Archive for October 26th, 2006

Prayer and the Powers

October 26, 2006

We are finally to the last chapter in Walter Wink’s The Powers That Be. (Don’t get too excited, however. I will print the epilogue in a final post in the near future.)

My summary of the book so far: God wars against unseen world forces (i.e. “principalities and powers”) both through the life of Jesus and his followers. This war dismisses both the practice of violence (“morally illegitimate or excessive use of force”) and pacifism as commonly understood, choosing instead to fight in a third way: nonviolent, creative resistance. The foundation for this choice of weaponry is a love for ALL mankind, including enemies (whom we also wish to rescue from the “powers that be”).


I will freely admit that I was disappointed to find that the last chapter involved prayer. Not that I have anything against prayer per se, but I have always found the concept and practice problematic. Plus, it is often used as a cop-out from personal responsibility (e.g. Would you help me out? Well, I’m sort of busy… Would you at least pray for me? Oh sure, I’ll pray for you…)

But Wink’s thoughts challenged me to rethink the subject.

To Wink, prayer is the very foundation of the battle against “the powers that be.” By that, he argues that it is in prayer that the secret hold the powers have on our lives is broken, and that it is there on “the interior battlefield where the decisive victory is won before any engagement in the outer world is even possible.”

Which all sounds good.

But what happens there? How is the secret hold broken, and how is a decisive victory won?

Wink writes, “In prayer we are ordering God to bring the kingdom near… We have been commanded to command. We are required by God to haggle with God for the sake of the sick, the obsessed, the weak, and to conform our lives to our intercessions. This is a God who invents history in interaction with those ‘who hunger and thirst to see right prevail’ (Matt 5:6, REB)… Praying is rattling God’s cage and waking God up and setting God free… When we pray, we are not sending a letter to a celestial White House, where it is sorted among piles of others. We are engaged, rather, in an act of co-creation… History belongs to the intercessors, who believe the future into being. If this is so, then intercession, far from being an escape from action, is a means of focusing for action and of creating action. By means of our intercessions we veritably cast fire upon the earth and trumpet the future into being.”

So prayer, far from being reduced to a list of personal requests or a religious act, becomes instead a time to envision justice, to call on God to bring it to be, and a time to recapture my place in that purposeful vision.

But, as scary as it seems, let’s be honest. God doesn’t always seem to hold up his end of the bargain.

Sometimes we are way off base in our prayers, of course. That should go without saying. “But,” Wink goes on, “there are situations where God’s will seems so transparently evident that to assert that God says no is to portray God as a cosmic thug. I still cannot see, after thirty years, how the death by leukemia of a six-year-old boy in our parish was in any sense an act of God. And does anyone wish to argue that our current worldwide rate of death by starvation – approximately twenty-two thousand children a day, or around eight million a year – is the will of God?”

Wink’s answer is that prayer is not simply a two-way transaction (humans and God). He argues that we often leave the principalities and powers out of the equation (for an example from Scripture, he offers the story recorded in Daniel 10). Like the freedom granted individual human beings, institutions likewise have freedom to wreck the world around us (speaking to the leukemia example, he speaks to a corporation’s record for pollution in that very area).

He writes, “In short, prayer involves not just God and people, but God and people and Powers. What God is able to do in the world is hindered to a considerable extent by the rebelliousness, resistance, and self-interest of the Powers exercising their freedom under God.”

Later, referring to the Nazi dilemma, he continues: “In such a time, God may appear to be impotent. Perhaps God is. God may be unable to intervene directly, but nevertheless showers the world with potential coincidences that require only a human response to become miracles. When the miracle happens, we feel that God has intervened in a special way. But God does not intervene only occasionally. God is the constant possibility of transformation pressing on every occasion, even those that are lost for lack of a human response. God is not mocked. The wheels of justice may turn slowly, but they are inexorable…”

So in the end, prayer is calling on God to do what is right in the world, and in so doing, realign “us” with that vision as well. But our adversary is formidable. It seeks to have us again while clinging desperately to those in its grasp with a continual thirst for more. Nonetheless, we fight on with the weapon of love for all humanity, and it is in our quiet, clarifying moments in prayer that we both develop and maintain the vision of the world that is to come that allows us to practice that love with the courage it requires.