As our nation reels from George Floyd’s death, many in the church feel compelled to do something. Responses have run the gamut from listening, learning, and lamenting to posting black squares on Instagram, donating, marching, and more.
Yet in our rush to engage, many of us have neglected the most potent form of activism at our disposal: prayer to the sovereign God of the universe.
Campaigning to the Highest Authority
It has become standard social-media procedure after major tragedies to ridicule Christians for their supposedly impotent “thoughts and prayers.” And there is a painful truth to this rebuke, as some churches can be guilty of idleness in response to tragedy and injustice.
Yet Christians, especially those who are “woke,” should never see prayer as the world does—as powerless good vibes and well-wishes that allow one to wipe their hands clean of responsibility.
Prayer is ultimately a form of activism and campaigning, just as protesting and marching may be. As we take to the streets, share a post on justice, or donate to a justice-seeking organization, we are petitioning authorities to recognize the gross injustice of racism and to enact change.
Prayer is no different in Scripture in times of injustice. Think of David, in anger and raw honesty, petitioning God for justice (Ps. 10:12–18). Think of Jeremiah as he laments and pleads for mercy (Jer. 14:19–22), or Daniel as he begs for God to “incline your ear and hear” and “open your eyes and see our desolations” (Dan. 9:18).
When we pray in times of injustice, we are protesting to the highest authority in the universe, the perfect arbiter of all justice. As human beings made in the image of the God of justice, prayer is our foundational path to justice. Blaise Pascal calls it “the dignity of causality” that in prayer God gives us a direct line to the King of kings.
When we pray in times of injustice, we are protesting to the highest authority in the universe, the perfect arbiter of all justice.
Our apathy about prayer—and our rush to “do justice” in any number of other ways, rather than pray—may uncover not a disbelief in prayer itself, but a failure in see God as judge. Jesus, in his parable of the persistent widow, notes that while imperfect human judges and rulers respond to justice only because persistent activism becomes annoying, God will give justice more speedily: “Will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them?” (Luke 18:7).
I’m not saying prayer should be the church’s only functional response to injustice, but should it not be one of the first and foundational responses?
Protection from Performative Activism
When we as the church don’t pray before we tweet or post, we can fall victim to performative activism—acting to simply increase our social capital.
There’s an amazing Twitter account called influencersinthewild, which captures social-media influencers using the protests and activism to enhance their brand. In hilarious and truly saddening clips, you see influencers posing and framing a shot behind protestors or even pretending to clean up cities.
Although that is an extreme type of performative activism, I wonder if the avalanche of pressure on social media moves many of us to post, act, or even march out of the need to be seen as caring and lamenting rather than truly caring and lamenting. Pressure to perform activism can naturally turn us into modern-day Pharisees. Our unseen virtue becomes less important to us than our public virtue. We don’t bother with things like silent prayer because it earns us no public points.
Pressure to perform activism can naturally turn us into modern-day Pharisees. Our unseen virtue becomes less important to us than our public virtue. We don’t bother with things like silent prayer because it earns us no public points.
When our activism begins with genuine prayer, not only are we pleading to the highest possible authority, but we are ensuring that our convictions aren’t based in superficial empathy or self-righteousness. As Jesus says:
And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matt. 6:5–6)
Prayer is activism in secret. A commitment to prayer is the true litmus test of whether we’re actually acting in good faith or just jumping on the justice bandwagon.
Growing in Empathy
If we make prayer foundational in our activism, it also cultivates a natural compassion and empathy, which helps make our convictions for justice more sustainable.
Prayerless activism often leads to burnout. As the social-media buzz slows, the news cycle moves on, and businesses no longer feel pressure to churn out commercials and emails about their solidarity with the oppressed, many fair-weather warriors for social justice likewise fade in their activism.
A commitment to prayer is the true litmus test of whether we’re actually acting in good faith or just jumping on the justice bandwagon.
Yet a life of habitual prayer, especially on behalf of our African American brothers and sisters, ensures we act not only out of emotion or trendy value but also out of genuine love. For continual prayer for someone naturally binds our heart more closely to their plight. As John Onwuchekwa writes, “Prayer replaces apathy with compassion. . . . Through prayer, we find out that it’s impossible to pray for people and hold on to bitterness or indifference toward them.”
Again, prayer should not be the only way we respond to injustice, but for these reasons and doubtless more, it must not be something we neglect. Before we passionately post about #BlackLivesMatter on social media, let’s pray even more passionately to the Lord of Lords, petitioning our all-powerful, all-just God on behalf of the precious black lives that matter so dearly to him.
Written by: EUGENE PARK
First published 11.06.20: https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/prayer-is-activism/