Prayers of Privilege

One of my pet-peeves is the sort of piety that strives to remove our worship of and prayers to God from our everyday life. The “prayer Olympics” that many practice sometimes makes it seem as though the greatest height to which we can attain is when we praise God “just for who you are,” “for who you are in yourself”–as though this is more lofty than praise and thanks for the manifestations of God’s presence here on earth or in our own lives.

It struck me recently that the very idea that such a prayer is the most pious of all is a theology of power and privilege.

It is Sadducee piety. The Sadducees were of the priestly families. Those families had gradually come to power, and under various Greek and Roman regimes had found themselves the indigenous leaders given charge (and the wealth that comes with it) under various “temple constitutions.”

Is it any wonder they didn’t believe in resurrection? Resurrection means vindicated the oppressed, rewarding the unpaid righteous. And it means repaying the powerful tyrants as well.

Those in power don’t want a piety that will turn the world on its head.

Similarly our theologically luxurious insistence that true worship, true prayer, has nothing to do with us. This is a mistake that can only be made by people who do not have eyes to see that for God to be “who God is” the world has to be changed. The redemption begun must be brought to completion. The righteous who cry must be answered.

And when God so acts, God must be praised.

If there is one thing that I hope we will learn more and more as we who are white, western, and thus worldly privileged listen to our African, Latino/a, and Asian neighbors it is that our culture of power has distorted our understanding of theological normalcy and theological virtue.

It is only people who know that the world suffers under the hand of the unrighteous who will know that God must make justice flow like a river and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream–if, in fact, God is to be God; if, in fact, God will be “who God is” and thus worthy of thanks and praise for it.

And only they will know how to write the songs and pray the prayers that properly praise the God who, in the Gospel of the dead and risen Christ, has revealed God’s righteousness to the world.

13 thoughts on “Prayers of Privilege”

  1. Thanks for this. I found myself this morning leading a prayer in church and feeling some kind of crazy church-cultural pressure to de-instantiate (abstract-ify?) my prayer. Also thanks for keeping the reality of the white, western privilege bias at the conscious level in the Fuller community, even when it means starting unpopular conversations.

  2. If your critique is of people breaking who God is off from what he does in their prayers, then of course you are right. But there seems to me to be a legitimate reason to want to thank God for who he is in himself when this springs from the realization that who Jesus is and what he does for our salvation cannot be thought of as actions taking place entirely outside of God’s being but are the ways in which God is who he is in himself in our midst. This removes the disjunction between God’s acts of salvation and his being in himself. As Karl Rahner put it, “the economic Trinity is the immanent Trinity, and the immanent Trinity is the economic Trinity”. In that way to thank God for who he is in himself is to thank him for not merely sending us a savior alien to himself but coming himself to us and being who he is for our salvation. “Thank you God for being in yourself exactly who you are for us!” Such an understanding certainly couldn’t be used to legitimize the status quo.

  3. Daniel,

    I have this same “pet-peeve”. I bought into this idea for quite a while; but then I began to wonder how anyone could ever know “who God is in Himself” apart from His revelatory acts of creation and redemption.

    These same people make a distinction between God-centeredness and man-centeredness; as if a true “God-centeredness” could ever be manifested apart from our interactions with our fellow human beings.

    This aspect of the idea being a theology of power and privilege interests me greatly; I can see it rather clearly now that you have brought it to our attention. A resurrection based theology is a threat to these groups.

    This brand of piety is what makes them distinctive from the “liberals” and “emergents”, and if it begins to be exposed for what it really is, it would be like stripping away their tools of fear an oppression, which enable them to maintain their power.

    Great post…

  4. You make a great point, Daniel, that we only learn who God is by experiencing God’s active involvement in our lives.

    Surely, God is worthy of praise just for His own character, but character is displayed through action. What is faithfulness, for example, if there is no promise to which God can prove Himself faithful?

  5. Hmmm…

    Is it possible that most of us simply learn by example and imitate those whom we believe have a better understanding of the Christian faith (like, ummm, our pastors and seminary professors? :))

    As someone who served in Latin America, the sort of prayers you highlight can also be found there, uttered by many Latin American leaders, which I suppose makes your point about being prayers of power and privilege.

    1. Good points. As far as what we find in the non-privileged world: when I traveled in Latin America I was deeply disappointed at how “Amercianized” their theology was, and had a similar experience reading a Biblical reference book from Africa. We have taught the world how to be like us. Thanks for chiming in.

  6. Daniel, I am amazed at the Calvinians who deem rejoicing over huge prayers answered in one’s life rather than merely reveling in who God is somehow man-centered.. The vast majority of the answered prayers of the actual Biblical saints were sqmples of simply GETTING big things from God and, thereby, creating a venue for Him to exhibit His glory in history. What could be more God-honoring?

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