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Politics of Scripture

The Politics of Public Prayer Jeremiah 29:1, 4-14

In light of the two kingdoms doctrine and the separation of church and state, understanding the appropriate form of Christian prayer for and engagement with the political realities of our societies can be complex. In Jeremiah’s message to an exiled people, we find a pattern for prayer in a pluralistic context, a calling that identifies our primary task to be one of seeking the common good and welfare of our communities, rather than one of submission or conversion.

Jeremiah 29:1-14
These are the words of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the remaining elders among the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. 2 This was after King Jeconiah, and the queen mother, the court officials, the leaders of Judah and Jerusalem, the artisans, and the smiths had departed from Jerusalem. 3 The letter was sent by the hand of Elasah son of Shaphan and Gemariah son of Hilkiah, whom King Zedekiah of Judah sent to Babylon to King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. It said: 4 Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6 Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. 7 But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.

8 For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let the prophets and the diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, 9 for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, says the Lord. 10 For thus says the Lord: Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. 11 For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. 12 Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. 13 When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, 14 I will let you find me, says the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.

Among Martin Luther’s many critiques of the Catholicism of his day, the church reformer insisted that the Church should not exercise control over the government. Instead, he professed a doctrine of Two Kingdoms—the heavenly and the earthly—both controlled by God in their own realm. According to Luther, while God administers both realms, the heavenly kingdom is to be guided by the Gospel as administered by the Church through the Word and the Sacraments, and the earthly kingdom is to be guided by the Law as administered by rulers and, when necessary, the sword.

This doctrine and others like it have led many Christians to suggest not only that the Church and State ought to be two separate institutions, but also that Christians ought not to interfere with (or critique) the governance of the State. The argument usually continues that Christians should be obedient to and supportive of these earthly rulers as representatives of God. Today’s Scripture text is one of the many scriptural warrants given for this theology of accommodation. After all, Jeremiah encourages the exiles in Babylon (perhaps as “un-godly” a state as the Israelites could have imagined) to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf” (29:7).

The separation of church and state remains a contentious question in American politics today. Presently, the Supreme Court is hearing a case concerning the use and language of prayer in government meetings, which can be exclusive of citizens who do not share a particular set of (Christian, or even theist) beliefs. On the other side, there is growing concern among the political right that America is losing its Christian values (despite considerable debate whether such values ever existed).

Are Christians to pray for the government publically and in government-sanctioned forums? Or are they to pray for the government in more private or public Christian forums? What would the exiled Israelites have done? It is unlikely that the Babylonian court officials invited them to stand and offer prayer to Yahweh on behalf of all those gathered before beginning public hearings. However, at the same time, the Hebrew Bible contains the stories of men such as Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who held strong to their personal beliefs even in such public settings. And, of course, Jeremiah does command the exiles to pray for the government on its behalf.

Moving beyond the question of prayer, the Two Kingdoms doctrine has come under scrutiny in recent decades because of its use as a theological warrant to avoid social activism within the Church. If government officials are representatives of God, then they cannot be questioned. However, given Jeremiah’s call to pray for “the welfare of the city” and not simply the welfare of its elected officials, I do not believe that this was the prophecy’s intent. Rather, the Israelites—and so too Christians—are commanded by God to make lives for ourselves in the real (imperfect) worlds in which we live.

We are commanded to make our own prayers ones for welfare, including justice, in the communities in which we live. And, as we are commanded elsewhere in Scripture, the work of Christians in a pluralistic public context is not one of conversion or submission. Rather, it ought to be one that seeks to bring to fruition the plans that God has for all of humanity—“plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope” (Jeremiah 29:11). This, more than any attempts to legislate in the earthly sphere particular creeds or values that work only when one has come to them by the power of the Gospel in the heavenly sphere, is what I believe it means to live under the reign of Christ the King.

The Rev. Amy Lindeman Allen is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and a fellow in theology and practice at Vanderbilt University in the area of New Testament and early Christianity. She and her family reside in Franklin, Tennessee where they attend the Lutheran Church of St. Andrew.

[This post is part of our series on the politics of scripture, which focuses on weekly preaching texts. We also welcome commentary on sacred, classic, and profane literature, film, and artistic expression. Submissions may be sent to 40bicycles@gmail.com.]

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