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Theological Thursdays: National Day of Prayer

Today, from noon to one, people from across Western New York gathered to pray on Niagara Square.  I was one of them.

I have to admit, I was uncomfortable.  It’s not that I am uncomfortable with prayer–I pray daily, publicly and privately, for all sorts of things.  I was uncomfortable because of the politicization of the event, because Niagara Square is an odd place to pray, and because it felt like it might be more a show of devotion to country, rather devotion to God (both are fine, in my opinion, as long as they are properly ordered.  The square, however, had plenty of flags and few, if any, symbols of faith).

I’ve also put aside all of the turmoil about the legality of this day.  NPR has good coverage on that battle.  Personally, I care little about whether a day is declared or not.  Our freedoms of assembly and religion will allow people of faith to gather regardless of any proclamation.

The President’s proclamation called on people to “pray or otherwise give thanks in accordance with their own faiths and consciences.”  Buffalo’s event at Niagara Square was organized by the National Day of Prayer Task Force, a private organization that “is the Judeo-Christian expression of the National Day of Prayer.”  All of the speakers and prayers were Christian (including one Messianic Jew).
There was prayer in multiple languages, from different congregations, and less politics than I expected.  Only one person carried a sign (in favor of prayer and Bibles in school), and when the holder moved onto the stage, he was politely asked to leave and he obliged.  Each speaker and prayer was kind and respectful in remarks.  I was unsure of whether I would be able to join in each prayer in good conscience, but with only one exception, I was.

The event raises a number of theological questions.  What should the relationship of a religious community be to the government?  (Please note that this is different than the question of how the government should relate to religious bodies–this is a very important question, but a political question–not a specifically theological one.)  Should a faith seek the government’s endorsement or support?  Should a faith offer support to a government? Under what (if any) conditions?  Should those of diverse belief gather together for prayer?  If so–how?

Oddly enough, Christians have performed an internal “flip-flop” on the issue of the government’s involvement in prayer.  The pilgrims and puritans that were instrumental in the founding of this nation fled Europe because the close relationship of state and church was something they could not stomach (or sometimes, survive).  Now, American evangelicals, their theological descendants (full disclosure: I consider myself an evangelical), largely believe it important for the government to set a time for prayer. 

At the same time the theological descendants of Europe’s “state churches,” (full disclosure again: I belong to one of these traditions) are largely absent from the National Day of Prayer gatherings.

I was glad to gather with friends (I saw a few) in prayer, despite my discomfort.  My main prayer today is not that God will change the country, but that God would change us–the church.  May God help us to remember our history, and to place God’s just kingdom over any political or national agenda.

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