A comment linking voting and prayer by a candidate for political office in the U.S. caught my attention. One’s vote, in addition to being an exercise of civic responsibility, is also a prayer, this person suggested.
In the brief explanation that followed, the point was made that in voting we not only are expressing what we want in terms of a political outcome but also saying what we value for our community life and what our vision and hope is for its future.
This insight, combined with recent lectionary text reflections on the nature of prayer, prompted some thinking on prayer as it pertains to our collective life.
The “prayers of the people” portion of the Book of Common Prayer gives expression in a formal, liturgical way to what is offered in less formal ways throughout faith communities.
These are collective expressions of common concern for the well-being of the human family and the rest of creation, for justice, for leaders and for all other aspects of our common life – a “people at prayer” is a familiar image of the corporate religious life.
I confess that I had not thought of voting as a prayer before, although a prayerful concern for collective wisdom has always accompanied every voting season.
It has been a reminder that casting a vote is more than a strategic move for a particular outcome. It is an expression of faith and hope for the well-being of all who share the present journey. This has become a lens through which to see both prayer and the political process.
Seen through this lens, the election process is essentially the “prayers of the people” – an affirmation of what our collective life is committed to and toward which we “cast our lot” in hopes of its movement toward fulfillment.
Through this lens, the nature of prayer reflected in the lectionary texts of the two “prayer parables” in Luke 18 gets some refinement beyond the familiar level of petition and thanksgiving.
The persistent widow before the “unrighteous judge” (verses 1-8) and the contrasting prayers of the Pharisee and the tax collector (verses 9-16) illustrate who each of them is in the relationship of faith through their specific expressions of the prayer.
Prayer is an act of petition and/or thanksgiving, but beneath the prayer is a perspective and an attitude that is reflective of the relationship that we understand faith to be.
What appears at first to be primarily a transaction becomes an expression of the faith relationship that expresses itself through the specific form of the prayer – requisition, gratitude or confession.
Much public attention to prayer seems focused on particular expressions and postures – debates about “prayer in schools,” invocations at public events, and individual “performance prayers” as statements of religious devotion tend to draw first notice.
Such expressions seem to have prompted Jesus’s encouragement (Matthew 6:5-6) to go into the closet to pray rather than praying loudly on the street corner (and when you go into the closet to pray, don’t slam the door so everyone will know you’re in there).
The “inner spirit of prayer” that expresses itself through every thought, word and deed seems to be the heart of the matter. That spirit has a particular character to it when it is rooted in a covenant faith that emphasizes justice and a solidarity with the “least of these.” It also contains a commitment to a common good that is reflected in a vision of a kingdom that is not of this world but which through prayerful living can be a part of it.
In a sense, the U.S. will be having a kind of national prayer meeting in early November when we offer our prayers / votes in expression of our hope for the kind of community we will be going forward.
Our immediate needs, fears and understandings shaped by the various narratives that constantly compete for our embrace will influence the shape of our prayers / votes. But so will the vision and trust of our faith and its commitments to a vision of what our journey together can be if we let them guide our decision-making.
We may well get what we pray for – the love of power or the power of love. Let us pray.
Professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University, a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia, and the author of Keys for Everyday Theologians (Nurturing Faith Books, 2022).