On Prayer and Social Change

“Every step was a prayer of thanksgiving.” (author unknown)

“Fasting is the sincerest form of prayer.” Mahatma Gandhi

My presence at the Cowboy and Indian Alliance tipi encampment on the national mall in Washington, D.C. a month ago, joining with others to oppose the Keystone XL pipeline and to support a just and renewable energy future, led to an unexpected result: ever since, I have been thinking about prayer and what it means to me.

I know why this happened. During the time at the encampment I heard Indigenous person after Indigenous person either lead a prayer or speak about the importance of prayer to their culture.

The first quote above was written by a Native American person (whose name I do not know). I read it perhaps 10 years ago and was so struck by it that I wrote it down and have had it on the wall in my office ever since.

The second quote from Gandhi is something that I read many years earlier when I was on my second, long, issue-oriented fast during the Vietnam War. I have been on a number of long fasts over the last 43 years, and I can affirm the truth of Gandhi’s words. Without question, I have come to understand the meaning of the word “prayer” primarily as a result of those weeks going without solid food.

On an issue-oriented fast that is more than a week or so, particularly a water-only fast, you have no choice but to think deeply about what you believe, why you are putting your body through this energy-draining and challenging ordeal. You need to reflect in the deepest way about what is most important to you, gain spiritual strength to be able to continue fasting day after day and week after week.

In other words, you need to pray.

This is how I would define prayer: focused concentration on the higher values of the universe.

Those who are more religiously committed than I am would phrase this idea in the language of their faith. Christians, for example, would probably be OK with a definition
of prayer as more like “focused concentration on the life of Jesus of Nazareth and God’s presence in the world.”

Some religious people who pray, many I would say, do so because they are looking for emotional and spiritual strength to cope with the difficulties of their daily lives or tragedies they experience. Prayer provides perspective and connection to something bigger than themselves.

Does prayer have a place within the movement for positive, justice-seeking social change? It has had, or does have, a place within some streams of that broader river. Based upon what I learned in DC a month ago, it is very much alive among those Indigenous people who are actively fighting today against the tar sands and larger fossil fuel industry. It was absolutely part of the 1950’s and 60’s civil rights movement. It is part of the organizational culture of some of the faith-based groups and individuals who are active in the climate movement of today. And I’m sure there are other examples.

I’ve been a member for several years of a group, Interfaith Moral Action on Climate, which almost always begins and ends meetings or calls of our leadership group with a prayer, a time of silence, a personal reflection or a “higher values” reading of some kind. This is the only issue-oriented group I have ever been a part of where this happens. Without question, it has helped us all to stay centered and focused on the reason why we came together and what we are working for, helped to build a sense of common purpose and commitment.

Meditation, something which has been growing in popularity within U.S. culture, has similarities to non-religious prayer. The fact that growing numbers of social change activists are integrating meditation into their daily lives is a good thing and a sign that, on a cultural level, the social change movement of today is undergoing positive qualitative changes.

Prayer alone will not bring us to the Great Harmony, a world with organized societies putting Love at the forefront, much less prevent climate catastrophe or bring about more just societies, but it is without question a necessary part of the winning mix.