Through prayer, we stand in solidarity with our neighbour. When we pray the Our Father, we don’t fly solo, we pray it on behalf of humankind, writes Patty Fawkner SGS.
The older I get, the more I realise that I am being called to live in a ‘both and’ world rather than a sometimes binary and segregated world of ‘either or’. I was reminded of this when I came across a book by renowned Scripture scholar, Walter Brueggemann. The titles of two chapters were somewhat counter-intuitive: Prayer as Neighbor Love and Justice as Love of God. From a Christian Gospel perspective there can be no separation between love of God and love of neighbour, and no separation between prayer and a commitment to justice.
I had never thought of prayer as neighbour love. But as a member of a religious congregation which draws its inspiration from the parable of the Good Samaritan and Benedictine spirituality founded on the cornerstone of prayer, this notion had immediate appeal.
Brueggemann says that unless prayer is understood as love of neighbour, the neighbour in real need, it’s likely to be, what he calls, “nice prayer”. Part of being human, an aspect of our vocation, he says, is to cry out in pain, to cry out in outrage at our own suffering and the innocent suffering of others. Who hasn’t cried out in outrage at the suffering caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine? Who hasn’t felt heartache for those impacted by yet another devastating flood?
If crying out in pain is intrinsic to our human vocation, God’s ‘vocation’, so to speak, is to be the listening God of my pain, “the listening God of all pain”. God is love, compassion and mercy and, as such, God’s ‘job’ is to be compassionate and merciful. God always stands on the side of the one in pain, and despite all evidence to the contrary, God hears the cry of the one who suffers.
Prayer is relational. It’s an interaction, Brueggemann says, between engaged partners: me, God, and those for whom I pray. Through our prayer, we stand in solidarity with our neighbour. The psalms, especially the psalms of lament, are prayers of neighbour love. Constantly and consistently, they give voice to the suffering of the socially disqualified or the economically exploited:
The Lord is a stronghold for the oppressed …
He does not forget the cry of the afflicted. (Ps 9:9,12)
Give justice to the weak and the orphan:
maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute. (Ps 82:3)
Let the groans of the prisoners come before you;
according to your great power preserve those doomed to die. (Ps 79:11)
Like the psalms, many of the Negro spirituals communicate real pain to a real God who hears, and who laments and cries with us. They express a belief in God who will ultimately grant freedom from bondage.
It occurs to me that perhaps that most oft-prayed prayer – the Our Father – is also a prayer of neighbour love. We don’t fly solo when we pray this prayer. We pray our Father. We pray it on behalf of humankind. I believe we can also pray it on behalf of our ‘neighbourhood’, planet earth, our common home.
Our Father, Our Mother, give us, all of us, our daily bread. Give us what we need for sustenance: the sustenance of bread and fresh water for lands gripped by famine, drought and flood; the sustenance of conservation rather than exploitation of our planet; the sustenance of safety and security for asylum seekers and victims of family violence; and the sustenance that each of us needs that comes from being respected and loved. Give us this sustenance, this bread, each day, in this life, and not only in the life to come.
Prayer can be perceived as naïve private piety. Yet, when we pray, “your kingdom come”, we are in fact making a significant political statement. God’s kingdom, God’s ‘kindom’, God’s reign is simply God’s alternative vision for humanity revealed by Jesus. Jesus is the kind Samaritan, the one who had a preferential option for the person in need, the person who is ‘other’.
God’s kingdom is subversive of most current power arrangements. God’s preference is for the survival of the weakest, rather than the survival of the fittest. God’s dream is that the poor will inherit the land, not the multinationals, nor the mega-rich. God’s preference is not for the power broker, the ruling class elite, the drug lord, the celebrity or influencer. God’s preference, rather, is for the disenfranchised and the marginalised.
In God’s kingdom, those imprisoned in any way – be it by poverty, injustice, addiction, racism, or coercive control – will be liberated and set free. “Your kingdom come” is a political statement of alternative social possibility to the current status quo. Pope Francis understands this: “You pray for the hungry, then you feed them. That’s how prayer works.”
Forgive us our trespasses. Forgive us our hard-heartedness towards our neighbour. Forgive us our egoic self-preoccupation. Forgive us our racist, sexist and ageist attitudes, and the prejudices we reveal towards the ones we perceive as ‘other’.
Jesus approaches prayer as neighbour love. On Calvary he cries out in anguish as he endures abandonment, injustice, and suffering unto death. He laments, “God, my God why have you forsaken me?” (Mt 27:46). And he begs God’s forgiveness for his crucifiers and his criminal neighbours, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” (Lk 23:34).
The Easter story reassures us that what God did in Jesus, God can do in us and our neighbour in the midst of our suffering. And so we pray: Loving God, teach us to pray. Teach us the prayer of neighbour love. Amen.