Is It a Prayer, or Isn’t It?

The Arizona State House

This little news item calls for brief theological reflection…

The AP reported last week on an incident in the Arizona House of Representatives. State representatives take turns offering a prayer of invocation; Rep. Juan Mendez– described in reports as an atheist– took his turn and “asked House members not to bow their heads but to instead look around at each other ‘sharing together this extraordinary experience of being alive and of dedicating ourselves to working toward improving the lives of the people of our state.'” (from Juan Cole’s Religion Clause)

The following day, Rep. Steve Smith– described in reports as a Christian– expressed his judgment that Mendez’s offering on the previous day did not count as a prayer. (The full report and link are below).

I take Mendez’s offering as authentic prayer for the following reasons. First, it is life-affirming: his words regarding the “extraordinary experience of being alive” evoke the gift and mystery that life itself is. Second, the gesture of looking at other humans can be reasonably interpreted as a gesture pointing us to the sacred (even if, from the atheistic point of view, it does not point us to the divine). Third, his words call people out of narrow self-regard, to consider the larger whole.

Smith is right that Mendez’s invocation was not Christian prayer; it is also obvious but worth mentioning that, at the end of the day, there are irreconcilable differences between an atheistic and a Christian way of experiencing and acting in the world.

One might also plausibly think, however, that the Christian way of engaging difference– especially in this diverse and pluralistic nation– would be to seek common ground when possible. Followers of Jesus have a special obligation, in this age of fear and in this culture of death, to ally when possible with all who affirm life, and who desire to care for all people– as expressed in Rep. Mendez’s prayer– even if they don’t believe in God. This does not mean softening the gospel, or selling out to syncretism.

On the contrary, such Christian engagement comes from a deep trust in the One whose ways of working towards the fulfillment of history are mysterious: a deep trust in the God whose ways are not our ways. It is faithful, Biblically-grounded Christian practice not to put limits on how, and where, the Holy One is working out the purpose of the world.

AP today reports on an unusual controversy in Arizona over the opening prayer offered by one member of the state House of Representatives. Members of the House rotate in offering the invocation. On Tuesday it was Rep. Juan Mendez’s turn. With members of the Secular Coalition for Arizona in the visitor’s gallery, Mendez, an atheist, asked House members not to bow their heads but to instead look around at each other “sharing together this extraordinary experience of being alive and of dedicating ourselves to working toward improving the lives of the people of our state.”

The next day, Rep. Steve Smith complained that Mendez’s remarks did not qualify as a prayer. He asked other House members to join him in a second prayer in repentance for there not being one the prior day. Smith said that Mendez’s remarks were analogous to someone leading the Pledge of Allegiance by pledging “I love England.”

via Religion Clause.

via Member Page.

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