Friday, May 04, 2012

The Bible and the Ballot: Interview 3: Isn't prayer enough?

In view of the upcoming Malaysia's general election, Graceworks has conducted an interview with all the contributors of The Bible and the Ballot: Reflections on Christian Political Engagement in Malaysia Today. Here is the third round.

Question 3: Shouldn't we pray instead of going out into the streets?

I don't think it's an either/or decision, but a matter of doing both. Mobilizing people is important in order to get those in power to listen. Protests were used to end slavery. Protests were also used to gain equal rights for blacks in the USA. In Malaysia, protests gained the freedom of the EO6 who were maliciously and immorally treated. Protests initiated reform of the electoral system, and have brought near the elimination of the Internal Security Act. Many of us were praying before, during and after the protests. 

I agree that the first step is on our knees but then I don't recall any verse in the Bible that says we should stay on our knees. Consider Daniel and Esther – they went on their knees and then they got up and did something. Do we not need the Daniels and Esthers of today? I can think of no better example than Bishop Desmond Tutu in his quest to end apartheid in South Africa. Perhaps God has called you to be such a person.

My Lord did both ... So did Paul ... And the list adds on throughout church history. It's not an either/or, but rather a both/and answer. But I think more than a both/and answer, it's about timing. What is critical now has implications for the immediate and long-term future of Malaysia. It's less about a textbook answer and more of “what is a timely answer”. The book aims to show that a timely answer includes both humble prayerful “kneeling” and public, principled “walking”.

I think it’s a false dichotomy. Just like studying books and getting working experience: being a professional is not about choosing one or the other. It is both. So with the “battle” of politics, it is prayer and engagement, devotion and activism, personal ethics and corporate contribution.

It depends on what one means by “out there in the streets”. What if Christians pray on their knees “out there in the streets”?

But I think the question raises a dichotomy between praying for the welfare of the society and doing something (other than praying) that contributes to that welfare. I would say that both ends of the dichotomy are ontologically connected. The reality of prayer is dependent on the reality of the “doing something”, and vice versa.

Let’s say I am crossing a railway track and my right foot gets stuck between the tracks. A train is fast approaching me. The captain of the train sees me and immediately applies the brakes. But the inertia is so forceful that the train is still dashing towards me at a high speed. I see the train coming, and I pray. While praying, I try to free my foot from the tracks. The nearer the train, the harder I pray, and the faster I try to free my foot.

In this scenario, my prayer is as real as my attempt to free my jammed foot. The seriousness of my prayer can be seen through the seriousness of my attempt to free my foot. And the seriousness of my attempt to free my foot can be seen through the seriousness of my prayer.

Prayer has to be a real concern and not nonsensical babble. We pray because we are concerned. We will address the issue if the concern is real. So praying and addressing the issue reflects the seriousness of both. Thus whether we really mean what we pray about depends on whether are we doing something that shows that we mean it.


Martin Yee said...

Hi Sze Zeng,

LOL. Another interesting topic again.

Luther sees prayer as a posture of dependence on God as our Father and Creator who rules over all the nations, and that God's will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Calvin and Karl Barth will see prayer as an act of obedience and an ethical response as God's creature. See the interesting article "Prayer and Ethics: Reflections on Calvin and Barth" by John Kelsay (Harvard Theological Review 82:2 April 1989).

For Karl Barth, man is seen as a covenant partner with God. Man as a covenant partner is second in the equation, he is chosen to respond and to be addressed by God. True prayer is possible because God has chosen to address humanity. Thus, prayer is made possible by the divine command. To Barth, prayer is not "for us" or "for God". It is simply an act of one who is obedient and responds to God's Word.

For Calvin, prayer cannot be thought of primarily as petition as God's sovereignty cannot be modified by human appeals. The "answers" to prayer are spoken of in the sense that its accord with God's will and would have been accomplished in any case. Prayer is a conversation, a relation between two parties. One prays so as to recognise God's beneficence and to render God His due. Also prayer is seen as an expression and cultivation of certain dispositions as attributes of faith. So it is "ethical" to pray as a Christian.

Just another 2 cents worth from a novice.

Sze Zeng said...

Wow Martin, there's great stuffs!

Thank you for pointing out these different views on prayer. It's good to learn from these men of God on the essential pratice of the faith.

Martin Yee said...

On further reflections, Jesus' crucifixion was a "political" action taken by the Romans against someone whom they perceived as threatening the Pax Romana.

Jesus was treated as a subversive element by the Romans. His followers later turned the Roman world "upside down". Jesus and his disciples literally brought down the Roman empire not by sword or coercion but by their love for one another, their faith that overcomes death and by their prayer. A theologian recently pointed out that the Second Petition in the Lord's Prayer "Thy Kingdom Come" is "subversive" in the face of the imperfections and injustices around us which seem to indicate anything but God's Kingdom has come, at least on the surface.

We also need to be careful of "political idolatry". In the beginning God created man in His own image, but later man created 'gods' in their own image -their activism, their achievements, politics and ideologies. And worse still man the creature tried to make the Creator bow down to their creations. They set up their 'idols" and tried to incorporate "God" as part of their works so as to be recognized as politics with God's supposed blessings and direction.

History is a cruel reminder that many overthrew a hated regime only to find themselves in a worse lot or at best not that much better. On this side of eternity the yearning for perfection, justice and fairness continues and remain elusive. That is why our Lord teached us to pray "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as if it is in heaven". Let us pray that God will bring His Kingdom come...and soon. Man tried to usher in God's Kingdom by the sword but Jesus did it by the cross. The cross is indeed subversive to any human enterprise or ideology. His kingdom has arrived but is not consummated. But at least we have the eschatological hope in the crucified God who turned the world and its system upside down. Let us pray "Thy Kingdom Come". Soli Deo Gloria.

Another 1 cent worth from a novice.

Sze Zeng said...

well said, Martin. That's what Moltmann thought too, when he started his political theology in the late 60s.