A place for prayer in the pursuit of social justice

A man kneels while praying the rosary for peace and racial justice June 7 at the Basilica of Ste. Anne in southwest Detroit. (Valaurian Waller | Detroit Catholic)

When Jesus appears at the home of Lazarus and his sisters, there is a clear divergence between the sisters’ response to his presence. Martha immediately occupies herself with the tasks of service while Mary sits at the feet of Jesus listening to him. When Martha complains that Mary’s seeming inactivity creates more work for her, she is told: “Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her” (Lk. 10:42).

Every disciple of Jesus must negotiate the balance between activity and contemplation — the exterior live and the interior life — in his own life. Our incarnational theology pulls us toward a “both/and” response rather than an “either/or” approach to this balance. The Carthusian monk spends time in manual labor and the Missionary of Charity sister spends time in daily prayer. This balance is written into the rule of life for religious communities, but as we all strive for holiness, we must find the balance for ourselves, depending on one’s state in life. We cannot imitate the monk or the apostolic sister if we are in the midst of medical school, have to work our shift at the assembly plant, or small children need our attention.  

Even in the pursuit of justice in our world, we are called to approach societal problems as men and women of faith. Our action is necessary since St. James teaches that “faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (Js. 2:17). We cannot sit idly by when people are suffering. This is true for the pro-life movement outside abortion facilities. It is true when we encourage the homeless and the destitute. And it is no less true when we seek to eradicate the scourge of racism in our country.

The works that flow from our faith require us to step out into the world and “get our hands dirty.” This means — while not compromising on the truth of the Gospel — talking with and listening to people who have different points of view and (sometimes radically) different worldviews. Work for social change entails standing with the marginalized even when it is unpopular or when it makes us uncomfortable. As I stood among the demonstrators outside the Detroit police headquarters some days ago, I heard speeches and saw signs that did not represent my beliefs about the proper response to the cruel death of George Floyd. But it was good for me — and a number of my brother priests — to be there witnessing to the value of his life, the senseless manner in which he died, and the need to make sure it does not happen again.

No less important than this action for social justice is our prayer. As people of faith, nothing is more important than prayer. Too often prayer is ridiculed or maligned by non-believers as a cop-out on taking more concrete action. Not true! Prayer is an essential part of our response to any situation of injustice we encounter because prayer transforms us, those we pray for, and our society.

Most importantly, prayer is an act of entrustment of our cares, our concerns, and our problems to God. St. Peter tells us: “Cast all your worries upon him because he cares for you” (1 Pt. 5:7). When we pray, we are making an act of faith that God is listening to us and an act of hope that, as we say, “He’s got this.” I often visualize in my prayer a physical handing over of my worries to God and what we give to God should not be taken back. Every worry we cast upon him is repaid with a new outpouring of His love upon us. This is not abdicating my responsibility to act but rather subserviating my will to God’s will.

Our desire for social justice must be rooted in prayer so that we are striving for more than our own best ideas. Justice is a virtue hailed by ancient philosophers long before the birth of Christ, but Christians believe that grace increases that which we have by nature. Therefore, praying for justice is a surer, and more perfect path to our goal because God is just like none of us are just. He is perfectly just and by looking to Him, we understand what we true virtue we desire for ourselves, our neighbors and our society.

The call to follow Jesus is not for the half-hearted. It demands all of me. Therefore, his words at the Sermon on the Mount, “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” are non-negotiable and permit no exception (Mt. 5:44). Our response to racism and every other social injustice must include prayer for those who oppose precisely that for which we stand.

This demand of Jesus’ is striking in its absoluteness. Praying for my enemies does not come natural to us because something more than nature is required to fulfill this command. Jesus’ words are supernatural and his command to do the supernatural comes with the corresponding grace to accomplish it. He gives us the capacity to do in him what we cannot do by nature. Seeking justice is natural but loving our enemies is supernatural.

Why should we pray for our enemies? Every sin has a self-corrosive effect and this is no less true of racism: “the perpetrator of racial prejudice disfigures his own understanding of right and wrong and obscures his ability to see truth through the light of the Gospel.” We pray for those who stand against racial justice because they are created in God’s image and loved by Jesus, even to the point of his shedding his own blood for them: “But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Rm. 5:7). We pray for our enemies because God loves our enemies just as He loves us. As fellow sinners, we pray for those who perpetuate the sin of racism so that it might be blotted out from their hearts and their conversion (and ours) might bring each of us to God’s kingdom.

Praying for our enemies is also a powerful witness to the transformative power of the Gospel. It is natural to be angry and lash out as a result of oppression. We see this time after time from victims of a crime who desire to get even with one’s perpetrators, either actual or symbolic. Yet, those who have given their lives over to Christ offer a striking witness to God’s love. Nowhere has this been more evident than in the courtroom testimony of Brandt Jean, who last October publicly forgave the woman who murdered his brother and sealed this forgiveness with an embrace. Nothing short of God’s grace could bring this about.

Men and women of prayer are a necessary leaven to any movement of social justice. Surely there are non-religious people who are a part of these movements; that is great. One can find many areas of common ground with non-religious people in this pursuit and these can even lead to opportunities for sharing our Gospel-foundations for our convictions. But devoid of a God-centered worldview, movements for justice often turn violent and callous, creating new victims. Prayer tempers our basest desires to take advantage of these emotions for our own gain or for evil ends.

History, recent and long-past, reminds us that without God’s grace, our human nature is capable of great evil. Even well-intentioned plans — like peaceful demonstrations against injustice — can go seriously wrong without the mediating influence of prayer. When these movements are infused with prayer, they are anchored the deepest good, and the strongest truth: God himself.

Those of us in the Catholic Church — and all men and women of good will — who join these broader movements for social justice have the potential to be part of something great in the weeks and months ahead. But we cannot be like Martha, blinded by the amount of work to be done. Jesus wants us to have the heart of Mary, ready to pull away at times and sit before him, listening attentive to his words and sharing our hearts with him. If our social action seeks a more just and more peaceful society, we must be men and women of humble, deep, and consistent prayer. St. Martha, pray for us to be people of action. St. Mary, teach us to pray well.

Fr. Stephen Pullis is director of the Archdiocese of Detroit’s Department of Evangelization and Missionary Discipleship. This column was first published at UnleashtheGospel.org