Ellul: Thoughts & Prayers

This entry is part 7 of 24 in the series Presence in the Modern World

Let’s continue on with Chapter 1 of Ellul’s Presence in the Modern World, shall we? Blog post #5, and I haven’t even finished page 12 yet!

Earlier, commenter Mike mentioned salt’s use for preservation in the ancient Near East, which was a bit of a foretaste of the next section.

As we’ve seen, Ellul believes that we must accept that we cannot make the world less sinful, but neither can we accept it as it is. This is the tension in which we must live, because we “must participate in the world’s preservation.” It is not our job as Christians to simply shrug off the world, retreat, and wait for it to pass; we “really must work toward” its preservation.

The problem is that, when it comes to saving the world, we try to do so by doing those things that the world thinks are best. Like, trying to win elections, pass legislation, or, in the global crisis most recent to Ellul’s writing of this book, going to war with Hitler.

Now, very important: Ellul did NOT think that the world should not have gone to war with Hitler. Nor did he think that Christians themselves should not have joined the military to go to war with Hitler. He states unequivocally that the world was completely right to have fought and destroyed Hitler, just as, post-war, the reconstruction efforts were also wholly appropriate and good things to do.

His point is that, by limiting their own efforts to the same efforts being undertaken by the world, the Christians were failing to do what only they, as Christians, could do. And since the underlying causes of all the world’s problems are spiritual issues, it is that which only Christians can do which can actually solve those crises.

Now, specifically speaking, what could Christians have done before and during World War II that the rest of the world could not? Well, bear with me now, one thing is: pray. He wrote:

“… in facing up to Hitler, if it is true that he represented a Satanic power, there was first a spiritual battle to wage. Prayer is what should have been decisive, but we no longer have confidence in the extraordinary power of prayer! Prayer was the exorcism that drives out demons by the Holy Spirit, the armor of faith. It is quite possible that if Christians had truly acted according to these means, while everyone else was thinking of material warfare (which was also necessary) or simply of blessing the guns, the result would not have been this horrifying triumph of the Hitlerian spirit that we see now throughout the world. The world today is reaping what Christians have sown. In the face of spiritual power, Christians called “to arms!” and fought materially. Materially triumphant, we are spiritually vanquished.

(italics in original; bold emphasis added)

So. Let me be clear that I am not generally the sort of person who is comfortable with the idea of saying something like, “Maybe World War II would have gone better, or even been avoided, if only Christians had prayed more diligently.”

But I’m also open to trying to become that sort of person, because, as Ellul points out (but which we already knew), the world’s attempts to solve its own crises continue to fail.

  • Defeat Hitler, and that’s great! But did it lead to some sort of global spiritual awakening or world peace? Well, no.
  • Defeat the Soviet Union, and end the cold war — awesome! But did it lead to some sort of global spiritual awakening or world peace? Well, no.
  • Defeat Osama bin Laden — terrific! But … well, you know.

The fact is that you can play this game for pretty much everything. We get together and solve a problem — Christians and world working together in lockstep — and nothing gets solved; somehow, things get worse. (We elected Obama, a black man, president! And then … Donald Trump.)

I think it is possible to make genuine improvements in the lives of human beings, and obviously I think we should do so, whether that’s by providing food to local families or by funding vaccine development with federal tax dollars. But every time we do make a genuine difference in one area, it seems, something else gets worse.

Let’s take, for example, something non-controversial (kidding!), like guns in America and the whole fight over “thoughts and prayers.”

To paint with a broad stripe, and I will focus only on the wings of the American church: conservatives respond to the latest shooting tragedy with “thoughts and prayers” for the families involved, and progressives sneer and demand that maybe they try doing something instead.

It seems to me, thinking from the perspective Ellul offers in this chapter, that both sides are getting a lot wrong.

For one thing, everyone knows that the sort of people who tweet “thoughts and prayers” aren’t actually praying for anything in a meaningful way. It’s something you say. It’s well-wishing, basically. Any prayers said are for the comfort of the families and souls of the murdered, which is nice, but not the same thing as praying for the Holy Spirit to exorcise the demons that are leading to these mass murders in the first place.

Whoa, did that last sentence make you wince a bit? It did me. I’m trying to imagine someone adding a line like that to the Prayers of the People at next Sunday’s Eucharist.

No, the progressives at your local mainline church will absolutely say a special prayer in the wake of a horrible shooting tragedy, but usually it will be about asking God to please give our government’s leaders “the courage” to stop gun violence.

Let’s set aside for a moment the fact that, in the model prayer Jesus gave us, there was not a single line petitioning God to change other people.

This kind of prayer and sentiment is evidence that our fellow parishioners have completely bought into the idea that the world’s problems are material problems, not spiritual problems, and that as Christians, they believe that their role is to advocate for material solutions to those problems. Which is not specifically a Christian role at all.

Personally, I believe that governments at all levels should be working on material solutions to the tragic issue of gun violence in America. But I’m no longer naive enough to believe that whatever solutions they arrive at will actually be a solution to senseless tragedy. And supporting or opposing a particular political solution has nothing to do with being a Christian, if non-Christians can support or oppose it, too.

According to Ellul, for those of us who desperately want these sorts of tragedies to end, praying — actually praying — for the Holy Spirit to exorcise demons is one of the primary methods by which we can preserve the world.

I certainly don’t think Christians should sneer at prayer as “doing nothing,” even if the people who claim to be praying are on the other side of a political divide.