Today Especially, Pray for "Those In Authority"
A brief Election Day post
Over the past weeks, I’ve started and stopped several Election Day posts. Each began with a desire to share some wisdom that could help guide voters on their way to the polls; each ended with uncertainty that I possessed any such wisdom, or that it would make a difference amid the stubbornness and irrationality that seem to structure American politics in 2022.
So I was ready to let this day come and go without any comment. But as I prepared for this afternoon’s meeting of my Cold War history class, I looked at my Slides from the last time I taught the course — Fall 2020 — and remembered that I had actually started today’s session with a brief Election Day meditation. Here’s an updated version of what I said then, and will tell my students in person in a few hours.
I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. (1 Tim 2:1-2, NIV)
The “then” is significant: the apostle had just exhorted Timothy to hold “on to faith and a good conscience” (1:19). So we might expect Paul to articulate something like a political theology: how Christian faith can guide our policy preferences, or what it means to preserve conscience in the midst of amoral politicking.
But no, Paul simply urges prayer — for “all those in authority,” among “all people.”
If we know anything about the experience of early Christians in the Roman Empire, we might wonder how ready they were to pray for their persecutors. How could they have admitted such brutal, godless rulers into the intimacy of the same act through which they lifted up the bodies and souls of those they loved best in the world?
Yet ca. 200 AD, the African theologian Tertullian tried to explain to Roman officials that Christians were such admirable citizens that they prayed for their emperor, even should he “make war on heaven,” and for the empire’s security. “Let this, good rulers, be your work,” Tertullian concluded, “wring from us the soul, beseeching God on the emperor’s behalf.”
If Paul and Tertullian are right, then we ought to imagine the Christian prayers that may have silently risen amid this class’ turbulent history: prayers for Stalin from the Gulag, or for Kim Il-sung or Ho Chi Minh from prisons in North Korea or North Vietnam. As we discussed liberation theology last month, we might have expected Latin Americans to pray for corrupt dictators, greedy corporations, or merciless revolutionaries. Today, we can expect prayers for Mao Zedong from Chinese Christians, even as his Cultural Revolution drove that church further underground.
But first, let us pray for ourselves and our fellow citizens, for we live in a political system that gives authority not to kings or emperors, tyrants or juntas, but to the people — never more clearly than this first Tuesday after the first Monday in November.
It is a heavy crown we all wear as we head off to the polls. In any election, we entrust our economy, our health care, our education, our security, and every other contested issue to the collective wisdom of, well, ourselves. And now democracy itself seems to be on the ballot.
So what can we do but turn to God?
First, to give thanks. That we don’t live under history’s many despotisms, but under the far gentler, no less frustrating governance of each other. That more and more Americans have won that right to vote, even as our Cold War story has continued: Black folk who were still denied suffrage when we started in the mid-1940s; citizens your age who had no say before being sent off to war in Korea or Vietnam.
Second, to ask for God’s guidance as we make today’s difficult decisions, individually and collectively. So to that end, let us pray, using these words suggested by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops:
Lord God, as the election approaches,
we seek to better understand the issues and concerns that confront our city/state/country,
and how the Gospel compels us to respond as faithful citizens in our community.
We ask for eyes that are free from blindness
so that we might see each other as brothers and sisters,
one and equal in dignity,
especially those who are victims of abuse and violence, deceit and poverty.
We ask for ears that will hear the cries of children unborn and those abandoned,
Men and women oppressed because of race or creed, religion or gender.
We ask for minds and hearts that are open to hearing the voice of leaders who will bring us closer to your Kingdom.
We pray for discernment
so that we may choose leaders who hear your Word,
live your love,
and keep in the ways of your truth
as they follow in the steps of Jesus and his Apostles
and guide us to your Kingdom of justice and peace.
We ask this in the name of your Son Jesus Christ and through the power of the Holy Spirit.
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