Last year, I was invited to join some high school students and faculty to participate in the National Day of Prayer. Our community consists of Jews, Christians, Muslims and Unitarians, and I was happy to gather in what I thought was an opportunity to come together across religious lines.
It felt like a bait and switch.
There we were, gathered around the flagpole, with a Jewish student reading a Psalm and a Christian student reading the assigned prayer. Although there were some elements of the prayer that Jews and Christians could agree upon, the context for prayer was explicitly Christian. As with this year’s recommended prayer, last year’s began and ended with Jesus.
I count myself as an evangelical Christian. I believe in Jesus’ saving work on the cross and his resurrection from the dead. I believe in God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I read the Bible and pray regularly. We go to church on Sundays.
And yet I was appalled by the evangelicalism expressed in this setting.
For decades one president after another has decreed this day of prayer. The Task Force for the National Day of Prayer states as its mission: “to mobilize prayer in America and to encourage personal repentance and righteousness in the culture.” It also calls itself “a Judeo Christian expression of the national observance.”
Christians have a right (and a responsibility) to tell people the good news about God’s saving work through Jesus. Christians also can and should build bridges with people of other faith communities, and to do so we need to have integrity. We can’t call something “Judeo Christian” and then exclude the Jewish friends who are present by praying to Jesus as the one who saves us.
As theologian Miroslav Volf states, “Jews and Christians worship the same God. They just understand God in a different way—Christians in a Trinitarian way, and Jews not.” Volf has also written about the common understanding of God that exists between Muslims and Christians and the opportunities for coming together in faith even as we acknowledge our theological disagreements.
As Mother’s Day approaches, I have been thinking about my role as a mother, responsible along with my husband to teach our children what we believe, why we believe it, and how to live it out. We have been teaching them about faith in Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ongoing work in the world. Part of that teaching includes what it means to love their neighbors, their friends who don’t believe the same things that we do. We want to teach them how to respect their friends’ religious differences while holding out their own beliefs with humble confidence.
If Christians want a Day of Prayer that excludes people from other faith traditions, they need to be explicit about their intentions. (They might also want to consider Jesus’ words about the importance of privacy in prayer.)
But if Christians want a National Day of Prayer that invites people from various faith traditions to join together in what we hold in common — a belief in a good, active, creator God — and implore that God to work through us and in us for the good of our nation and our world, then we need to do so in a way that creates common ground rather than reinforcing the theological points that divide us.
On the National Day of Prayer, Christians could invite representatives from various faith communities to pray according to their own traditions — which would include Christians praying in Jesus’ name — or we could create a prayer that upholds Biblical truth about God while making sure it includes Jews, Muslims, and Christians alike. As I think about my kids praying in this type of public setting in the future, I hope they will, for the sake of loving their neighbors, pray in a way that invites conversation rather than closing doors.
Amy Julia Becker is the author of “Small Talk: Learning from my Children about What Matters Most.” She lives in western Connecticut with her husband and her three children.