14 March 2011

Praying for Japan

Caravaggio, Deposition from the Cross

I have two sets of people I know, essentially: people I know that knew me when I was an Evangelical Christian and people that met me after I left the faith. My Evangelical Christian friend base is slowly shrinking because of time, I think. I haven't really become close to any new Christian friends since around 2007, and this suits me well. You can't help but feeling like a burden on those around you who have a strong faith and burdening my very close friends and family that are still faithfully religious is enough for me. But of my blog readership, I have a good mix of both, and despite my appearance of being an aggressive pragmatist poo-pooing on the supernatural, I don't want to be a negative, rain-on-the-religious-parade atheist: too many of the people I love most in the world are religious and to be dismissive of them is both unwise and wrong.

On Saturday morning I noticed that #prayforjapan was a trending topic on Twitter and I quickly tweeted in anger: #prayforjapan = Things to make you feel better about yourself, not really change anything. I immediately felt bad about it, not because I didn't think it was the truth, but because it was the wrong thing to say at the wrong time.

I was at one time a very fervent person of prayer: some of my readership will have been in prayer meetings that I organised, attended, and/or led. At one time, I was the 'Prayer Co-ordinator' in the Intervarsity Christian Fellowship chapter at my college. My memories of prayer are mostly memories of doing something I thought to be right, rather than something I personally enjoyed or took solace in. Of course, if you had asked me at the time, I would have said something completely different and indeed, my memory of it now is likely shaded by my present dark feelings about my history of religious expression. Still, I remember the practice of it much more than the effect of it.

On September 11th, for example, we had an impromptu prayer session, attended by our mostly-absent-except-when-there-were-a-lot-of-people-around staff member. He was in rare form, I recall: from my limited experience, full-time religious staff people are talented at drumming up support in times of tragedy. People are particularly vulnerable to religious explanations to things when they are emotional and unstable. I went through the motions of the meeting, but I remember being more interested in talking with my roommate Rob about what would have happened if the planes had hit lower, how much more quickly the buildings would have fell. I was, certainly, not thinking about how many more people would be coming to our meetings in the wake of the tragedy.

I prayed all through my college years. I prayed when I went to Japan to teach English. I prayed with Yoko before dinner when we were dating and first married. And I continued praying as an impulse for some time after I left the faith, right into last year, I think. In times of complete panic (usually related to my daughters), I would find myself praying again, reaching out is the right metaphor here. When you lose control, you want someone to have control.

This has, however, tapered off and I can't remember the last time I prayed. It's been a long time. I remember not praying when we were broken into in November. I remember it being less of an urge that I resisted and more of an afterthought: I suppose I might pray.

When Naomi was ill last time, she prayed by herself for the first time. Yoko mentioned this, either in a blog or to me, and I felt emotional suddenly, like I would cry. The thought of my daughter feeling so helpless that she would pray... I didn't resent it, though, and didn't even really think it was a bad thing. It was what she had seen her mother do and she did the same thing. When she is older she can decide what she wants, but for now, this sort of faith, the faith of a child who is still free from the frustrations of knowing more and more about the world, is beautifully pure.

This is the prayer that I admire, I think. I see it in my wife as well: she prays for strength. She draws power and determination from prayer and is made better by it.

H told me she prayed when she was hoping to move to Tokyo from Niigata. She went regularly to the Japanese shrine in her area to pray that this move would happen. It reminded her, I recall, of her goal and kept her focused. (She can correct this in the comments if she reads this and cares to comment.)

Prayer, in these cases, is about what it can change: you. You change when you pray. And changing yourself is a remarkable thing.

The prayer I do not admire, however, is the prayer embedded in the tag #prayforjapan, and the accompanying bracelet that Lady Gaga is peddling. The grammar of this statement is important: it is a command. It doesn't say, 'I am deriving strength from my own spiritual practice and it is meaningful for me.' No, it says, 'Prayer is the appropriate response to this and you, regardless of what you believe most of the time, when push comes to shove, should be praying. Look, the rest of us are praying.'

Perhaps even more dangerous is the thought that somehow one's prayer might actually accomplish some good in the situation; that you, by praying, might affect the situation on the ground. I can hear it now, 'Lord, we just pray that you would have your hands on the nuclear reactor, preventing the explosion, Lord God, with  your strong and mighty power, Jesus, we know you are the protector, Lord God, and we ask you to protect those people, in the name of Jesus.' Then, when there is any good news, you can feel good about this, as though you have accomplished something, while meanwhile 2,000 bodies have washed up on shore today. If this isn't cognitive dissonance, I'm not sure what is. Soon to follow is the Christian meme about 'darkness' in Japan, the narrative about Jesus being the light of the world, the prayer to open the hearts of the Japanese people, and before you know it, the narrative has become circular enough that you don't need to think about it anymore, just continue going through the motions and saying the same words over and over and over again until they don't mean anything.

I would have been upset about Lady Gaga when I was a Christian as well, as she really has no dog in the fight but her own celebrity. This prayer, the prayer of the bracelet, is just cultural narrative about a Judeo-Christian god that is neither really Jewish nor really Christian, just something out there, another column on the ledger where we put figures that we can't add up. The bracelet helps Lady Gaga boost her celebrity because she now is perceived as caring, something that is important for celebrities. And she didn't even have to go to Haiti.

My favourite passage in War and Peace really nails my feelings about much of what I've been experiencing this last week. Pierre, converted to Christianity and a Free Mason, talks with his friend, Prince Andrei, who has almost died in the war. The topic of life after death comes up and Prince Andrei says:
"...All I say is that it is not argument that convinces me of the necessity of a future life, but this: when you go hand in hand with someone and all at once that person vanishes there, into nowhere, and you yourself are left facing that abyss, and look in. And I have looked in...."
"Well, that's it then! You know that there is a there and there is a Someone? There is the future life. The Someone is- God."
Prince Andrei did not reply.
What can one say. The Bible records Jesus' last words in Matthew 27:46, 'About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”). Matthew doesn't add 'It is finished', as John does. No, Jesus dies questioning his being forsaken.

This is the prayer that I've seen my wife praying this last weekend: the prayer that tells the truth about suffering and ends in suffering. It is the prayer of looking into the abyss and not seeing the bottom.

So. Please pray for Japan if it gives you strength, but if you can, do me a favour and pray less like Lady Gaga and more like Jesus.