Friday, November 18, 2011

The Power of Prayer and the Politics of Hope

I met Walter Wink at Kirkridge Retreat Center around 1979, and I was quite taken with his theology. He spoke of a politics of hope and the myth of redemptive violence. Between 1984 and 1993, Wink wrote a trilogy: Naming the Powers: The Language of Powers in the New Testament ('84), Unmasking the Powers: The Invisible Forces That Determine Human Existence ('86), and Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination ('92). There are damn few theology books that leave me wanting more, but when I finished each of these, I could hardly wait for the next one to come out.

Wink's name came up today in a theology-nerd conversation, and I remembered a chapter on prayer. I went home and looked it up, soon realizing that his thought is important to re-view in light of the current, dis-jointed state of society, with everyone occupying everything everywhere except the only place that lasting change can ever really happen: our hearts. Don't get me wrong, I'm all for Occupying Wall Street. Let's occupy the halls of Congress, too, until such time as the corporations are removed as a source of election funding (see Lawrence Lessig's book Republic Lost, and if you think a Constitutional Convention is a good idea, check out the Nov. 16, 2011 article in the Atlantic, then we can occupy the State Houses and voting booths. But we'll keep getting stuck in the cycle of violence if we don't tend to our hearts. This is the great work of our lives. How do we tend to our hearts, when so much is going on? The exercise of prayer, especially praying for others (intercessory prayer) builds strong hearts twelve ways.

There is much work to be done, but first things first, because we need to be calm and strong and integrated and healthy and compassionate and aware and grounded and open and discerning and wise and innocent and grateful and so many other things that can only be made manifest by living from our hearts, so we can speak with our true voices, and not the dismissive, cranky ones that show up when we're doing a superior dance, or tired, or overwhelmed (picture a little kid saying "I'm NOT tired!"). God is on everyone's side, because there is no other side and there are no other people. Dealing with everyone God sends, requires equanimity. The willingness to listen and do the deep internal work of knowing and keeping watch over oneself, to develop the skills to balance the work of the journey in community, without flaring up or burning out, is crucial to our common life. Only then will be able to tease out the thousands of threads sewn together over the last 235 years, and build a better world together.

I still can't beam over to every crisis to kiss it and make it better. That is, however, exactly what is needed, and prayer and meditation are fine ways to travel, within and without. Feed the hungry, visit the sick, sing for the dying and the newborn, tend the weary, clothe the naked, educate so people can find meaningful work based on their gifts, sit quietly with those who mourn, look deep within and tend to what is dark, bring your A game to the community, here, there, and everywhere. If the inner work is done, the outer work is much smoother sailing. Don't believe me, see for yourself. Learn to quiet your mind so you can occupy your heart.

Here's an excerpt from Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination:
"Intercessory prayer is spiritual defiance of what is, in the name of what God has promised. Intercession visualizes an alternative future to the one apparently fated by the momentum of current contradictory forces. It infuses the air of a time yet to be into the suffocating atmosphere of the present...

The message is clear: history belongs to the intercessors who believe the future into being. This is not simply a religious statement. It is also true of Communists or capitalists or anarchists as it is of Christians. The future belongs to whoever can envision a new and desirable possibility, which faith then fixes upon as inevitable.

This is the politics of hope. Hope envisages its future and then acts as if that future is now irresistible, thus helping to create the reality for which it longs. The future is not closed. There are fields of forces whose actions are somewhat predictable. But how they will interact is not. Even a small number of people, firmly committed to the new inevitability on which they have fixed their imaginations, can decisively affect the shape the future takes. These shapers of the future are the intercessors, who call out of the future the longed-for new present. In the New Testament, the name and texture and aura of that future is God’s domination-free order, the reign of God...

No doubt our intercessions sometimes change us as we open ourselves to new possibilities we had not guessed. No doubt our prayers to God reflect back upon us as a divine command to become the answer to our prayer. But if we are to take the biblical understanding seriously, intercession is more than that. It changes the world and it changes what is possible to God. It creates an island of relative freedom in a world gripped by unholy necessity. A new force field appears that hitherto was only potential. The entire configuration changes as the result of the change of a single part. A space opens in the praying person, permitting God to act without violating human freedom. The change in one person thus changes what God can thereby do in that world...

Praying is rattling God’s cage and waking God up and setting God free and giving this famished God water and this starved God food and cutting the ropes off God’s hands and the manacles off God’s feet and washing the caked sweat from God’s eyes and then watching God swell with life and vitality and energy and following God wherever God goes.

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, in which one little sector of the universe rises up and becomes translucent, incandescent, a vibratory centre of power that radiates the power of the universe.

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."


I give thanks for Walter, who led me to see the wisdom of integrating action and contemplation, for those who remind me of our capacity to change God's mind when the work of love demands it (go ahead and yell!), for those who taught me to pray for the cop who is arresting me (Hi, Elliot!) and my enemies, who are no different from me, and for those who continually teach me that we are instruments of love and peace, with the ability to blend our talents creatively in ways that include absolutely everybody. Keep up the good work, and I'll see you on the road.


  1. Good, deep thoughts. I love this quote: "history belongs to the intercessors who believe the future into being". That's it. Thank you.

  2. Elizabeth Morris DownieNovember 25, 2011 at 9:48 PM

    Thanks for reminding me of Walter Wink. Time to re-read his trilogy. He's right on in speaking of the power of prayer to change not only the pray-er but also the world, bringing it a tiny bit closer to the reign of God. What's the first thing Jesus taught us to pray for? "your kingdom/reign come, your will be done on earth." I think we need to pray "bigger" and more deeply.

  3. (Third time's the charm?) Thank you for this -- it helps me bring some things closer to my heart that I've been holding at arm's length (or further). Big long breathing hugs.