Can prayer also be action?

Prayer can break down or reinforce power structures in surprising ways. 

Tanya B. Schwarz
20 December 2016

Credit: Pixabay/Zefe. CC0 Public Domain.

We often think of prayer as separate from action. There is praying and there is doing; faith and works. But is this perspective warranted? Perhaps not.

My research with faith-based organizations (FBOs) working on humanitarian, development, and peace-building projects suggests that the role of prayer in these areas is not so clearly separated from the other activities of these groups. Bifurcating the spiritual from the material is both inaccurate and unhelpful, yet most funders, activists and academics continue to insist on their explicit separation.

The United States Agency for International Development (USAID), for example, requires that FBOs separate their “explicitly religious activities” from those that are funded by USAID. These include practices like prayer. There are important reasons for doing this of course—principally respect for the separation of church and state or religion and public life. But the distinction between “religious” and “non-religious” activities is often difficult to sustain in practice. As researcher Andrea Paras and others have noted, some religious organizations view even something as basic as digging a well to be a religious act.

More generally, prayer and other religious activities are portrayed as fundamentally separate from the ‘real’ work of providing bed nets to prevent malaria, building schools, protesting, engaging in interreligious dialogue, and advocating for the victims of human rights violations. However, my research challenges this dichotomy and suggests that we ought to pay more attention to the role of prayer in public life and social action.

For the past four years, I’ve been observing and conducting interviews with three transnational FBOs: Religions for Peace, International Justice Mission, and the Taizé Community. Each of these organizations works on various forms of social action combined with prayer, though the details and contexts vary widely. Religions for Peace is a multi-religious peace-building group that sometimes begins its meetings with prayer or a moment of silence. The organization’s leaders are cautious about when and how to include prayer, because they want to avoid the possibility of offending anyone, and to maintain an ethics of respect for religious and secular identities.

International Justice Mission is a Christian organization that works against human trafficking and slavery, and also employs prayer in its internal operations. Employees engage in solitary and group prayer on a daily basis. The organization also holds a “Global Prayer Gathering” annually to pray for those involved in specific human rights cases.

Finally the Taizé Community is an ecumenical (Protestant and Catholic) monastic community that strives for reconciliation, peace and solidarity, and which engages in prayer several times a day. The Community is known for its unique kind of communal singing prayer chants, which are accompanied by music. Taizé also holds prayer events all over the world, often with tens of thousands of attendees, including the annual European Meeting which draws large numbers of young adults.

I asked representatives from all three organizations why they engaged in prayer and how they thought it might influence their organizational strategies, goals and impact. From these conversations it became apparent that conceptualizing prayer as fundamentally distinct from other organizational acts doesn’t always make sense. That’s partly because all the other activities in which these groups are involved are also imbued with religiosity in the form of particular values and principles; and partly because the prayer-action distinction isn’t always recognized as valid.

Some of my interviewees saw prayer as action and understood prayer to be doing something real and consequential. Others saw the distinction but didn’t treat one as more important than the other, asserting that prayer was just as essential for achieving their goals as the organizations’ other activities. Everyone in the study saw prayer as foundational to everything they did.

What can we learn from these insights? It’s unhelpful, I think, to allow the conversation to devolve into arguments about whether prayer does something that can be quantified. Conducting tests to determine whether prayer has direct effects through, for example, some form of ‘divine intervention’ is obviously fraught with problems—though some medical studies have attempted to address the effects of prayer on healing. But this doesn’t mean that we should ignore prayer and its role in public and political spaces, because for many people prayer and other spiritual practices are important in shaping their responses to issues of peace and social justice.

It’s true, of course, that prayer can reinforce existing power structures. In some communities, male religious leaders are tasked with leading groups in prayer. Under these circumstances, whether intentional or not, prayer can reinforce patriarchal structures. In interfaith contexts, prayer can buttress the dominance of certain religious groups by privileging the traditions and teachings of majority religions. But in other contexts, prayer can disrupt power structures. One respondent told me that in her interfaith women’s organization in Kenya, for example, prayer enables women to assert themselves. By leading the organization in prayer, these women are taking on the leadership roles that are often reserved for male religious leaders in their community.

Prayer can also bridge divides in ways we might not expect. For example, one study concluded that prayer can strengthen unity among interfaith groups, which is surprising given that religious differences are often highlighted as divisive. My interviews with Religions for Peace and the Taizé Community confirmed the sometimes-central role of prayer in building bridges across the lines of religious, cultural, and political difference. In fact, representatives of the Taizé Community asserted that communal prayer can actually be more effective than dialogue in enabling people to engage with those who are different from themselves or who represent the opposing side of a conflict.

For example, after the end of the wars in the former-Yugoslavia, the Taizé brothers invited people from various sides of the conflict to attend one of their events. The brothers told me that when they first arrived, these attendees didn’t want anything to do with one another. Moreover, the brothers felt that trying to create a dialogue among the groups would actually make things worse, because each side had their own version of events. However, engaging in communal prayer allowed the participants to open up their minds and bodies to new possibilities of engagement and trust, thus eventually creating the space for dialogue and bridge-building.

The performance of prayer can also influence perceptions about specific projects and activities. For example, commentaries on the Standing Rock encampment in North Dakota highlighted the use of prayer and other Indigenous practices and implicitly portrayed the protestors as peaceful and spiritual. Prayer is often depicted in this way—as as an inherently peaceful act. So when protestors pray, they are portrayed as organizing peacefully, and that can both build support and disarm opposition.

Common assumptions about the irrationality or inconsequence of prayer have led many of us to ignore its potential, or to see it as peripheral to ‘real’ action. However, if we want to understand how prayer helps to shape our public and political worlds in both beneficial and problematic ways it’s time to move past these assumptions. Instead, we need to pay more attention to what prayer actually means to those who in engage in it, and to understand the expansive and varied roles that prayer plays in spaces of social action. To ignore prayer means to neglect a practice that millions of individuals employ in their quest to create a more just, peaceful, and harmonious global community.

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