Prayer and Social Justice

Yesterday I gave a talk at Marquette University's Faber Center for Ignatian Spirituality. It was entitled "Working for Social Justice: The Unity of Prayer and Action" and here is what I said:

A few years ago I participated in a conference in Denver that brought together Jesuits and their co-workers who labor in the field of social ministries. A number were surprised that I was there. What was the director of the Apostleship of Prayer doing at a conference on social justice? Isn't the Apostleship of Prayer concerned with the Sacred Heart of Jesus? A few of the workshops were about spirituality and prayer, and a theme during the small group sharing was the need for a strong spiritual life for people in social ministries. Without one there is a tendency to burn-out and discouragement.

Isn't that word "discouragement" interesting? It comes from the word "cor" or "heart" and it basically means to lose heart. Clearly a strong prayer life is necessary so that we don't lose heart, but I think it's important to go deeper. I want to talk about three aspects or movements of prayer and with each one we will go deeper.

First, I want to talk about intercessory prayer, a powerful force. Unfortunately, our culture tends to emphasize action over prayer. When problems arise we tend to work harder rather than to pray harder, and then, when our work doesn't accomplish what we hoped for, we pray as a last resort.

There are some other tendencies that go against intercessory prayer and they arise from a lack of faith. I've often heard people say something like this: "What's the point of praying? God knows everything. God knows what we need and God is all-powerful. My prayers don't do anything and are really superfluous given that God knows everything anyway. I'm not informing God of anything He doesn't already know when I pray for others." Another tendency is to think of God as stingy. Like the unjust judge in the Gospel, God answers our prayers only after receiving so many of them that He's tired of hearing from us. He has a certain quota of prayers that He needs to get before He will act. This is not the God in whom we believe and to whom we pray.

God is all-knowing and all-powerful. He loves and respects His creation. He shares His work with us. According to Genesis, God created the world and then invited humanity to be stewards of creation. God invites us to share in His enterprise of caring for the good creation He made. Like a loving parent who really doesn't need the help of the children to bake a cake or plane a piece of wood, God invites us to share in His work because doing so is a sign of love and respect.

Moreover, God did not create human beings to be robots programmed to do the right thing. God created us to be free, like God Himself, and that means we have a choice whether or not to join in God's work. The history of the human race shows that the predominant choice has been to refuse to accept our responsibility to care for creation as God had planned for us.

Because God is Love and respects our freedom, God does not force us. God knows what we need but God wants us to freely choose and ask for what we need. A great example of this is in the Gospel where Jesus heals a blind man named Bartimaeus who has been crying out "Son of David, have pity on me?" What does Jesus do? He first asks: "What do you want me to do for you?" Doesn't it seem like a no-brainer? Here's a blind man crying out for help and Jesus, able to read human hearts, asks him what he wants! Jesus respects him too much to assume what he wants. He wants the man to be in touch with his desires and to ask. In this way Jesus shows him the utmost respect and reverence.

The same is true for us. Through intercessory prayer we first get in touch with our desires. We give thought to the movements and desires of our heart and then we put them into words. In doing this we show our humility and our dependence upon God who, like a loving parent, loves to be asked for help.

Then, when we pray, we become the co-laborers that God created us to be. We become instruments for God's grace to enter the world. It is as though our prayers open up channels for God's grace to enter the world. It's not that God is stingy and waits for so many people to pray before choosing to act. God respects our freedom and invites us to work with Him. The more of us who pray for a particular intention, the more God's grace can enter into the situation for which we are praying.

Prayer is indeed powerful, but it's also a mystery. What about "unanswered prayers?" Some people complain: "I pray and pray and God doesn't hear me." No. God hears and answers every prayer, but sometimes the answer is not what we want. God sees the bigger picture. God respects every person. We may pray for the conversion of another, but God will never take people's freedom away or force them to choose a path they do not choose themselves.

Intercessory prayer calls us to humility and faith. It challenges us to go deeper, which brings us to the next movement or element of prayer: it changes the one praying.

My second point is that prayer challenges us to be consistent. We cannot pray and then act in a way that contradicts our prayers. For example, we can't pray, as we do periodically with the Holy Father's monthly intentions, for humanity to care for the environment, and then make choices that disrespect and abuse creation. Our prayers lead us to examine ourselves. If we pray with honesty and integrity, then our behaviors and actions should match our prayers.
Our prayer will also lead us to learn more about the people and issues for which we are praying. It will lead us to action.

But prayer takes us deeper yet. Prayer transforms us. It's not enough to know; we need the power to act on our knowledge.

Anyone who has read the Bible knows that God wants justice and peace for His people. The Law of Moses addresses the needs of orphans and widows, strangers and aliens. The words of the Prophets address social injustice and inequality. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus spoke of forgiveness and love, even of our enemies. We know these things. But we do not carry them out. We don't have the power to carry them out.

There are two places in the Book of Ezekiel (Chapters 11 and 36) where God, through the Prophet, makes a big promise. God promises to take from us our stony, hard hearts and give us natural, human hearts. Where was this prophecy ever fulfilled? Only in Jesus. Jesus gives us that new heart, His own Sacred Heart.

In his encyclical "Veritatis Splendor," Pope John Paul II relates the story of the rich young man who asked Jesus what good he needed to do to attain eternal life. Jesus told him that he knew what he needed to do: follow the commandments. But the rich man says that he has done this and asks what more needed to be done. Jesus told him to follow Him. It's not enough to know what we need to do. For centuries humans have known this. We need the power to act on what we know. Pope John Paul II points out that the ethic of Jesus is an impossible one, humanly impossible, that is. Only with Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit, only with a new heart, can humans do what is right.

St. Paul also makes this clear in his Letter to the Romans, Chapter 7. Remember: this is Paul after his conversion, after he met Jesus face-to-face on the road to Damascus and experienced a radical change. Even after that profound conversion, Paul wrote about his struggle, saying that the things he wanted to do, he didn't do, and the things he didn't want to do, he did. Who, he asks, will save him from this situation of helplessness? Thanks be to God, he says, he and we have a Savior--Jesus Christ.

Jesus comes to us in Word and Sacrament at the Eucharist to transform us. He give us a new heart, His own Heart, in Holy Communion. He speaks to us through the Word which is proclaimed. It's a Word that is living and effective, as Hebrews Chapter 4 says. Through prayer with the Gospels we can enter more deeply into the mind and heart of Jesus and be transformed.

Let's for a moment access our own interiors. Let's get in touch with some of the movements of our own hearts.

What brings you sorrow? What brings a lump to your throat and tears to your eyes? What situations or people lead you to say, "My heart goes out to them?" If you feel this way sometimes, how much more does Jesus? An actor named Bruce Marchiano once played the role of Jesus in a movie of the Gospel of Matthew. A good actor, as we know, can't approach a scene and think: "Now what would Jesus do here? How would Jesus play this scene?" The actor must become the character he is playing. And so it was for Marchiano. But at the last moment, before the first scene, a crowd scene, was about to be filmed, he was desperate. He still didn't feel that after all his prayer and study he had entered into the mind and heart of Jesus, that he had become the character he was about to play. He still didn't have Jesus' point of view, how everything would have looked through Jesus' eyes. And so he prayed a simple prayer: "Lord, show me what it all looks like through your eyes."

He writes about what happened next in a book entitled "In the Footsteps of Jesus." God answered his prayer and he describes what happened this way: "it was as if the wind got knocked out of me; I couldn't breathe, and my heart just broke. It broke on a level I never knew existed, and I just started shaking, and weeping. For the first time in my life, I understood what the word 'compassion' means when it comes to Jesus Christ. I understand that it isn't just a feeling sorry for people; it's a heartbreak so intense, so deep it's like your gut is getting ripped open. It is a heartbreak that screams in utter agony for the needless, pointless pain of people...."

Jesus felt deep sorrow. Through our prayerful reading of the Gospels, entering into Jesus' thoughts and feelings, we will be better able to see others as Jesus sees them.

A second interior movement: anger. What makes you angry, so angry that you get flushed and begin to shake?

Jesus felt anger like this. All four Gospels relate a scene in the Temple when Jesus became so angry he turned over tables and drove people and animals out of the Temple. He was upset not only because God's house of prayer had been turned into a marketplace, but because of the injustice that was being done there. The money-changers took foreign currency, stamped with the image of the Emperor and "unclean," and changed it for coins that were "clean" and could be used to pay the Temple tax. But, commentators tell us, they were doing so at an unfair exchange rate so that people, who only wanted to worship God, were being cheated in the name of religion. Similarly with the animals for sacrifice that people were trying to buy. They were being charged an exorbitant fee for them and people were getting rich from religion. To this situation, Jesus reacted with anger.

You see, anger is the appropriate response to injustice. There are things in the world that ought to make us angry, and that anger should motivate us to right the wrongs. But we always do this as Jesus did. We don't destroy the evil-doers. We don't treat them as somehow less than human, as objects to be disposed of rather than brothers and sisters of our one Heavenly Father. We may confront them with tough words, as Jesus did, but we never hate them. In the end, we are willing to die for them as Jesus did, wanting their conversion and salvation, and praying, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."

A third interior movement: joy. What brings you joy? We're not talking about pleasure, but that deep interior happiness or satisfaction that we call joy.

Jesus felt great joy and it often had to do with the conversion of sinners. He experienced deep joy when sinners asked for mercy and He could forgive them. He felt joy when he saw humans treating one another as God wanted them to act. In our lives, we want to share this joy of Jesus. We want, in our prayer and our actions, to be instruments of God's reconciling love in the world so that we may give to Jesus once again the greatest joy He had when He walked this earth. We are His Body and he told His apostles after He rose from the dead: "As the Father has sent me, so I send you."

But to be sent by Jesus to continue His work of calling people to conversion and reconciling them, we need to be transformed ourselves. We need to go deeper in our spiritual lives. It's not simply a matter of having the resources to avoid burn-out or discouragement. It's not only about being people of integrity whose prayers and actions are consistent. It's not enough to be channels for God's powerful grace to enter the world. We need to be united to Jesus who said that He is the Vine and we are the branches and that apart from Him we can do nothing. We will only be able to treat others justly, with respect and love, if we are united to Him.

Years ago a musical group called "The Police," with their lead singer "Sting," sang a song "Spirits in the Material World." It had the following line: "There is no political solution." It's true. If we don't go deeper, if our hearts aren't transformed, all the political changes in the world won't change a thing because injustice finds its beginning in the human heart.

That's why I want to conclude with a little addition to the saying of Pope Paul VI that has often appeared on posters and bumper stickers. He said: "If you want peace, work for justice." I would add to this: "And if you want justice, pray!"