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First-World Theology and Prayers of Privilege

Philip Yancey, in his book Reaching for the Invisible God, wrote:

On my travels overseas, I have noticed a striking difference in the wording of prayers. Christians in affluent countries tend to pray, “Lord take this trial away from us!” I have heard prisoners, persecuted Christians, and some who live in very poor countries pray instead, “Lord give us strength to bear this trial.”

That is the difference between first-world theology and the world in which Jesus lived and taught and spoke. When life is good and we are living the first world dream, it is easy to believe in magic, but when life gets tough we need someone to turn to who can nourish us and give us strength. To whom shall we go who has the word of life?

In the wake of the terrible tragedy at Mother Emmanuel Church, I watched as the media grappled with the congregation’s response, and their willingness to express forgiveness so quickly for the demonic act of racism that murdered their beloved. White reporters didn’t get it. They couldn’t get it because they only knew prayers of privilege. They had never been a part of a community that had suffered:

  • Oppression and had not been spared;
  • Discrimination and had not been rescued;
  • Lynching and had not been saved.

The people of Mother Emmanuel didn’t follow the Jesus who would overthrow Rome and reward his followers with power and wealth. They were followers of the one sent by God who, by the very suffering of his own flesh and the pain of his own lynching, would be able to be with them and us to give strength and hope when no superficial or easy word will suffice.

Sooner or later life gets tough for us all. Although none of us wish to admit it, no one is getting out of this alive, so we all need someone who will be with us on that journey from which we cannot be rescued.

That’s why I love that, this week, as our brother in the faith Jimmy Carter spoke of the cancer that has invaded his brain, he did not glibly say that God would heal him or take it away. From faith in the One who was NOT rescued from the cross, he said, “I’m perfectly at ease with whatever comes.”

Jimmy knows that, whatever comes, God has the final word, even if sometimes it isn’t the word we want to hear.


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Rev. Michael Piazza

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