By Onleilove Alston.
As I looked through my Facebook newsfeed I saw many of my African-American friends asking, “How long, oh Lord?” This question is not just one we asked after Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were added to our great cloud of witnesses as the latest victims of racial violence, but this is a question our parents, grandparents, and generations have asked as they faced oppression.
We are just in the seventh month of 2016.
As I looked at the video of Alton Sterling taking his last breath I thought about the countless Black bodies murdered due to racial violence and I tweeted this:
“My biggest prayer with my entire heart, soul & mind is that my people will be free from this captivity & that my descendants will be free.” @Wholeness4ALL
Reading Luke 11:1-13 I am reminded of one of the most famous prayers in history: the Lord’s Prayer. Prayer was extremely important in the Hebrew culture Jesus grew up in, which is why out of all the things his disciples could have asked him to teach them they asked him to teach them how to pray.
The Hebrew word Tefilah (תפילה) is generally translated into English as the word “prayer.” But this is not an accurate translation, for to pray means to beg, beseech, implore, and the like.
Tefilah calls us to deeply honest prayer, not the calm, cool, and collected prayer of a comfortable person but the cry of the desperate. My people and I are desperate for liberation.
After Jesus teaches his disciples what to pray he teaches them how to pray with faith and trust that their Heavenly Father will provide them what they ask. This is probably the hardest lesson about prayer because after you honestly pour out your heart to God, you then have to trust that you will be given what you are praying for. Some things are easy to trust God for, but other things like systematic justice for Black Lives and world peace are hard to trust God for. So what do we do? Stop praying? What do we pray? How long, oh Lord, how long do we wait?
I am a firm believer in the words of Jesus’ little Brother James the Just: “faith without action is dead” (James 2:17).
As I desperately cry out to God for my people to receive justice in prayer, I also pray with my feet as I march and pray with my hands as I organize with the Live Free Campaign, which is led by Black faith communities across the nation to end mass incarceration, gun violence, and police brutality. As people of faith we MUST believe that God will answer our prayers for justice. We have to believe this deep down in our souls or our prayers and actions are in vain. I know that believing is easier said than done, but my enslaved ancestors prayed for freedom, and though many of them did not receive it in their lifetimes I am free from slavery.
The key to praying during times of desperation where the videos of dead Black bodies don’t stop playing on our news feeds, in our minds, and in our souls is to believe that in spite of the evil in our world that we serve a good Heavenly Father, one of justice and love whose greatest longing is that peace will reign on earth for his people.
I believe that for our prayers to be heard they must be authentic. Jesus did not teach his disciples to pray to the far away, majestic god but to “Our Father,” which denotes intimacy. In order for you to be intimate with someone you must be honest with them.
The video “How We Pray” features a diverse group of New Yorkers sharing the role prayer plays in their lives; though their faith traditions and methods of prayer are different, the honesty of their prayer life is the same.
Are we willing to pray honest prayers for justice? Are we willing to pray angry prayers for justice? Are we willing to cry before God for justice? If we truly believe he is a God that delights in giving his children justice than the answer is yes.
One person whose honesty encourages me is the Grey’s Anatomy actor Jesse Williams. His speech at the 2016 BET Awards was honest demand for justice:“Now, what we’ve been doing is looking at the data and we know that police somehow manage to deescalate, disarm, and not kill white people every day. So what’s going to happen is we are going to have equal rights and justice in our own country or we will restructure their function and ours.”
Many were made uncomfortable by Jesse’s words but I believe if we are not willing to be brutally honest about racial violence in this country, even in our songs, sermons, and yes even before God in our prayers, we won’t receive the peace and justice our world desperately needs.
Remember as Jesus taught his disciples how to pray they were poor Hebrew men living under Roman oppression. Jesus would die much in the same way as Alton Sterling, Philando Castillo, and others, executed by law enforcement with his dead body on display for everyone to see. But like the death of Jesus, the deaths of Alton Sterling, Philando Castillo, Mike Brown, Sandra Bland, and others are giving inspiration to the poor and downtrodden across the world as we raise our voices to Tefilah (Pray urgently) for justice not just with words but with actions alongside our neighbor.
Will you join us in crying out to God for justice believing that he will not deny his children this good gift?
Bible Study Questions:
- How can we better incorporate prayer into our movements for justice?
- Would we bring more of our request for justice to God if we believed he would grant them?
- In what ways can your faith community bring prayer out of the church and into public life?
For Further Reading:
Thurman, Howard. Jesus and the Disinherited. Beacon Press, Boston, MA, 2012.
Harper, Lisa Sharon. The Very Good Gospel. Random House, New York, 2016.
Gordon, Nehemiah and Keith Johnson. A Prayer to Our Father: The Hebrew Origins of the Lord’s Prayer. Hilkiah Press, Grand Prairie, Texas, 2010.
Onleilove “Chika” Alston, M.Div., MSW is a native New Yorker who currently lives in Harlem. As the Executive Director of Faith in NY, the New York affiliate of the PICO Network she leads a multiracial and multi-faith movement to Build the Beloved City through organizing for justice. For the PICO Network she also leads A Women’s Theology of Liberation focused on equipping women who are organizing for justice through theological reflection and leadership development. A speaker and writer, in 2014 she founded Prophetic Whirlwind: Uncovering the Black Biblical Destiny, where she develops workshops, congregational resources, and social media on the Afro-Asiatic foundations of the Jewish and Christian faiths. A Beatitudes Society Fellow, she serves on the board of directors for Sojourners and is the Community Development Coordinator with Kulanu for the House of Israel a Ghanian Jewish community. She has 5 siblings and a large extended family and worships with Beth-El House of Yahweh in the South Bronx. You can find her on Twitter @Wholeness4All and on Instagram @PropheticWhirlwind.
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