Lately, I have seen many pray on Facebook for God to rid the church of homophobia and other “isms” that are destructive to ourselves and those we love. Reading some people’s posts portray God as somehow stalling or that God is not moving the timeline of equality and liberation fast enough. There are also those who struggle with why God would “allow” such mistreatment of themselves and others. I am hoping this post helps some process different ways to pray for the vision of shalom I believe both God and ourselves are yearning for. I also hope it gives another perspective of who God is and how God may be involved in the vision coming to pass.
Basic needs are needs for God to love, heal, save, and deliver from the most fundamental obstacles to human flourishing. For example, a basic need is to be free from poverty. God never desires that people be deprived of sustenance and starve to death. Another basic need is to be free from racism and oppression. It is never God’s will for people to suffer discrimination because of the way they look, for example, or because of their gender, sexual orientation, race, and so on. Other basic needs include the necessity of a world free from violence and genocide and a world in which healing from devastating injuries and accidents can occur. A basic spiritual need is one of salvation. God always desires people to be saved and to know his love intimately.
God always seeks to lovingly meet the basic needs of humanity and the rest of his creation. Moment to moment, God offers pathways to meet those needs. God’s primary medium for providing for basic needs is people. Remember, God has an open-door policy. God continually looks for open-hearted faith on the earth and seeks the cooperation of human beings to co-steward creation toward shalom. While the motivation to pray common, petitionary prayers for the basic needs of others is pure, God is already actively seeking to meet those needs. God isn’t keeping us from shalom; we are, or those other agencies we have no control over are.
In the rest of this short piece, I want to flush out my view of conspiring prayerand how it may differ than the traditional view of petitionary prayer. I will use Tony Campolo’s prayer at the 2016 Democratic National Convention as a case study. Tony Campolo is a speaker, author, sociologist, pastor, and social activist. To my surprise, after reading my book, Tony wrote,
“I think Mark Karris’ book is extremely important for the church to read and understand. His premise that God is a God of uncontrolling love is right on target. His critique of my prayer at the Democratic National Convention was also right on target. If I had thought the thoughts that he had eloquently set down in his book, I would have prayed differently.”
Now, let’s get on with it.
Conspiring prayeris not marked with God’s golden seal of approval, deemed pre-eminent above all others. It is by no means the definitive approach. It is one of many effective forms of petitionary prayer. What makes it novel and paradigm-shifting is how it integrates God’s uncontrolling, loving nature in a framework that incorporates a compelling theodicy with a viable and transformational praxis.
The English word conspirecomes from the Latin word conspirare, which literally means “to breathe together” and figuratively “to act in harmony toward a common end.” In today’s usage, the word conspire has a negative connotation, which is to plot with someone to do something wrong or evil; but conspiring prayer combines both of the former meanings. Conspiring prayer is performed with God rather than to God. Conspiring prayer is a form of prayer where we create space in our busy lives to align our hearts with God’s heart, where our spirit and God’s Spirit breathe harmoniously together, and where we plot together to subversively overcome evil with acts of love and goodness (Romans 12:21).
With my definition of conspiring prayer, let’s explore Tony’s prayer. Looking at his heartfelt invocation through the lens of conspiring prayer, I can see a few areas of fine-tuning that I would consider to make his prayer more effective in promoting shalom. Here are the opening lines:
Dear God, we are a nation that needs healing. Break down the barriers of race and ethnicity that separate us. Cure the sexism and homophobia that deny the dignity of so many of our fellow Americans. Show us how to love the needy in our midst—and even our enemies. Help us overcome evil with good.
A traditional understanding of petitionary prayer places the responsibility on God to bring about love, healing, and grace to those who are prayed for, while conspiring prayer places the responsibility on both God and the petitioner. Conspiring prayer also keeps in mind God’s uncontrolling, loving character and individual free will.
Campolo’s first line, “Dear God, we are a nation that needs healing,” fits within the model of conspiring prayer. While God knows that the nation needs healing and grieves with us, sharing the pangs of grief with God about the injustice we see in the world is a beautiful and relational act. The remedy that Campolo alludes to in the second and third lines is only halfway correct. It is not God alone who needs to “break down barriers of race and ethnicity” or “cure the sexism and homophobia.” These problems require our participation. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it), God is not in control. If God had his way, the barriers of race and ethnicity would have been broken down a long time ago.
In God “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). God is much more interested in the heart than in the outward appearance and the labels we place on one another (1 Samuel 16:7). Our partnering with God will break down the barriers of race and ethnicity so that we can experience unity amidst diversity. Praying to God for basic needs such as ridding our country of sexism and homophobia and expecting God to unilaterally accomplish the request is immature. Immature is not bad. It is not like God grades our prayers. But we are after mature and effective prayer.
Campolo’s prayer would have been more in the spirit of conspiring prayer had he been specific and honest about where the barriers of sexism and homophobia were located and asked God to remove them. The barriers of racism, homophobia, and sexism reside in the hearts of the people who were in that very room. Therefore, to pray, “Break down the barriers of race and ethnicity in our hearts,” and, “Cure the sexism and homophobia in our hearts,” would be more effective.
Petitionary prayers that hope God will unilaterally root out societal ills and heal our nation of ‘isms’ are magical and superstitious. God has an open-door policy. God can’t root out racism, sexism, and homophobia in hearts that refuse to let him in. We must take seriously our role as free agents in the world. “You do it, God” types of prayers will never be as transformative as “How can we do it, God?” types of prayers. That is why it is best to ask God for the grace to repent and the power to heal and love the other unconditionally. Adding “our” to Campolo’s prayers is not just semantics. Little shifts in the way we pray can make a considerable difference over time.
Remember, because of his loving nature, God cannot single- handedly control the will of human beings. Or, if people prefer, God, for the most part, chooses not to single-handedly control and forcefully intervene in the lives of others. American philosopher William Hasker takes the “can, but chooses not to” approach. He writes:
Frequent and routine intervention by God to prevent the misuse of freedom by his creatures and/or to repair the harm done by this misuse would undermine the structure of human life and community intended in the plan of creation; accordingly, such intervention should not be expected to occur.
Whatever view a person holds on whether God can or cannot control others, God usually does nothing in or through people without their cooperation. Therefore, Campolo’s last two requests are congruent with conspiring prayer and God’s uncontrolling nature: “Show us how to love the needy in our midst— and even our enemies. Help us overcome evil with good.” The key words are “show us” and “help us.” To pray, “God, show us,” is far more potent than, “God, show them.” “Show us” types of prayers will be more effective in making our corporate petitions a reality. God’s ability to root out racism correlates with our ability to open the doors of our hearts in surrender to God’s love and in obedience to God’s loving principles.
One last opportunity for effectiveness in line with conspiring prayer is to stop and listen after the “show us” request has been made. To ask God to “show us” and then not allow God to fulfill that request is an empty prayer. While God knows the heart of the one who prays and its sincerity, God also needs access to the heart to speak his message and share his mission. Obviously, Campolo had a limited amount of time for his prayer. The Democratic National Convention was not a church service. Nevertheless, the prayer would have been more effective if he had led the attendees in a moment of silence.
Silence is one of the most effective acts a person can engage in to rid the heart of idolatry. Silence gives God an opportunity to expose the shadows within. It creates a moment for God to break open new pathways for his light to shine in the world and for petitioners to creatively imagine how they can love the needy and their enemies in the future.
Petitionary prayer for others cannot be an opiate lulling us to lazy living. We must no longer give in to its delusions that become obstacles to what God longs to accomplish in the world. We can no longer behold human subjugation, oppression, and atrocities believing, “God is in control and he will take care of it in his time.” Once we realize God does not solve our problems alone, we can drench ourselves in God’s love as individuals and communities, dive heart-first into the world’s blistering traumas, and expand God’s empire of shalom across the earth.
A paradigm shift regarding petitionary prayer for others is in order. A powerfully loving God doesn’t need to be reminded or talked into doing what is intrinsic to his nature. It is we, the church, who are called now more than ever to “act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with” our God (Micah 6:8). Let us pray more effective and less harmful prayers. Let us avoid praying in a way that makes God look bad, not only for God’s sake but for the sake of the world. Let us become divine echoes!