On April 20 The Sydney Morning Herald reported the Australian prime minister’s call to pray for rain in response to the dire state of the Murray-Darling Basin.
This call was endorsed in a media release by Ross Clifford, president of the Baptist Union of Australia. Among other things, Clifford encouraged church leaders around Australia to ensure that time was set aside for prayer each Sunday until the drought is broken, and asked the churches to pray for families severely affected by the drought.
The Herald’s letters to the editor section April 23 devoted significant space to responses to the prime minister’s call to prayer. In contrast to Clifford, respondents were unenthusiastic, derisive and scathing.
Does this diversity of opinions represent a simple divide between secular people, who do not believe that there is a place for prayer in everyday life, and people of faith? Or are there genuine problems with a broadly stated call to prayer from a political leader in a liberal democracy such as Australia?
It is difficult for Christians to voice reservations about a public call to prayer for drought-breaking rain. However, there are some aspects of this call to payer that will trouble praying believers.
Christians are wary of having their prayer life co-opted for the advancement of a particular political agenda. While they may pray and indeed be happy to pray for rain, they may not wish to have their prayer life conscripted for the furtherance of the prime minister’s ambition. There are also conditions of prayer and limits to the kinds of things that may be requested in prayer that need to be considered when approaching the Almighty.
Even though Clifford’s statement appears to support the prime minister’s call, there are elements in his statement that qualify the endorsement. Clifford reminds us that Christians, particularly those in rural areas, have been praying for rain for many months if not years.
Rural communities appreciate–far more acutely than city dwellers–our intimate dependence on the cycles of nature. There is an implicit, if gentle, rebuke for our prime minister in the words of our president that is worth noting.
Clifford also suggests that we need to pray for wisdom in the management and restoration of our water resources. It is perhaps this apparent lack of wisdom, revealed by our prime minister, that so infuriated the writers to the Herald’s letters page.
They point out that in the past decade of prosperity the government has not seriously addressed water management issues. John Howard is accused of failing to listen to scientific advice about water management and being without an alternative water management plan. His plea for prayer is reckoned by one correspondent to be reasonable only in comparison to being asked to slaughter a chicken.
Though secularists, these writers have proved alert to some of the dilemmas facing those who pray. Is it reasonable to pray to avoid the consequences of something that those who pray may have contributed to? Our squandering of water and our failure to be active in prompting our government to take water management practices seriously does compromise our approach to God.
One writer to the Herald, clearly not a secularist, made a compelling link between the need for repentance and effective prayer. He advocated a day of repentance where the nation could acknowledge both God as the giver of rain and our dependence on the generosity of God to provide for all our needs to accompany our requests for rain. Many of us have prayed to escape the consequences of our actions. However, we can only do this when we express contrition and repentance for such actions. This important and significant aspect of prayer was omitted in our prime minister’s call to prayer.
The knowledge of the cyclic nature of rain patterns presents another difficulty for those who pray for rain. We know that higher rainfall in one part of Australia (or the world) usually means less rain in some other part of the continent (or the world). Is it right for us to pray for more natural abundance in our part of the world when other places, already suffering resource depletion, may receive less rain as a result?
Writers to the Herald were also annoyed by our Prime Minister’s apparent lack of cultural sensitivity. To which God was he suggesting that we pray? Yahweh? The Christian God? Allah? Christians may assume that Howard was referring to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but that may not be clear to all members of our community.
If Howard was only calling Christians to prayer, he was ignoring the religious convictions of many in our community. But if he was making a universalist call to prayer, he ran the risk of insulting Christians, Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims alike by flattening the diverse meanings of prayer to a one-note refrain.
As a missionary people, aware of cultural sensitivities and the challenges of religious pluralism, Australian Baptists might have hoped that our national leader could provide spiritual direction without alienating significant sections of our community.
Public prayer is not a concept that can be conscripted for political gain. Nor, as Howard has perhaps discovered, is it a motherhood issue that will unite everyone in a surge of good feeling.
As Florence Allshorn observed, “the primary object of prayer is to know God better; we and our needs should come second.”
It is too much to expect our political leaders to encapsulate such a profound appreciation of prayer in public statements, but we can wish that they might avoid reducing public calls to prayer to a glib sound bite.
Kristine Morrison is a midwife at Sydney’s Royal Prince Alfred Hospital and a member of the Social Issues Committee of the Baptist Churches of NSW and ACT. This column appeared in Soundings, a publication of the Centre for Christian Ethics, edited by Rod Benson.