Prayer does not only lead us to understand and focus on the issues that we face. Ultimately prayer is an expression of a world where dangers, threats, risks, difficulties, and struggles, be it big or small, do not have the final say, even though they are often portrayed to be otherwise.
The one who has the final say is of course God. The Church, which is situated within the world, by praying to God, is communicating the hopeful message that it is not the world’s destiny to give itself away to persecution. In the face of persecution, Christians are called to “pray for those who persecute.” (Matthew 5.44)
This post explores the connection between our prayer and response to the unjust detention and desecration of the AlKitab by assuming the urgency and necessity of prayer.
We shall start by asking a general question on how should ‘prayer’ be perceived?
A Christian’s prayer is necessarily a reflection of Jesus Christ’s approach to prayer. It is this feature that identifies a prayer as Christian prayer, and not any other prayer.
When we pray, we are approaching God by the authorization guaranteed by Christ. Therefore each prayer that is sealed in Christ’s name is an invocation of Christ’s authority. And given that there are some things that Christ authorizes and some that he forbids, it is therefore the task of the praying Christian to discern what to pray for before he or she prays.
Without discernment, prayers simply become empty babbling. Prayer that is authorized in the name of Christ should not be empty babbling but discerned aspiration.
Christians must not allow prayers to be domesticated by the lack of discernment. Hence we don’t pray according to whim. In order to discern over what to pray for in any given situation, the praying Christian must turn to Christ, the one who authorizes their prayer.
From the 4 accounts of Jesus’ life in the New Testament, we know that Jesus prioritised prayer. He was concerned not only the content of prayer, but also the method of praying. (Matthew 6.5-8) In fact, he has given the disciples what has came to be called the Lord’s Prayer, which has since served as a model prayer for the Church.
The tradition of discerning our prayer is carried down and emphasised by apostle Paul, “I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my understanding.” (1 Corinthians 14.15) Discernment characterizes Christian prayer.
It is certainly right to call upon Christians to pray when the Malaysian Churches are confronted with legal and political threats as how it has always been. But this isn’t very informative. One is still left without knowing what to pray for.
In this complex situation, how then should the Church’s prayer goes along with the call to love and pray for those who persecute?
Matthew 5.44 is often quoted as an injunction for Christians to love and pray for the enemies. Some have drew implication from this passage to discourage self-defence or active pursue of preventive measure through legal and political means.
Others take it to mean that Christians are called to be indifferent over the possible harm or to downplay the severity of the inflicted damages.
Some who think that the Church is purest during persecution would see the present crisis as the opportunity to reinforce the constitutional inferiority and vulnerability of the Christian community by discouraging any legal and political restorative measure.
These Christians are convinced that Christians become better Christians through persecution. Hence, for this sake, they prefer Christians to suffer. By discouraging a real possible solution that could eliminate the persecution, they will Christians to suffer.
It seems that the sight of those who follow this interpretation of Jesus’ teaching on ‘loving and praying for enemies’ has proved to be so narrow that they fail to see the detention, serialization and stamping of the AlKitab is but the tip of a much deeper problem, which is the perpetual suppression of the minority’s rights in Malaysia.
The root problem, as we witness in through the AlKitab issue, is the lack of political will on the part of the government to protect the rights of the minorities.
Some Christians to some extent are as guilty for retreating from or being apathetic about securing equality for all citizens regardless of religion and ethnicity in the past. Hopefully the current issue may shake off the myopic scales off these Christians’ eyes.
Hence to pray only for the release of the confiscated AlKitab without also praying for the rectification of the deeper problem is to pray without discernment.
In my view, to interpret Matthew 5.44 as an injunction for Christians to retreat from active defence and rightful demand is too presumptuous and narrow.
Concerning this passage, we need to bear in mind two things. One, the passage doesn’t specify how to love one’s persecutors and how to pray for them. Two, the current issue concerns a much wider public than the members of the Church.
Besides, to confine the matter as one that only concerns the Christians is really not taking the Church’s agency as God’s people seriously. As Tan Soo Inn provocatively wondered, “Has the church been stirred to merely speak up for her own concerns or are we committed to being agents of the Kingdom of God, speaking up on behalf of all deprived of their basic rights?”
For Christians to have a discerned aspiration is to see beyond the walls of the Church, that the matter concerns not only themselves but also other communities. Hence, to understand Christ’s teaching about loving and praying for the enemies need to take this into account and formulate its application accordingly.
Matthew 5.44 does not exactly tell us how to love and pray for one’s enemies. Neither does it prevent Christians from pursuing the matter through legal and political means.
Reflecting through this proviso and the situation that the Malaysian Churches are facing, to love and pray for the enemies can best be expressed through embodying a sustain employment of the Christians’ constitutional rights to engage in the official and public domain with utmost civility, respect, humility, and courage.
To love is to acknowledge the frailty of the persecutors and the real power struggles and challenges that they face. To love is also to recognize that such struggles take time and extended efforts to settle. Finally, to love does not neglect the constant openness on the part of the Church for reconciliation and prolong relationship with the parties (not necessarily the government) responsible for the crisis.
While being empathetic towards the persecutors, the Church cannot compromise its mission in securing the protection of the constitutional rights of the minorities nor retreat from civic engagement and obligation as God’s agent in the world.
“I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.” (1 Timothy 2.1-2)
The faithful community has been practising this prayer for the past thousands of years. Therefore it is only right for Christians to also pray for emancipation from the current predicament that the communities in Malaysia are going through. One may find appropriate guidance to pray for the Church and the nation in the recent online petition endorsed by 34 leaders of the Christian community.
“To clasp the hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world.” (Karl Barth)