The grim culture war demon continues to harass the church. It flogs the brothers and sisters into howling arguments as to why voting for or against a candidate, in particular one seeking the symbolically loaded office of the President, is an absolute Christian duty.
It must cause the demon a spasm of pain to read a sober response from a reliably ideological American mainline denomination. Presiding Bishop Michael Curry of The Episcopal Church issued a plainspoken Statement regarding prayers for the President,
So, should we pray for the President?
We can and, indeed, I believe we must pray for all who lead in our civic order, nationally and internationally. I pray for the President in part because Jesus Christ is my Savior and Lord. If Jesus is my Lord and the model and guide for my life, his way must be my way, however difficult. And the way of prayer for others is a part of how I follow the way of Jesus.
Anglican liturgies usually include prayer for those in public authority. I’ve found it salutary to include the names of office holders in corporate, public prayer, because when there is a transition the prayer goes on no matter what person or party is named. It is somewhat subversive, in my view, as it highlights the abiding kingdom of God over/against the passing kingdoms of the world.
And, as Bishop Curry says, it is our duty. He cites 1 Timothy 2,
First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings should be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. (NRSV)
This Spirit-breathed, Apostolic exhortation lays out a duty which includes interceding for the well being of public figures and finding something positive or at least redeemable in them for which to give thanks, even while we might beg God to correct them via our supplications and other prayers. More from Bishop Curry,
I grew up in a historically black congregation in the Episcopal Church. We prayed for leaders who were often lukewarm or even opposed to our very civil rights. We got on our knees in church and prayed for them, and then we got up off our knees and we Marched on Washington. Following the way of Jesus, we prayed and protested at the same time. We prayed for our leaders who were fighting for our civil rights, we prayed for those with whom we disagreed, and we even prayed for those who hated us. And we did so following Jesus, whose way is the way of unselfish, sacrificial love. And that way is the way that can set us all free.
At the same time, I think the Bishop underplays a dimension of the 1 Timothy passage. We are to ask God’s favor on leaders so that they will be chill. That’s right, so that they aren’t rampaging, stumbling, or otherwise trampling over the world in some messianic effort to recreate it. We want their steadiness in humdrum governance which lets God’s people grow in our true identity as citizens of a kingdom not of this passing world, as we await its true and only Savior.
This doesn’t mean passivity on our part. In the Acts of the Apostles, there is an episode of injustice within the church itself,
Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. (Acts 6:1 ESV)
The complaint is not ignored. A solution agreeable to the whole community is sought. But a priority is maintained – the urgent is not allowed to eclipse the essential,
And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” (6:2-4)
The culture war says that prayer and ministry of the word must take a back seat to the resolution of issues. Cries for the state to impose “values” or a model of “justice” on an unwilling population, and for the church to leave God out of it and just provide money, meeting spots, statements and volunteers to this or that agenda, inverts the New Testament witness. And makes the demon’s head stop hurting.
One of my favorite readings came up this week. It tells us that justice is coming, but that it will not be secured by human volume or violence. We will solve a problem, temporarily, here while making another one over there, but all the while what the righteous long for is coming to be in ways our overwrought senses tend to miss,
Behold my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my Spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
and a faintly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.
He will not grow faint or be discouraged
till he has established justice in the earth;
and the coastlands wait for his law.
(Isaiah 42:1-6 RSV)
It is the church’s work to bear witness to that servant until he returns in the fullness of Lordly power to make all things new and complete. Even if our witness is ignored and things stay old and corrupt in the meantime.
Praying for kings is a Christian duty; making or unmaking them is always an exercise in compromise with a fallen and passing world. The culture war demon wants us chained to those compromises, ultimately making them into idols as the objects of faith and ministry rather than its occasional, provisional expressions.