Tuesday, February 25, 2014

When is Prayer Misused?

When is Prayer Misplaced?
I recently picked up fellow anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann’s much regarded book titled When God talks Back (2012) in which she seeks to establish how Americans at Vineyard Church, which she has studied for a number of years, “can hear the voice of God replying to their questions, even the most mundane and everyday.” Tanya is not alone in the quest to understand Christianity from an anthropological perspective. Christianity, a subject left out of anthropology’s study of societies and cultures for a long time, has recently become an important topic that has even led to the emergence of an area referred to as the “anthropology of Christianity,” complete with specialists (think here of Joel Robbins) and a very active bibliography blog (www.anthrocybib.net) that posts entries almost every week. So I got wondering about what it takes to study Christianity as a Christian and found myself going back to some of my own qualms with the way sometimes the faith is operationalized in our daily lives or the ways in which people may attribute Christianity to certain cultural practices that (in my humble opinion) seem quite unrelated to the faith itself. I want to explore one such practice here—the ways sometimes prayer or what some call “giving things to God” can be misplaced. I ask that as you read this bear with me here before you start thinking that I am bashing my own faith. While we may agree with some observers that prayer is central to the every day life of Christians, we might want to critically look at how some of the things we want to “put to prayer” say a lot about our willingness to allow reason and common sense to fly away than really about matters of faith. Let me share some examples. 
I am aware of two cases in 2014 and 2012 where Pentecostal pastors in the US southern States (Kentucky and West Virginia) where snake-handling pastors have died of snake bites after believing that they will be healed of those bites through prayer.

In June 2003 members of staff from Ghana’s national airline, Ghana Airways, held a “prayer vigil” as their desperate response to the ailing corporation that had continually been facing many financial and management challenges. They brought in a prominent Pentecostal preacher to spiritually “heal” and “deliver” the public corporation from the evils besetting it. As Ghanaian scholar J Kwabena Asamoah-Gyadu has shown in his paper titled,“"’Christ Is the Answer": What Is the Question?’ A Ghana Airways Prayer Vigil and Its Implications for Religion, Evil and Public Space,” there were many indications that the airline was run poorly. It was leasing old jets that were not fuel efficient, could not keep regular schedules, had rude counter clerks, and over-issuance of complimentary tickets. The airline management had also been politicized and there were claims of corruption in its operations. How then was prayer going to respond to these matters?

Further south in Tanzania there was a parliamentary debate focused on the country’s 2012 national budget. Honorable Rev. Peter Msigwa who represents Iringa (Central Tanzania, Southwest of Dar es Salaam) was contributing to the government’s proposed budget for the fiscal year 2012/2013 when one of his colleagues mentioned the need for prayer as a way of responding to the socioeconomic challenges facing the nation. In response, Hon Msigwa (right) said,

“I see no economic theory that states, if you want to solve economic problems you pray. Even Paul says whoever does not work should not eat [He was referring to 2 Thessalonians 3:10], not that he/she be prayed for, he/she is denied food, but the contributor says we should pray for him. As a reverend we pray for fornicators, those caught with other people’s wives. As a reverend we pray for those who are possessed by evil spirits. What we are doing here is apply an economic principle: there are more consumers than there are producers so we have to produce more. We should find ways of producing more. You don’t have to pray about this.”[1]

Does this worldview of spiritual causality pervade many societies or is it an isolated case? Why are people resigning to prayer instead of seeking practical ways of solving their problems that they can see the real causes? Why can't prayer be accompanied by other actions that help lead the person to the desired goal? Is prayer supposed to be the ONLY solution? Kenya’s award-winning photographer and activist Boniface Mwangi (right), has sought to provide an answer to this question. He says that he got involved in activism because he learned from his own experiences the need to be proactive in making the changes he wants in society. He gives an example of how he often observed his mother disappear every few weeks into Karura forest (near Nairobi) and return tired and famished. When he would ask her where she had been she would respond that she had been in the forest praying for Moi (then president) to die. Mwangi notes that his mother died in 2000 and Moi is still alive. His mother’s response to the hard days of Moi’s rule, he adds, was prayer because she was afraid of being arrested, being detained or tortured so all she did was pray. She died a poor woman who was upset with the system. So he thought instead of just going to pray, which he does, he decided he has to do something more because his mother prayed but there was no action and so she did not get the response she wanted. He decided if he is going to pray about something he also is going to act.[2] He has since been involved in many forms of civil protest against members of parliament’s greed that led to their exorbitant salaries when poverty continues to grip many Kenyans, against corruption, and against electoral malpractices among other social challenges of the day.

I do not know what to make of these stories other than wonder when does one decide that prayer allows one to use interventions available or as I would see it, made available to one for use, instead of making what is clearly a dangerous and many times irrational decisions. Why would someone want to assume that God does not work through biomedicine that one gets at a hospital for snake bites, or through economic theory that shows the specific gaps created by specific social and cultural practices that hinder a company’s profitability? How do I emphasize the value of prayer and yet look at the reality of what we have been given to work with?

[1] video of his presentation (mostly in Kiswahili) can be watched here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T3wgDb2PRAI
[2] Video interview with Larry Madowo of Nation Television’s #Trend found here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iXb8-k2ppJ8 posted online Mar 3, 2013 and accessed December 3, 2013.