‘Prayer is a marvellous and necessary supplement of our feeble efforts but it is a dangerous substitute’ Martin Luther King.
I do not know the original context of these words. The quotation turned up in the monthly mail-out of Contemplation and Action; a movement based on the ministry of Franciscan Richard Rohr. It was part of a series of comments on Black Lives Matter.
As a Baptist, King would have been brought up in an intense praying culture. In his time Baptist prayer meetings were signature events. They define the pattern of Baptist spirituality. Personal prayer is expected of each member of the congregation. So his comments have a back story.
“Let us pray about this” was a default response to any situation. King knew this could be a powerful force. Prayer has been called primal speech. It is an intrinsic part of human evolution. Whoever you might pray to and whatever you think will happen is not the point. Prayer like Soul describes the intrinsic mystery of our life. We are not alone.
But is prayer a substitute for action? King seems to be suggesting this. He knows action can be deeply influenced by prayer but prayer instead of action is in his words ‘dangerous’. What could he mean by this?
As a Baptist brought up in the same culture as King I know how Prayer can be used as a source of manipulation. Not the manipulation of God but rather others who may be listening. You can demonstrate the soundness (coolness) of your thoughts by praying using the right words and always signing off with ‘but may your will be done, Lord’. This is dangerous prayer because it is deceitful.
Yet more than that I think King is suggesting that when we use prayer as the only thing we want to do about a certain situation we are in danger of fooling ourselves and more importantly neglecting the needs of people.
The same morning I was reading this I also looked at the Embrace the Middle East website. There was a report from Ramallah on the West Bank in the Occupied Territories by Sister Bridget Tighe who is General Director of Caritas Jerusalem. She described her field visit in which she met both young Israelis and Palestinians. She writes:
A feeling of helplessness overwhelmed me and all I could do is pray. I believe that a just and peaceful solution to the conflict can be achieved if both parties have the will and strong ethical leadership to pursue it, combined by unbiased international support.
She then added this prayer:
Lord Jesus, you walked this land, you know its rugged beauty, its mountains and valleys. Give to the peoples who claim it is their heritage the courage, generosity and confidence to share it, and the strength and commitment to live in peace: two peoples in one Holy Land.
What Sister Bridget and Rev King both demonstrate is prayer begins with intention. What is behind our desire to pray?
In the words of James Montgomery
Prayer is the soul’s sincere desire
uttered or unexpressed.
The motion of a hidden fire
that trembles in the breast.
Rev John Rackley