Shane Claiborne and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, Becoming the Answer to Our Prayers: Prayer for Ordinary Radicals
In one of my favorite quotes, Danish existentialist Søren Kierkegaard writes: “A man prayed, and at first he thought that prayer was talking. But he became more and more quiet until in the end he realized that prayer is listening.” In our era of highly public violence, politicians have increasingly fallen lazily onto the cliché that “our thoughts and prayers are with the victims of this senseless tragedy.” This makes me wonder: what, then, are they listening to? And what is that telling them?
Shane Claiborne and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove had highly personal encounters with Christian faith during their college years. These experiences led both men to abandon comfortable white middle-class upbringing, forming communities in the poorest neighborhoods of Philadelphia and Durham, North Carolina, respectively. These communities became central points of a spiritual movement, modeled on Benedictine quietism, entitled the New Monasticism.
American public theology once centered on engagement with, and often battles against, worldly authority. Theologians like Dr. King and Reinhold Niebuhr challenged the powerful and the rich to reconcile the lives they lived with the beliefs they claimed. Since around 1979, America’s public Christianity has veered into overt partisanship and defending the old order (see Michael Sean Winters). But New Monasticism, though non-partisan, staunchly challenges the powerful on their thrones.
Like most human activism, however, Christian outreach risks individualistic self-righteousness, or its close cousin, burnout. We’ve all known people, fired by divine fervor, who either consume themselves or everyone around them. Early on, our authors write: “faithfulness requires something we just don’t have on our own.” Prayer provides sustenance when we realize we, ourselves, aren’t sufficient to address reality’s vast demands. But this raises more questions than it solves.
|Shane Claiborne (left) and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove|
Claiborne and Wilson-Hartgrove analyze three prayers scriptural and find not a call to wait on God, but a call to act on Christ's mission. In the Lord's Prayer from Matthew, they find hope for community of believers on Earth, a model of Kingdom economics, and a request for strength when the world beleaguers us. In here, they say, Christ calls us to look at ourselves, listen to God, and act.
Christ's prayer in John 17 asks God for two requests. First He asks God to keep us unified in the world, a bastion of Godly mission against worldly distraction. Then He asks that God keep us from the world's greedy demands. We are not called to form colonies in isolation or to be saved but to live amongst the world. Our church exists to save God's world that He so loves.
Paul's prayer in Ephesians 1 calls us to greater openness. God created humankind for a mission, and He created the church to save humankind. To fulfill our Christian mission and receive our Godly inheritance, we must open ourselves to God's quiet requests, and having heard those requests, venture out to live the Gospel. Christianity does not end in our salvation, but begins, so we may fulfill His commandments.
In all cases, early Christian prayer bespeaks very different values from the “our thoughts and prayers” ethic dominating today’s political discourse. Current radical individualism, personal salvation, and getting to Heaven when we die don’t enter these prayers. All three, the longest and most prominent prayers in Christian scripture, announce membership in something larger, a Kingdom with no army, a nation without borders. That’s difficult—but also painfully, radically necessary.
These distinctions aren’t small. Kingdoms act; nations build. When we use prayer to defer our actions, when we substitute pious platitudes for human community, we aren’t engaging scriptural prayer. Because sometimes, when we use prayer to listen, we hear God saying we cannot cast problems exclusively upon Him. God created the Church to live.
I remember once telling my students, when they backed some far-right opinion with an out-of-context Scripture citation: “Empires don’t crucify hairy provincial preachers for telling people to pray more.” This book challenges both my unspoken assumptions, and my students’. When Christians enlist God in partisan debates, we undermine the uniqueness of Christian community. But prayer provides that community’s lifeline. We cannot be the People without talking with our King.
Wilson-Hartgrove and Claiborne do not deny traditions of prayer in conventional Protestant churches, but they call us, having voiced our prayers, to strive higher. They call us to truly live out not just our own prayers, but Christ's prayers for us. Prayer, they say, is not passively laying our requests at God's feet. We pray, and we answer prayer when we strive to achieve the fullness of the Gospel.