Our church’s July 2008 church newsletter contained an (unsigned) article on suggestions for praying for the U.S. military forces, especially in Iraq. It struck me as sincere but theologically misguided. In the August 2008 newsletter, I offered another view in order to stimulate some additional thinking and discussion in our church—and now more broadly. Apparently, it has stimulated some controversy, though only one person has directly approached me about it. It follows:
The first point to be made is that whenever Christians pray, but especially during a war, we pray as Christians, not as Americans (or Canadians or whatever). It is very easy for Americans or anyone else to assume that some power called “God” is on their side. But it is more difficult to know what and how we as Christians should pray during a time of war.
We need to put prayer during war into a wider spiritual framework, and not just assume (like the misguided minister and his flock in Mark Twain’s famous poem “War Prayer”) that God is on “our” side—that is, our particular country’s side. We should remember that when the U.S. went to war in Iraq, most major denominations and many theologians (myself included), both in the U.S. and around the world, protested that the war would not meet the criteria for a just war.
Whatever one’s view of this specific war, some things from Scripture are crystal clear:
1.God does not desire war but, instead, peace, justice, and reconciliation. God “breaks the bow, and makes wars to cease.” God in Christ dealt with us, his enemies, with love, not death. Jesus is the Prince of Peace.
2.Jesus calls us, his disciples, to be peacemakers and to love our enemies.
3.God has a special concern for the poor and oppressed, the victims of injustice.
4.As Christians, we are part of the universal body of Christ, and that is far more important than any national identity
These truths should affect the way we as Christians pray:
1.We should pray for the war to end, for the establishment of justice, for reconciliation among enemies, for creative alternatives to violence. Pastor Steve does this frequently in church.
2.We should pray for the courage to make peace, and to love those who might be perceived as our enemies.
3.We should pray for the victims of war, especially the families of innocent civilians, refugees, etc.
4.We should pray for the church in Iraq, which has been horribly affected by this war.
As for the soldiers themselves, there is no mandate from Jesus to pray for them. Historically, however, when Christians have thought about whether Christians are even permitted to participate in war, the church’s largest concern has been that soldiers might actually have to kill or do something else that violates the teaching of Jesus. Historically, the church has often required all returning soldiers to go through a period of repentance.
Therefore, the chief prayer we should offer to God for Christians who are in a war zone is not merely that God will protect them, but that God will protect them from committing evil, from doing anything that violates the gospel of Jesus Christ. For some of us, this will mean praying that they will not kill anyone at all and will even lay down their weapons. For all of us, it will mean praying that they will not kill the innocent or do anything else that contradicts the will of God. And it will mean asking God to forgive all of us for contributing to humanity’s incessant penchant for war and violence.
At the same time, we can pray that God will keep all those involved in the war (on all sides) from doing evil, that all will seek peace, and that God will provide for the families and friends of all who are away from home because of war. This might be at least one spiritually acceptable way to pray both for those we know, and for those we do not know, in a time of war. It might even help draw this long, horrible conflict to a close.