Tuesday, October 30, 2018

The Removal of Jesus from the Parliamentary Prayer

I see a group of Christians is going to the NZ parliament to protest the removal of the phrase “Jesus Christ” from the parliamentary prayer. Back in 2017, mentions of Jesus and the Queen were removed from the prayer by Trevor Mallard, the incoming speaker of the house when the Labour/NZ First coalition took the reins of the NZ government. He did so without any real consultation, which is strange considering the long-held traditions of Parliament (https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/politics/98742522/parliament-prayer-changes--no-more-queen-or-jesus).

In a Stuff online poll at the time, 50% said they didn’t like the removal. 17% liked the removal of the references to Jesus and the Queen, while 33% wanted the prayer removed altogether. So, it is fair to say, NZ is split down the middle. A majority of around two-thirds want a prayer, and half want Jesus and the Queen referenced.

The previous prayer went like this:

Almighty God,
Humbly acknowledging our need for Thy guidance in all things, and laying aside all private and personal interests, we beseech Thee to grant that we may conduct the affairs of this House and of our country to the glory of Thy holy name, the maintenance of true religion and justice, the honour of the Queen, and the public welfare, peace, and tranquillity of New Zealand, through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The replacement is this:
Almighty God, we give thanks for the blessings which have been bestowed on New Zealand.
Laying aside all personal interests, we pray for guidance in our deliberations, that we may conduct the affairs of this House with wisdom and humility, for the public welfare and peace of New Zealand.

I admire the Christians who are going to Parliament today to take on the Speaker on this. I heard a representative on the AM Show this morning, and he was humble and gracious. Good on them. I honour their desire to see Jesus Christ retained in the prayer. I want all New Zealanders praying to God through Jesus and so applaud them.

However, for a range of reasons, if it doesn’t go the way our blessed brothers and sisters want today, I suggest to Christians that we don’t need to get too worried about it either way.

First, there is still a prayer thanking God for his blessings, that the Parliament acts with wisdom and humility, and for the welfare and peace of the nation. Some of the things removed are good, e.g. the language is updated, and is less elevated and “holier than thou.” I am disappointed that God’s guidance is removed. I am also a bit sad that justice is not included in the replacement; surely, a left-wing government with a passion for social justice would include this. I wonder if it is removed because of the left’s concern that some are focussed on punitive justice? Restorative and social justice are great ideas. Still, it is a good prayer, and Christians can pray it heartily.

The second reason not to be worried is that it is not the Parliament which is commanded by God to pray for the nation in Scripture, believers are. In 1 Timothy 2:1–2, Paul urges that “supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions.” Hence, it is our responsibility to pray for Parliament. This we can do, whether they pray or do not.

So, perhaps it is a better use of our time to gather in prayer for Parliament rather than march on the said place to get a whole lot of people, many of whom don’t agree with the prayer, to hypocritically pray something they don’t believe in, or to stand in silence as it is done? By compelling people to pray this prayer, are we not demeaning the freedom of the gospel for them not to. Then again, I suppose they don’t have to join in. Still, it seems a bit rich to me—what divine right do we have to demand it? The new prayer might get more participation, as there may be more seekers and acknowledgers of some kind of divine being out there than we think.

Third, those Christians in Parliament and other Christian staff can continue to gather and pray together for their work as I am sure they do. This should spur them on to do so, as Christians in all work locations can gather and pray and should.

Fourth, the National Anthem is a sufficient prayer for the nation. We have an amazingly Christian anthem and while a number of NZers sing it without any real faith in it or as a prayer, we Christians can and do. Still, one day I am sure efforts will be made to change this too. If so, we should resist with grace, gentleness, and respect. However, if it is changed, again it is not the end of the world. We can sing it with gusto in our churches for the nation; that is our calling.

The final reason I think we should not kick up too much of a fuss on this is that the whole thing is that it is a relic of Christendom. We Christians claim that Christianity is the heritage of the nation whether we like it or not and that Christianity has shaped NZ more than anything else, and so we should keep praying it. I would agree that Christian ideals have shaped our culture hugely and I am hugely glad it has. Yet, Christian ideas are not the only ones that have formed us. There is Greek philosophy, paganism that covered Europe before Christianity, the philosophies and ideologies of Europe since the Enlightenment, Maori culture and religion that pre-existed the coming of the Pakeha, the many religions and ideas of the many immigrants who are now among us. These are all influential to some degree. We need to watch that we do not arrogantly demand that the world around us live as we live and pray as we pray. We do not want them to feel compelled into hypocrisy by our zealous expectations.

Why would we expect the world of people around who have not yielded to Christ the King and received his Spirit to do what we want? The early church was not seen standing on the steps of the Forum in Rome demanding the Roman rulers pray prayers to Jesus and God. They got on with being the people of God and changed the Roman world from the inside out with their passionate faith, refusal to use violence, social work, love, and worship. This is our call.

Christendom was a period where Church and State were aligned and supposedly nations lived out of the Christian faith. Anyone with a moderate knowledge of European history knows that this period was not a golden age of glorious holiness and honor of God. It was an up and down period, where the church was often fatally compromised as it became harnessed too closely to the State. Indeed, the establishment of the modern nation of NZ is a flawed story of Christianity and Colonialism. While the missionaries in many cases did their level best to moderate the colonial overwhelming of the Maori people in this nation, we are culpable to a great degree for the oppression of a culture. Thanks to the graciousness of the Maori people and ongoing efforts to bring justice, we live at peace and harmony as one people. We must not threaten this by demanding that our religion brought from Europe to NZ be given dominion. That is not the Jesus way. His way is the path of humble service, washing feet, and honouring the other.

It is not our divine right to run the nation. Indeed, when we have got into positions of running nations, we have proved little better than those who are not Christians. It is great that some Christians are working in the upper echelons of power, and God bless them that they be truly salt and light in those places, bringing the justice and compassion of Jesus with humility and service. Yet, we have no divine right to govern this nation, demand that they pray prayers we like, etc. We are right to partake in the democratic process, but with humility and graciousness and not demanding things our way.
Our call is to work in and from our local churches, going into the world, doing our God-ordained vocations, building the nation, doing it well, praying for it, honouring God, caring for the poor, inviting people to submit to the reign of God, forming communities that show the world what it looks like when males and females of all ages, cultures, stages, and social positions come together in love. We are to model the ideals of the Kingdom. As we do, we will find more and more people drawn to it, because God’s ways are great!

Our posture toward the government must be one of respect, submission, and humility. We will resist if they oppress and persecute us, but not with violent retaliation. We will challenge the government to do its work well of making this country one that is egalitarian, humanitarian, secure, fair, and just. We will model what Jesus came to establish—a kingdom in which grace, mercy, compassion, and love of God and others are lived and experience. We do not demand that they name our God in their prayers. We will pray for them.

I like the idea of us asking Parliament not to remove Jesus Christ from the prayer and reconsidering its reintroduction. It is good to ask, as long as we do so with grace and respect where respect is due. But if they say no, that is no big deal. We get on praying for them and being the people of God as we are called to be.

We can acknowledge that faith in Jesus and God in this country has waned to a degree. Yet, it is still much stronger than people think, even if many churches are not as full as they once were. Where there are people in churches, the waning of the faith around us means that there is a more active, committed group than there used to be in church. We are there not because it is cool and the done thing, but because we want to be. If we be the people of God well, more and more people will realise again that we need its ideals and power to keep NZ such a great place to be and live.

So, while I think Trevor Mallard should not have removed Jesus and the Queen without some decent consultation and while I wish they were still there, I am not concerned. Let us continue to pray for the government and all in authority, as Paul urged. Let us be people under God’s rule who really embrace the challenge to show love, compassion, mercy, and grace to all around us, respecting their freedom to reject or embrace God and Jesus. We continue to issue the invitation with gentleness and respect. We continue to sing our National Anthem as a prayer. We know God is with us and that the NZ government is his servant to govern on his behalf (e.g. Rom 13; Tit 3:1; 1 Pet 2:13–17). He will deal with them if they don’t. That is not up to us. Shalom.