Everyone knew Britain had lost only a few warriors, while Argentina
had lost thousands. (Indeed, the Argentine junta would collapse
soon afterward.) So I was startled when at the Anglican cathedral
evensong, a native Chinese priest prayed at length for the safe
return of our British fliers and sailorswith
no mention whatever of the heaping Argentine dead. Of course Hong
Kongs return to China was imminent, and his prayers showed
the feelingý of Hong Kong residents used to growing freedoms
under the British, and who were now fearing oppression by a native
Communist government. But his bald omission of the Argentine dead
felt eerie, and sent me praying earnestly for those myself. Surely
Canterbury Cathedral offered no such exclusive prayers that Sunday!
Conflict makes enemies out of brave, loyal, idealistic people
as well as out of greedy, treacherous ones. We can thank God that
more countries today pursue peaceful trade rather than war and
that oppression sometimes dies at the ballot box without bloodshed.
But conflicts still abound. In a free society they multiply with
diverse opinions and priorities, and only lies or willful blindness
can conceal them. When they lead to social breakdown, a journalist
can explain every argument, or the complex historý of injury
that has driven each partisan to desperate resolve. Because understanding
alone cannot banish real conflicts, the nicest strategy is to
avoid them, and the nicest way to avoid them is to choose ones
companions and places carefully: gated communities, purist reform
groups, like-minded schools and celebrations, gatherings where
everyone agrees what it means to mean well. Hence church congregations
characteristically conform in political vision more than in other
conscious factorscertainly more than in theology, which
everyone today knows not to wrangle about disruptively!
St. Gregorys unusually joins left- and right-wing supporters
in the same worship, prayers, social ministries, choir rehearsals,
and dinner parties. At stressful times, apparently heedless remarks
or prayers can strain this rare alliance: actually, I rather think
these mark a heedful push toward that nicer strategy, an appeal
for an illusory but comforting common mind. We would surely do
better by exploring our different views together, and discovering
what really unites us and could one day unite humankind.
For conflict makes enemies, and churches must pray for them,
and pray aloud. Scripture equivocates only slightly on this point.
For every psalm asking God to destroy my foes, I find twenty biblical
prophecies and commandments for reconciliation. The tale of Adam
and Eves Fall in Genesis 2 expresses mythically
the biblical view that humanitys goodness remains somehow
realer, more original, than the evil we encounter
everywhere we humans interact. And Gregory of Nyssa taught that
evil can never limit God and Gods goodness, no matter what
terrible works we do. So synagogues pray even for anti-Jewish
governments, and orthodox Christian prayer is shaped by living
through persecution into public peace. Ours is a tradition of
conversion from cynicism to faith, bringing order out of chaos,
rebirth out of ruin, though our oppressors thereby escape suffering
for the wrongs they do us. The Book of Jonah focuses on this problem
precisely: God honors our witness to our enemies by denying our
longing for their just punishment. The gospels exhort us to endurance
instead of retribution. And Lukes accounts of both Jesus
passion and Stephens martyrdomthe last passion materials
written in the New Testamentsay Gods forgiveness absolves
our mortal enemies whose evil defies understanding.
Yet we must make no peace with oppression, as the
Prayer Book puts it. Martyrs have found no nice way to mollify
the bloodthirsty mob; soldiers in every war lay down their lives
for their comrades and their common cause; generals, diplomats,
and police strive to enforce and reinforce peace against all who
threaten it; and social reformers promise no peace without justice.
Pacifists and militarists do disagree over means to their one
end: this too is real conflict. But both belong in church, where
both must pray for their opponents, and pray aloud.
How can we pray for our foes honestly together, without denial
or emotional subterfuge? Cyprian, bishop of Carthage during the
last great Roman persecution, set one classic example as he prayed
for those who would soon kill him. Here are Cyprians prayers
at length (I make no effort to correct his antique male pronouns):
Let us pray to the Lord without duplicity, in tune with
one another, entreating him with sighs and tears, as befits
people in our position placed as we are between the many, lamenting
that they have fallen away (renouncing Christs faith during
persecution), and the faithful remnant that fears it may do
the same itself; between the weak, laid low in large numbers,
and the few still standing firm.
Let us pray that peace may very soon be restored to us,
help reach us in our dangers, to draw us from our dark retreats,
and Gods gracious promises to his servants find fulfillment.
May we see the Church restored and our salvation secured; after
the rain, fair weather; after the darkness, light; after these
storms and tempests, a gentle calm.
Let us ask him to help us, because he loves us as a father
loves his children, and to give us the tokens of his divine
power that are usual with him. So will our persecutors be stopped
from blaspheming, those who have fallen away repent to some
purpose, and the firm, unwavering faith of the steadfast be
crowned with glory.
We beg and beseech the God whom the enemies of the Church
are forever provoking and irritating that he would tame their
wild hearts. May their rage subside and calm return to their
hearts; may their minds, clouded by the darkness their sins
produce, repent and see the light; may they seek the bishops
prayers and not his blood.
Your prayers are more likely to be answered now, for it
is easier to obtain what you ask when you are being persecuted.
Beseech the good God, then, as earnestly as you can that we
may all confess his name to the end, and that we too may emerge
unscathed and glorious from the snares of this world and its
darkness. As we have been linked together by charity and peace,
and together have withstood persecution from the pagans, so
may we rejoice together in the kingdom of heaven.
Finally, at Bishop Cyprians trial the proconsul read out
his sentence from a tablet: Our decision is that Thascius
Cyprianus shall die by the sword. And Bishop Cyprian prayed
aloud: Deo Gratias.
(Cyprian quoted from A. Hamman, Early Christian Prayers)