I have been sharing a number of theological papers that I have written. This is a copy of an article I wrote for Cambria Nostra, a publication that engaged with society’s relationship with culture, politics, history, and religion.
In recent years, the number of those people who define themselves as Christian has fallen dramatically in the UK. To a generation brought up on social media and globalization, the Christian faith seems like an archaic quirk from a long-forgotten age, with little, if anything, to contribute to the big societal questions of our time. Not that churches always help – all too often they are torn apart by certain doctrinal or ethical issues that leave non-church-attenders bewildered or even amused. As a result, Christians are sometimes accused of being unworldly, sometimes even anti-worldly.
Yet those of us who are working on the coalface of Christian ministry, with communities that are groaning for restoration and renewal, know a different story. We know all too well how hope, compassion, and transformation can flow from spiritual beliefs. The prayer that Jesus taught his disciples, now known as “The Lord’s Prayer”, is a manifesto of the hope that the Christian faith can offer. It is not a prayer that allows Christians to hide away in churches or to remain passively on our knees, but is a rallying call for us to reach out to others. It demands that Christians stand alongside the poor, defend the defenceless, liberate the persecuted, offer justice to the oppressed, campaign for environmental issues, and speak for those with no voice.
The fact that Russell Brand’s book Revolution dedicated a whole chapter to this radical, revolutionary prayer, shows something of how this prayer can also speak powerfully to those who do not define themselves as “Christian”. All of us, from an early age, are sold a particular worldview. We are taught and told how we should act and what we should value. In the contemporary world, this is often a worldview that glorifies the individual, places wealth and prosperity as the ultimate attainment, and views competition and success as defining our very being. We are led, often in subtle ways, to the lie that greed is absolutely necessary for so-called “progress”, that inequality is essential for the flourishing of society, and that “survival of the fittest” is not simply a scientific truth, but a way-of-life that defines our species.
The Lord’s Prayer challenges us to re-evaluate this prevailing worldview – a worldview that champions wealth, consumerism, and materialism. “No one can serve two masters”, Jesus asserts in the verses following the Lord’s Prayer, “either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other” (Matthew 6:24). Yet, we have been conditioned from the cradle to believe that we are helpless to change the huge inequality between poor and rich in society, as it is the natural order of things. We are told that our own meagre efforts to care for the environment will do nothing in the large scheme of things. We are told that we can placate ourselves by becoming happy and fulfilled through obtaining more money in our banks, owning more objects, upsizing to bigger houses, or becoming more successful and popular. The Lord’s Prayer explodes this myth, allowing an open and realistic confrontation of the real and pressing issues of our time – poverty, welfare cuts, economic debt, political corruption, asylum seekers, international aid, inequality, peace and reconciliation, sexual harassment and abuse, economic greed, ethically-blind business, and climate change.
In John Carpenter’s cult classic film They Live , the protagonist discovers a pair of magical sunglasses that allow him to view “reality”. By wearing the glasses, propaganda and lies are revealed all around. Instead of advertisements, billboards suddenly spell “buy” or “obey”. Instead of the usual pictures on money, “this is our God” is printed on the notes. Like these sunglasses, the Lord’s Prayer can help open our eyes to the falsehoods that have been propagated since we were young. It can help clear the fog of modern living to reveal reality and truth. This is what the Christian faith can gift to our society – ways of helping us recognise the reality of existence and ways of inspiring us to transform situations. This is the radical call of Christ, who speaks to all of us, whether we are Christian or not, in the same way as he spoke to those around him – urging us to shed our complacency and hypocrisy, and to live out compassion and justice in our daily lives.
Those who do not define themselves as “religious” will see from the Lord’s Prayer that spirituality does not simply bring comfort, ease, and security to those with faith. Prayer is not about personal and private satisfaction. Ultimately, that would lead us to a tame and arid apathy obsessed with personal, petty concerns. As Homer Simpson philosophises in The Simpsons: “What’s the point of going out – we’re just going to wind up back here anyway”.
The revolution of Christ, as shown in the Lord’s Prayer and in the life of Jesus himself, instead calls for an outward-looking and radical way of living, which champions resurrection, hope, love and compassion for all. It calls for individuals to live out communal lives focused on the plight of the other. It calls for us to reach out to others, however different they are to us, as brothers and sisters (“Our Father in heaven”), to reflect God’s nature by standing alongside the marginalised and oppressed (“hallowed be your name”), to usher in a society of justice and compassion (“your kingdom come”), to fight poverty and inequality (“give us today our daily bread”), to model truth and reconciliation (“as we forgive those who sin against us”), to recognise and transform our inclination to egotism and self-interest (“lead us not into temptation”), and to oppose powers of corruption and greed (“for the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours”). As such, the Lord’s Prayer is as contemporary and relevant as it was two thousand years ago. “This prayer cries out for justice, bread, forgiveness and deliverance;” concludes theologian Tom Wright, “if anyone thinks those are irrelevant in today’s world, let them read the newspaper and think again”.
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
Forgive us our sins
as we forgive those who sin against us.
Lead us not into temptation
but deliver us from evil.
For the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours
now and for ever. Amen.
My book Living the Prayer: The Everyday Challenge of the Lord’s Prayer (BRF, Abingdon 2017) further explores the radical and revolutionary socio-political challenge of the Lord’s Prayer. Available from Amazon (www.amazon.co.uk/Living-Prayer-Everyday-Challenge-Lords/dp/0857466232/ ) and all other good booksellers.