This past week I participated in Acton University, which is an annual conference in Michigan that celebrates religious and economic liberty and seeks to develop sustainable poverty relief. We were almost a thousand strong, representing over forty nations on six continents, with Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox, Evangelicals, Pentecostals, and a huge variety of other traditions. There were suits, dresses, blue jeans, clerical collars, habits, and other attires.
The third evening of the conference, we concluded our communal meal with an announcement about the tragic shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, which had occurred the previous night. A clergyman rose to the podium to lead us all in prayer for the victims, their families, and for our culture that is so steeped in death and hatred.
After a pause, he started with “Our Father, which art in heaven . . .” and everyone began to join in, “hallowed be thy name.” The room filled with different languages, accents, intonations, and pitches, the voices gathering force together as we declared in unison “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Since we had just eaten together, “give us this day our daily bread,” was particularly poignant, but it was what came next that overwhelmed me.
“Deliver us from evil” rang in the air with a gravity I’d never felt before. Just the previous night, Gregory Alan Thornbury, president of The King’s College in New York City, had reminded us that perhaps the most powerful proof for the existence of God in our age is the reality of evil and evil incarnate. Unbeknownst to us, an hour after those words were uttered, the gunman in Charleston snuffed out the lives of honorable men and women who participated in the life of their community: mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, sons, and daughters.
Not “deliver us from pain” or “from suffering,” but “evil.” In their deaths, these victims were delivered from evil in ways that we cannot fully understand. Their deaths were abominable, but their lives were glorious, bring honor to God in many ways. As sociologist George Yancey has declared, perhaps these crimes would be less frequent if we focused on the lives that had been lived rather than the killer who ended them.
Our voices pressed on, reminding us that to God belong “the kingdom and the power and the glory, forever and ever.” We paused and concluded, “Amen.”
You will notice, perhaps, that I skipped over the middle portion of the prayer: “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” Trespasses. Sins. Moral failings. Moral abominations.
That’s the hard part of the prayer for me, especially in the context of praying on the occasion of a racially driven church shooting. “Forgive”? No way. “Punish our debtors” is what we feel, “make sure they know their status of debt to us.” This is, however, the genius of the phrasing: We start with ourselves, with our shared state of sin and moral indebtedness, and as we remember the greatness of the gift of grace, we realize that we must be agents of grace as well.
Christ himself reaffirmed this the verses following the prayer: If we are not a forgiving people as the subjects of the verb “forgive,” we will not be objects of the verb either. Even as we are image-bearers as God’s creation, we are blood-bound by our transgressions; in Christ, however, we also find ourselves to be grace-bound: We live in a community of mutual forgiveness. Forgiveness does not circumvent punishment in the penal system, of course, but it does mean that we are humbled by evil and by the constant reminder that the media and our own hearts bring us that it does exist.
I am keenly aware that the context for Christ’s instructions on how to pray, in Matthew 6, include a call to private prayer that is not empty and vain. We all know that sometimes our corporate prayers grow dull in our own minds because of our own detachment from the words and their meanings.
I found myself wiping a few tears from my eyes as I opened them following that “amen.” The moment helped me see why the Lord’s Prayer still matters. It’s not a totem or a magical charm against fear or the unknown. It’s the words that our Lord provided for us as a reminder that our shared voices, our shared poverty, and our shared faith are aligned under the one God Who descended into our broken system in order to bring balance back to a world that’s lost its original perfection of peace and harmony.
Gene Fant is provost of Palm Beach Atlantic University. His previous posts can be found here.