Saturday, May 9, 2009

National Day of Prayer

National Day of Prayer was this past Thursday. As a minister, I was invited by the local chapter of the National Day of Prayer Task Force to assist in leading a public prayer service in our town. It was held in the park beside the library at city center. A modest crowd attended and 3 other ministers from different denominations were involved.

The service began with a color guard, the pledge of allegiance and the national anthem. We then had prayers (interspersed with patriotic hymns) on the following subjects: Government, Military, Media, Business, Education, Church, and Family. I gave the prayers on Media and Education.

This event made me extremely uncomfortable on a number of levels.

Gramatically the very idea of a "National Day of Prayer" is ambiguous. Is it a day for people to pray about the nation? If so, what shall we pray? Shall we pray for the nation (the more likely assumption)? Or against the nation (ie: should we take a prophetic bent)? Or is this a day for generally that the people of the nation should set aside for prayer (in which case the nation is not the subject of the prayers, but the subject of the clause)? Because this is not a country made up of exclusively Christians the purpose of the holiday is intentionally vague. People of different faiths can interpret it to mean what they want. But then what are people of no faith to do with this day (or faiths that do not pray)?

Politically, a "National Day of Prayer" is very troublesome. There is no question that there is Biblical precedent for entire nations engaging in prayer, or individuals praying on behalf of nations. But the nations depicted in the Bible are unapologetically theocratic. What on earth does such an idea mean in a secular democracy? Overt religiosity has always played a role in American political rhetoric, but it sits uneasily with our foundational governing principals. We are of two minds, politically, about the role of religion in our national identity.

Theologically, a "National Day of Prayer" is a veritable minefield. I don't think there is anything wrong with praying for the nation, per se, but it is at least flirting very closely with idolatry. Are we praying to the God of all peoples on behalf of this one people, or are we tempted to turn God into an American? What does it mean to say in the church sanctuary "thy kingdom come", and then in the park to pray "preserve this kingdom against other kingdoms"? How do we negotiate the question of allegiance when expected to place our hand over our hearts and declare our loyalty to the American flag, but we have already declared ourselves servants of the Risen Lord? What about the narrative of violence such events portray? Notice that the schedule included prayers for the military, but none for our enemies. What does this say about the theology of the event?

But the biggest trouble I had was practical, and this is what I would like to hear your thoughts about: how should we approach public situations like this?

One choice, obviously is non-participation. I seriously considered that route, believing that I would have a hard time praying with integrity in such a setting. Ultimately I chose to participate for two reasons: I want to interface more with the community outside my church, and I hoped it would be possible to gently guide the event away from idolatrous nationalism at least in the portions I would lead.

If we choose to participate a host of practical questions arise - do you join with everyone else in saying the pledge of allegiance? I did not.

Do you sing the national anthem? I did not.

Do you place your hand on your heart or show other signs of reverance for the flag? I did.

What attitude do you bring to the prayers and how do you participate in them? For example, I found I could not say Amen to the prayers for our military without silently saying a personal prayer for our enemies as well.

When leading prayers, what do you emphasize? What would you say?

Let's hear it people. How would you handle these situations?


Doug Hagler said...

I think one way I might approach something like a patriotic National Day of Prayer observance is as a multicultural situation. For example, if I end up at this church in NJ, I might be involved in a day of prayer for Taiwan or something. What I feel like I should do there is to participate respectfully in whatever I feel like I can participate in (in good conscience) and then clearly explain why and where I don't feel like I can participate.

Something like the National Day of Prayer really drives home the sense, in me, that I am a "citizen" so to speak of the Church more than of America - at least, that is what I seek to be.

Its easy to assume participation in nationalistic events if one is technically a citizen, and I think those are the times for the Christians to stand out and identify themselves clearly as 'in the world but not of it' while not slamming any doors or burning any bridges.

Sounds like a delicate line to walk.

Aric Clark said...

I like your idea of treating it like a multicultural event. I've participated as an "outsider" in many events during my travels and it is a very similar feeling - I'm concerned about giving offense, I feel like there are unspoken rules and rituals I either don't know about or can't follow, etc...

It is a delicate line.

Jodie said...

It's about expectations.

"I hoped it would be possible to gently guide the event away from idolatrous nationalism at least in the portions I would lead."

Perhaps the National Day of Prayer is really the day we pray TO the Nation. Always has been.

Hence the National Anthem.

(next time stay home)

John Shuck said...

In my first church a parishioner asked me to gather around the courthouse flagpole on this day. I did it for her sake. The experience left me feeling compromised.

I was asked on a number of occasions to offer a prayer for Memorial Day events. I gladly did. On Memorial Day we recognize the dead from all nations with the hope that all war may cease.

I can participate with good conscience on Memorial Day but not the National Day of Prayer.