September 18, 2016 — Eighteenth Sunday After Pentecost
Rev. Alison Quin
Praying for Leaders
When I was in high school, I attended a boarding school in Scotland for several years, because my family lived in Reykjavik, Iceland, and Scotland was the nearest English speaking country.
The school was Anglican, or as, the Scots prefer to say, Episcopal. So we went to morning prayer every day, and every day we prayed for the Queen.
And quite often, we sang the English national anthem, which itself is a prayer for the Queen, or the King, as the case may be. God save our gracious Queen…
To me, as an American, praying for the queen seemed to be an odd, archaic practice, a holdover from the middle ages. But, having a queen at all seemed odd and archaic to me.
Imagine my surprise when I came back to the Episcopal Church as an adult and found we were praying for the president every week.
In today’s letter to Timothy, St. Paul explicitly instructs him to pray for rulers and those in positions of power, so the practice has been part of Christian life since the beginning.
At the time, it was a radical idea. From the time of Julius Caesar, emperors were considered gods. People were required to take part in the cult of the emperor. They prayed TO him, not FOR him.
Imagine how radical that sounded to the first Christians, many of whom were slaves, and most of whom were poor. They were not longer mere subjects to the ruling authority. They were now children of a higher authority, empowered to pray for those in authority. They were, as John’s gospel puts it, in the world but not of it. They answered to God, rather than earthly rulers, who after all, are only human.
Paul also throws down a challenge to the emperor cult by calling God our savior—until then, the term savior was reserved for the emperor.
Paul gives two reasons for praying for rulers: first, so “that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity,” and second, because God’s desire is for everyone to be saved.
We live in a very different world from the earliest Christians. We are not expected to worship our rulers. In a democracy, rulers are not a hereditary elite, anointed by God. They are elected from among the people, through democratic elections. Their role is to be public servants, and they can be voted out of office if they fail to serve the common good.
Praying for our rulers and those in high positions, therefore, has a different meaning for us. And yet, it seems that they need our prayers more than ever.
Public officials and candidates for public office are subjected to a seemingly endless stream of personal attacks. We have more news sources than ever, but finding a debate about actual policy is like finding a needle in a haystack.
Let me be clear. A person’s character is a very important basis for judging whether they should be in office. Honesty, integrity, intelligence, experience, compassion and wisdom are some of the characteristics of a good leader. It is the role of the press to investigate the truth of candidates’ statements, and to shine the light on their past.
It is also the role of the press to highlight the candidates’ positions on different policy issues.
It is our role, both as citizens and Christians, to inform ourselves about a candidate’s character and policy stances, and to vote for the person who is most qualified for the job.
And it is our role to pray for those who put themselves forward for public office, both for their sake and for ours. All are children of God, and objects of God’s mercy and saving grace. And they need grace to lead, and to work for a more peaceful and just society.
However, we too are called to be in the world, but not of it. Just as first century Christians were called to refrain from participating in the emperor cult, we are called to refrain from taking part in the cult of tearing people down.
The candidates for president this year are not setting a good example—both have been guilty of name-calling and personal attacks. The news media add fuel to the fire, by giving so much space to mudslinging and negative comments, while neglecting genuine policy issues and questions of character.
And we play our part as spectators and consumers of the news, as well as by the way we engage in discourse with one another.
So what can we do?
Withdrawing from political life is not an option for a Christian. Jesus was deeply engaged with the politics of his day, because politics affects people’s lives. We too need to be engaged, to inform ourselves, to advocate for what we believe in, and above all, to vote.
We are called to speak truth about the character and policies of each candidate, and to guard against tyranny, oppression and corruption. But we need to find a way to do that without tearing people down. We need to treat people, all people with the dignity of a child of God.
Maybe we should refuse to watch or listen to news sources that treat our national life as a soap opera or a reality show. What if we only support news sources that address substantive issues and treat people with dignity?
It is a difficult balance to remain deeply engaged, and yet not succumb to the temptation to join the negative barrage. I believe it is only possible by praying deeply for each person who puts him or herself forward for public office. It is impossible to hate someone for whom you pray regularly.
If your own heart is free of hatred, then your truth telling will come from a place of love. I believe St. Paul had it right: Pray for everyone. “This is right and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” And pray especially for those seeking public office, because the common good is at stake, and the risks and temptations of power are great.
As followers of Jesus, we called to be in the world, but not of it. Let us be countercultural witnesses to the God who reigns in our hearts.