My Turn: A lesson from the apostle Paul
By William H. Battermann
Prayer in the name of Jesus at the county commission meeting has become a lively issue in Rowan County. Many see the request to stop this practice from the American Civil Liberties Union as an attempt to infringe upon our freedom to express our religious beliefs as Christians. On this issue I think that the ACLU is right, because it respects the sensitivities of those who do not believe as Christians, but more importantly, because it is closer to the Biblical view than those who insist on praying in the name of Jesus. Allow me to explain.
The Bible in general, and in particular situations, cautions against prayer that is pressed upon others. A specific example from Paul comes to mind. It occurs in his discussion in Romans 9-11 about his Jewish brothers and sisters. In Chapter 10, verse 17, Paul states that those who have heard what comes through the word of Christ will come to faith. Then from 10:18 through 11:36, he talks about the Jews and their place and role in salvation history. For these 40 verses he doesn’ mention Jesus Christ, even though he has an excellent opportunity when he quotes the prophet Isaiah telling about a redeemer to come out of Zion, Paul refrains from identifying this redeemer as Jesus Christ. At the end of this section, in verses 33-36, he has a glorious doxology that does not include Jesus, which is unusual for Paul.
It appears that Paul is sensitive to the feelings of the Jews and desires only that they be ready for what God will do, whatever that is. He does not force Christian theology of mission talk upon them. Leave all that to the depths of God’s mercy. After all, which of us is God’s counselor? I feel that when I am asked to pray in public where non-Christians are present, it is good to follow Paul’s example and leave my Christian beliefs in my own heart. This is a specific example in scripture.
In general, the Bible as I read it seems to encourage respect for the feelings and dignity of others, especially those who have little standing in the community, such as widows, orphans and aliens. The prophets and Jesus never tire of taking their side. It is good to respect others and their feelings. On two occasions I have spoken at Rowan County commission meetings. I have been treated with respect, even though my views were not those that the board ultimately took. I commend commission members for their graciousness and civility.
But are the prayers in the name of Jesus governed by the same respect and civility? It should be noted that the ACLU did not randomly select Rowan as a target. It had received several complaints. There are people who are not comfortable with the prayers of others. Perhaps they are from another faith tradition. I believe that it would be good for the commissioners to honor their feelings and faith traditions, since they are citizens like I am. They have several options. One is simply to call the meeting to order. Or they could do what we did at the Goldmine Toastmasters of Concord. We used to always open our meetings with prayer. A few years ago, we realized that among our members and visitors were Jews and people from India, Pakistan, Korea, Japan, Ceylon, New Zealand, England and various countries in Latin America. Some were Christian, some were not. So we decided to start with a brief thought for the day. People could just say what has helped them, with the hope it might help someone else. Some of these thoughts are explicitly Christian, some are not. But they were not religious observances. They were not prayers.
Sociologist Emile Durkheim defines religion as “collective effervescence.” It is a group activity that lifts us out of the ordinary, and for some, that means closer to God. As such, it is a wonderful experience when participated in by people who share the same tradition. That may or may not be the case at a commission meeting. People who do not share the tradition are often made to feel uncomfortable or “put off” by the prayers. Apparently some have been. We may have the right to pray any way we feel. That does not mean that doing so is necessarily right. I believe a more open attitude on the part of commissioners that honors the feelings of those who are uncomfortable with this practice would be welcomed by those people, and thought well of by people and companies thinking of locating in Rowan County. It could even be a moment of growth for the commissioners themselves.
Bill Battermann lives in Salisbury and is a retired minister.