How To Promote Peace in Your Church
by Norman Horn
“If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”
~ 2 Chronicles 7:14
People regularly email me with questions about how to communicate with other Christians about liberty and peace. The greatest conundrum the Christian libertarian has, it seems, is persuading other Christians to stop supporting the immoral wars that governments perpetrate across the globe. It is particularly difficult in the United States, where “supporting the troops” is essentially part of the new orthodoxy in most evangelical Protestant churches. You can publicly criticize a minister that he preaches too long and someone will support you, but say one word criticizing the military (or even the police) and you become anathema.
It is not as though we cannot defend our position adequately; the truth is on our side. We can easily bring forth historical data, ethics, and solid theology to make our case that war is wrong. This is good and right! We must never cease reasoning with those who disagree with us, and we should do so with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15). However, we must admit that a large part of the problem is not merely failure to reason, but also a failure to show Christian compassion toward others. Churches all over forget that war really is hell, and neglect the suffering war causes. This is especially reflected in our public prayers.
In the past, even the Southern Baptists took the Word of God seriously and prayed for those affected by war. But when was the last time you heard a church pray for anyone in the Middle East, for instance, other than soldiers? When was the last time you heard a church pray for an end to war?
Recently, I was moved to step out and try something I have never heard of done before: ask the leaders of my congregation to take the lead in praying for those suffering in war. (In the Church of Christ tradition, the elders are the spiritual leaders of the congregation.) After consulting with some of my close friends, I attended the June 2010 elders’ meeting and presented the following letter to them to address the “Prayer for the Church” that we offer every Sunday morning worship service.
To the Elders of the University Avenue Church of Christ,
We have noticed an unusual trend over the past few months during our prayers for the church in Sunday morning worship. On multiple occasions, we have heard people pray for men and women in the military, that they receive “special measures of protection” as they fight to “protect our freedoms” and “serve our country.” While we understand the concerns of church members who have friends and family in the armed forces, and while we sincerely hope for their safe return immediately, we find that these kinds of prayers are neglectful of another group – those victims who suffer wrongfully from this war, to whom we are indeed responsible in part for their suffering. Regardless of one’s opinion of these wars, we think that all can agree upon inspection that this practice can and should change to be more inclusive.
For instance, we never hear prayers for our fellow Christians who live in Iraq and Afghanistan. Since the US invasion in 2003, Christians who were tolerated in the past have been repeatedly persecuted and frequently even killed by indiscriminate warfare or surging extremist groups, and nearly half of the Christian population of 800,000 in Iraq has either fled the country or died. In March 2010 alone, over 4,000 Christians were displaced from their homes following unrest in the northern city of Mosul. Many more have confined themselves to their homes for their own safety.
Moreover, we rarely, if ever, hear prayers for the innocent people in Iraq that die on a daily basis, either from indiscriminate killing by our own military or civil unrest that results from a country torn apart by war. The lowest estimates of non-combatant deaths in Iraq number greater than 100,000. Unfortunately, over time our sensibilities and attitudes toward this war – which is now the longest prolonged conflict in American history – have become desensitized and lackadaisical, and thus we often forget these innocent people.
We appeal to the elders to lead the way toward recognizing this issue with two simple proposals. First, we propose to include in the bulletin prayer requests under “Family Members in the Military” a mention of the innocent and oppressed in Iraq and Afghanistan, especially our Iraqi and Afghan brothers and sisters in Christ, and for an end to these wars. Second, we propose that the elders take the lead in consistently mentioning the same in prayer with the congregation on Sunday mornings. If the prayers of the righteous are powerful and effective, then surely instituting this practice will do good both for these victims and for our own spirits.
We support this appeal with Scripture in two ways. First, if you consider these people as we do, that they are innocent victims and have been wronged by their own leaders, by extremists, and by our own military, then may we pray to God as Jesus taught his disciples: to be “delivered from evil.” If we can pray this for ourselves, surely we can do so for others. But second, if you still consider these people our enemies, then may we do as Jesus said in Matthew 5: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven.” May this be the beginning of understanding what Jesus said moments before, “Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.”
Changing our practice to include praying for the oppressed is not a political statement. In fact, this is not a political issue in the least; on the contrary it is a moral and theological issue. If we are to pray “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” then we should take seriously that Jesus came and died to proclaim peace on earth and to liberate the oppressed. We may expect that “wars and rumors of wars” will always exist, but this does not require a condoning or defeatist attitude of such events. Rather, this understanding should make us more sensitive and more compassionate toward those who suffer.
To conclude, war is arguably the most destructive human activity ever devised, and it is an intensely serious moral and theological issue because of its finality for those involved either directly as soldiers or indirectly as innocents. It is right to earnestly pray for our family members participating in war, but let us not become callous to the suffering of others, especially those to whom we are indirectly responsible for their suffering. Therefore, we should let our congregational prayers reflect our concern for them.
Norman Horn [Others at my church signed this letter as well, names withheld for privacy.]
The response of the elders was, to my surprise, extraordinarily positive. We discussed some of the ramifications of them taking this position. Only one had any concern for it being “too political.” In response, I emphasized that the effects of war are apolitical and intensely real, and therefore to ignore what’s going on is potentially even more political than standing up for what is right.
The next Sunday morning service, during the “Prayer for the Church,” the elder assigned to the task prayed for peace and for the innocent affected by war. This has continued for many weeks on end, with both elders and non-elders doing the same. It isn’t a perfect record at this point, but something is changing.
Now, I have to admit that I have the ear of the eldership already. I am a part-time minister in this congregation, and thus they could have been generally more receptive of my proposal because it came from me. It could be that if you tried the exact course of action I did, it might not work out so well. But I still contend that anyone could work with their church in an analogous manner to change it even a little toward peace. Here are some ideas that might help you:
1) Start by setting the example yourself. When you are asked to pray in public for the congregation and its concerns, include those oppressed by war with any prayer offered for family and friends in the military. Furthermore, make sure that you are praying for peace in your private life.
2) If and when you engage your congregation more directly, initiate it by making a request that requires no justification at all. Don’t be afraid to just ask! Send one of your church leaders a very simple request, something like this: “When we pray for soldiers in Iraq, could we also pray for the Iraqis who are suffering, especially our Christian brothers and sisters there, and that God would bless our enemies and bring them peace.” You don’t even have to justify such a request. That’s straight out of Scripture, right?
3) Find others to make the same request together. Talk to some of your elders/leaders together. Again, keep it simple, but up the ante a little bit each time.
4) Keep it apolitical. You are not trying to “make people into libertarians” or anything of the sort. This message is first and foremost about the people affected by conflict. Our concern is for them, not for our egos or political views.
5) If at first you don’t succeed, try again. You may not get a good hearing initially, but be patient. Gently keep pushing back. If it becomes necessary, use the letter above as a model to give to your church leaders. Keep in mind, I really think this should be a “letter of last resort” to be used if your leaders refuse to listen to simpler reason. I carefully constructed this with feedback from multiple sources, so that it could easily show the self-evident principles involved. It gives no quarter and I don’t apologize for that, but know your audience and appeal to their sensibilities.
Of course, some in your church will respond negatively to this kind of request. They may ask how you can ask a church to pray for this war, for instance, when there are millions of other things for which we could pray. What about apartheid in South Africa, earthquakes in Haiti, or persecuted Christians in China? Could not the list go on forever if we wanted?
Those critics have a point, but our response should be that there is a fundamental difference between, say, praying for apartheid in South Africa – where we are aware of no national influence (and in my church’s case, have none of our church members as missionaries there) – and these wars. The difference is that this country, the United States, claims responsibility for their country now, and hence we are already involved. It is not “our fault” that Haiti had an earthquake or that Christians in China are being persecuted (though we may pray for them anyway), but it is in part our fault that the United States has torn apart the Middle East. Moreover, churches continue to condone and support such aggression with little thought either to the consequences for the Arab peoples or the internal subconscious changes that this has on our own churches. And what better way to change our own hearts than through the power of prayer? And what better way to start that process than through the leadership of the church?
Imagine what would happen if churches across the United States (and internationally!) were to stop praying for the military alone and to begin including those oppressed by war in their public prayers as well. Don’t you think that God will help make our hearts ever more attuned to the oppressed?
If the Bible says that the prayers of the righteous are effective, and if we believe that prayer affects us as much or more than prayer affects God, then let us never cease to pray for and support those who suffer from the horror of war and let us encourage others to do the same.
Think about some ways that you can be a peaceful voice for peace in your church. Maybe emulating the story above is one way you can make a difference. I truly believe this simple idea can change hearts and minds across the world if, with God’s help, we are brave enough to try.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.” ~ Matthew 5:9
Norman invites you to comment on this article at LibertarianChristians.com.
September 11, 2010