can stop repeating them, and it seems to me that knee jerk demands for military revenge are exactly that, a repeat of bad decisions.
It is time to stop and rethink things a bit. Let’s drop the idea of being in a war that can be won in the sense that WWII was won. Historically speaking, that was an anomaly anyway. Most of history’s wars have ended with a shaky suspension of hostilities until the next spark lit fire to another one. Wining has never been complete, nor has it been permanent, but losing has been permanent for the casualties of war. Moreover, the current enemy is not a nation state. It’s more like one of the notorious drug cartels, a criminal enterprise, well funded, with a presence in many places, willing and able to enact unspeakable violence as it chooses, not really caring if the immediate perpetrators are killed in the process. If you don’t like the drug cartel analogy, consider it like one of the many enemy organizations James Bond has had to face. It’s motivation is not religious. It is psychotic, xenophobic hatred. Keep that word xenophobic in mind. It will come up again shortly.
The appropriate response, it seems to me, is a police action, not a war. Taking out key strongholds, capturing as many leaders as possible, and systematically disrupting networks of operatives is one part of that kind of response. Another is to engage vulnerable populations in ways that can inoculate them from gang influence. That’s a little harder because it means opening avenues of progress and prosperity to people who are strangers to us and whom we, out of our cherished xenophobia, do not trust. In like manner, they have little reason to trust us, so the standoff is tense.
Back to the question, are prayers so useless? I guess that depends on what you think prayer is. If prayer is a form of rubbing the magic lantern and asking the genie to do you a favor, then it is probably useless. There is a big difference between God and a fairy godfather, but it’s a difference I think many are unaware of. If prayer is the folly of naive believers in a god that doesn’t exist, then it is probably useless. On the other hand, if prayer is conversation with the One through whom all things were created and have their being, then prayer is probably still useless, if by useful we mean something we can use like a tool to accomplish what we want. Prayer with God is an intentional respectful engagement with God as we seek to walk in God’s ways. Prayer is how we allow God into our lives to engage with us in whatever way God chooses to do so, trusting that God loves us, and knowing that our lives are ultimately in God’s hands.
Prayer is what informs us about what God has made abundantly clear: that human wellness and prosperity cannot reach fullness except through work that builds up community, tears down barriers between communities, respects the dignity of every human being, and seeks to heal the divisions between peoples and nations. God has said that repeatedly through all the prophets, and most powerfully through the Word of God made flesh, Jesus who is the Christ. There is no ‘but’ about it. To get real, to get practical, to get serious, is to recognize (at long last) that what God has said outranks anything and everything that anyone else has said.
Unfortunately, it’s the one thing that we seem unable to comprehend, or even take seriously, except as an abstraction for theologians to argue about, or as the subject of sentimental wall hangings for the naive to decorate their homes with. I don’t know what to do about that. What I hope is that at least some world leaders are deep in authentic prayer that will lead enough of them to engage in actions that will forcefully confront terrorist gangs while they simultaneously work for a world in which we can live in peace with one another.