In drought-stricken Australia, the Prime Minister recently announced that soon our government may have to take drastic measures, to deny irrigation water to a huge region of the country which has been called the nation’s food-bowl. Many towns in this region are already in desperate situations.
Following this statement, the P M then called on everyone to pray for rain. This kind of statement may be common-place in other countries, but it is rare in Australia for a political leader to call people to prayer.
As a result, Centre for Christian Ethics, at Morling College in Sydney, has devoted its newsletter ‘Soundings’ (edited by Rod Benson) to this theme.
Here I reproduce that letter: first, because I think some excellent thinking is expressed in it, and secondly because I think it is well worth thinking about the political interface between public policy and our individual religious and moral commitments. Too easily, the latter are seen as private matters. But here they come together. It is quite proper for us to be religiously concerned about the drought. But is that just a matter of praying for rain, when we are in hard times?
(With acknowledgements to ‘Soundings’)
Prayer for rain and the Prime Minister
by Kristine Morrison
On 20 April The Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) reported the Australian
Prime Minister’s call to pray for rain in response to the dire state of
the Murray-Darling Basin. This call was endorsed in a media release by
Rev Dr Ross Clifford, President of the Baptist Union of Australia.
Among other things, Dr Clifford encouraged church leaders around
Australia to ensure that time was set aside for prayer each Sunday
until the drought was broken, and asked the churches to pray for
families severely affected by the drought.
The Herald’s Letters to the Editor section of the 23 April devoted
significant space to responses to the Prime Minister’s call to prayer.
In contrast to Dr Clifford, respondents were unenthusiastic, derisive
Does this diversity of opinions represent a simple divide between
secular people, who do not believe that there is a place for prayer in
everyday life, and people of faith? Or are there genuine problems with
a broadly stated call to prayer from a political leader in a liberal
democracy such as Australia?
It is difficult for Christians to voice reservations about a public
call to prayer for drought-breaking rain. However, there are some
aspects of this call to payer that will trouble praying believers.
Christians are wary of having their prayer life co-opted for the
advancement of a particular political agenda. Whilst they may pray and
indeed be happy to pray for rain, they may not wish to have their
prayer life conscripted for the furtherance of the Prime Minister’s
ambition. There are also conditions of prayer and limits to the kinds
of things that may be requested in prayer that need to be considered
when approaching the Almighty.
Even though Dr Clifford’s statement appears to support the Prime
Minister’s call, there are elements in his statement that qualify the
endorsement. Dr Clifford reminds us that Christians, particularly those
in rural areas, have been praying for rain for many months if not
years. Rural communities appreciate – far more acutely than city
dwellers – our intimate dependence on the cycles of nature. There is an
implicit, if gentle, rebuke for our Prime Minister in the words of our
President that is worth noting.
Dr Clifford also suggests that we need to pray for wisdom in the
management and restoration of our water resources. It is perhaps this
apparent lack of wisdom, revealed by our Prime Minister, that so
infuriated the writers to the Herald’s letters page.
They point out that in the past decade of prosperity the government has
not seriously addressed water management issues. John Howard is accused
of failing to listen to scientific advice about water management and
being without an alternative water management plan. His plea for prayer
is reckoned by one correspondent to be reasonable only in comparison to
being asked to slaughter a chicken.
Though secularists, these writers have proved alert to some of the
dilemmas facing those who pray. Is it reasonable to pray to avoid the
consequences of something that those who pray may have contributed to?
Our squandering of water and our failure to be active in prompting our
government to take water management practices seriously does compromise
our approach to God.
One writer to the Herald, clearly not a secularist, made a compelling
link between the need for repentance and effective prayer. He advocated
a day of repentance where the nation could acknowledge both God as the
giver of rain and our dependence on the generosity of God to provide
for all our needs to accompany our requests for rain. Many of us have
prayed to escape the consequences of our actions. However, we can only
do this when we express contrition and repentance for such actions.
This important and significant aspect of prayer was omitted in our
Prime Minister’s call to prayer.
The knowledge of the cyclic nature of rain patterns presents another
difficulty for those who pray for rain. We know that higher rainfall in
one part of Australia (or the world) usually means less rain in some
other part of the continent (or the world). Is it right for us to pray
for more natural abundance in our part of the world when other places,
already suffering resource depletion, may receive less rain as a result?
Writers to the Herald were also annoyed by our Prime Minister’s
apparent lack of cultural sensitivity. Which God was he suggesting that
we pray to? Yahweh? The Christian God? Allah? Christians may assume
that Mr Howard was referring to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob,
but that may not be clear to all members of our community.
If Mr Howard was only calling Christians to prayer, he was ignoring the
religious convictions of many in our community. But if he was making a
universalist call to prayer, he ran the risk of insulting Christians,
Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims alike by flattening the diverse meanings
of prayer to a one-note refrain. As a missionary people, aware of
cultural sensitivities and the challenges of religious pluralism,
Australian Baptists might have hoped that our national leader could
provide spiritual direction without alienating significant sections of
Public prayer is not a concept that can be conscripted for political
gain. Nor, as Mr Howard has perhaps discovered, is it a motherhood
issue that will unite everyone in a surge of good feeling. As Florence
Allshorn observed, “the primary object of prayer is to know God better;
we and our needs should come second.”
It is too much to expect our political leaders to encapsulate such a
profound appreciation of prayer in public statements, but we can wish
that they might avoid reducing public calls to prayer to a glib sound
Kristine Morrison is a midwife at Sydney’s Royal Prince Alfred Hospital
and a member of the Social Issues Committee of the Baptist Churches of
NSW and ACT.