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Prayer and the Common Life by Georgia Harkness


Georgia Harkness was educated at Cornell University, Boston University School of Theology, studied at Harvard & Yale theological seminaries and at Union Theological Seminary of New York. She has taught at Elmira College, Mount Holyoke, and for twelve years was professor of applied theology at Garrett Biblical Institute. In 1950 she became professor of applied theology at the Pacific School of Religion, in Berkeley, California. Published by Abingdon Press, New York, Nashville. Copyright by Stone & Pierce 1968. The material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Chapter 13: Prayer and the Peace of the World


Of all the things for which the world now longs and prays, there is none more ardently desired than peace. There is probably not a person living who wants a third world war. Many think it is inevitable. An uncounted multitude have, mingled with their fears, an eager hope that in some way it can be averted. Not a few of these are praying for peace.

If we are to have a new world with peace, order, and security, there is nothing today more needed than prayer. Through the centuries devout Christians have prayed, "Give peace in our time, O Lord. For it is thou, Lord, only, that makest us dwell in safety." Without prayer in this mood we shall not have the insight, courage, or world vision by which to fashion a world in which all men can be safe.

However, the other side of the paradox is equally true. There is nothing today more needed than action. Unless we do the works that ought to be the fruit and accompaniment of prayer, we cannot hope that in response to even the most fervent prayers God will implant order in the world. There is both great pathos and searching wisdom in Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem, "If thou hadst known in this day, even thou, the things which belong unto peace!" When prayer is made a substitute for doing "the things which belong unto peace," it becomes blasphemy.

The Requirements For Peace

The knowledge of what is required for peace in the world is not hidden from men. Though nobody is wise enough to know just what ought to be done in every detail of an infinitely complex world situation, there are general principles and procedures which are clear enough. As I see them, there are six basic requirements for world peace. Let us enumerate them.

To begin with, there will be no peaceful world unless there is faith that peace is possible. "You can’t change human nature." "There always have been wars and there always will be." "If we don’t start another war, the Russians will." Such remarks are not only untrue from the standpoint of being ungrounded in evidence, but they carry with them the insidious poison of defeatism.

A second requirement is provision for peaceful change from within each nation. Among all the uncertainties that beset us, there is one thing very certain, namely, that the world will not stand still. If we do not go forward toward peace, we shall go backward and downward toward chaos. And if the nations do not change from within in directions required by basic human rights, changes will be sought by force and violence from without.

The third requirement is a functioning international organization empowered to act for the corporate justice of the world. Toward this an important start has already been made, and instead of decrying the deficiencies of the United Nations organization those who pray for peace ought rather to give it, for its improvement, their prayers and moral support. Yet such an organization requires for its full success something toward which thus far only the barest beginning has been made, the surrender of absolute national sovereignty.

A fourth requirement is economic security for all men. To paraphrase a famous word of Lincoln, "The world cannot remain half hungry and half fed." When society is ordered, or perhaps more correctly we should say disordered, on the basis of a situation in which not only is there starvation as the aftermath of war but millions of people are hungry all their lives, there can be no just and lasting peace. There is bound to be, sooner or later, an outbreak of bitterness, violence, and all the demonic forces that make for war.

The fifth requirement is faith in, understanding of, and practice of democracy. This means a type of democracy that goes far beneath surface slogans. It calls for racial equality; equality of opportunity in education, economic advantage, and a vast range of cultural connections; in short, a society based on democracy of spirit. Probably we shall never have this perfectly while sin and self-will corrupt men’s natures. But unless we have to a far greater degree than at present the ordering of society on the basis of the supreme worth of every human being, we shall have repeated outbursts of world tragedy.

Underneath all these requirements is the need of a spiritual world community. It can be called world brotherhood, or world fellowship, or in more formal language "an international ethos." It involves similarity of outlook, or tolerance toward those of different outlook. It has various names, but whatever we call it, it means understanding, friendship, sympathy, and appreciation of other people not those of our race, or our nation, or our economic class, but of all the folk that God has made the world around.

With these six things we can have peace. Without them, I see little prospect that we can have more than an armistice between hostilities. Let me state them again: faith that peace is possible, provision for peaceful change from within the nations, international organization with the surrender of absolute national sovereignty, economic security for all men, faith in and understanding of and practice of the democratic way of life, and a unifying spiritual world community.

Prayer and Works of Good Will

As was noted above and cannot be too strongly emphasized, prayer alone will not bring these things to pass. But it is equally true that without the action born of prayer there is no great likelihood that these requirements will be met. Each of them alone, to say nothing of the other five, is so formidable as to be staggering if undertaken only by human strength and wisdom. Yet all of them are in keeping with what God requires of men, for they are grounded not only in the economic and political conditions of our time but in the Christian gospel. We can believe, without optimistic illusions, that they can be met by an upsurge of reliance upon God and willingness to do by his strength "the things which belong unto peace." There is need to recover an ancient word of wisdom spoken in another time of political confusion and darkness, "Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, saith the Lord of hosts."

Let us, then, recanvass these requirements to see what if anything prayer can contribute to their fulfillment.

To say that peace is possible means basically faith in God. The Christian world order means that there is an enduring stream of spiritual power that runs through the ups and downs of history, because God is the Lord of history.

In the most searching of prayers we are taught to say, "Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil." In spite of the uncertainties of our time God is delivering us from evil by implanting in the hearts of men and in his Church a new vision of a world that can be free from war. Let us not forget that the song of the angels on the first Christmas morning, "Peace on earth, good will to men," was not from any human voice. It was not the shepherds that sang it; it was not even the wise men that sang it. The voice that sang in that great carol was the voice of God. What God has for us to do within the human scene, he calls us to do because he is the Lord of history who speaks from beyond history of the coming of his kingdom of peace and good will.

We said that for peace, there must be peaceful change from within each nation. There are many ways to put this in political terms. I shall attempt to put it only in religious terminology, though with some political illustrations. Peaceful change from within means on the part of the people of every nation repentance for our corporate sin. It is a wholesome fact that in the recent war, far more than in any previous one, there was recognition that we are all embroiled in the sin which brought the conflict into being.

But how? During the war I came across a statement which puts more succinctly than I have seen it elsewhere the responsibility of our nation and of Christians within it for the series of events that finally burst forth in world conflagration. I quote from it, not because the United States was alone guilty, but because in expecting the Germans and the Japanese to repent there is danger of evading recognition of our own guilt. It reads:

The second world war is upon us. The responsibility for this great disaster to civilization rests in part upon America. Our selfish isolationism, our refusal to participate in the effort to build a world order of peace and justice through the League of Nations, our aloofness from the World court, our scuttling of the London Economic Conference, our interference with the free flow of goods by high tariffs, our Oriental Exclusion Act, our arming of Japan for her war upon China, are a few of the counts in the indictment which the God and Father of all mankind must bring against us.

The Church itself must bear its full share of responsibility. Our membership includes millions of people. Even as our nation in the period preceding the present war had great power and influence within the world, so church members had great influence within the nation. But too few of us were motivated by a vision of a world-wide community in Christ, transcending nation, race, and class. (From the report of the Committee on World Peace, Southern California-Arizona Conference of the Methodist Church, June, 1942.)

All this is now past history and -- if one may be whimsical about so serious a matter -- "bridges under the water." But what was and was not done then still lives, not only in war’s horrible destructiveness but in vindictiveness toward our former enemies, suspicion of our allies, complacency toward the suffering of all but our own circle. Only as we repent much more earnestly than most of us have thus far done for such matters, can the right attitudes prevail for making a just peace. Add to these the more recent and more terrible occurrences in obliteration bombing of German cities and the roasting alive of thousands of civilians, the annihilation without warning of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the dismemberment of Germany and the crippling of her economic life, the starving of her people, the holding -- or condonement of holding -- thousands of prisoners of war in slavery as forced laborers many months after the end of the war, and it becomes apparent that God has still more indictments to bring against us.

(The unanimous moral judgment of a body of Christian theologians on most of these matters is stated in the report on "Atomic Warfare and the Christian Faith" issued by the Federal Council of the Churches of Christ in America.)

But will we repent enough to avoid such policies in the future? There is not much likelihood of any widespread repentance unless the imperatives of the Christian gospel are driven home to our consciences, not by preaching only, but by prayer. That this must be done has more than a spiritual necessity behind it, for there can be no lasting peace unless it is in considerable measure a just peace, and there can be no just peace unless its outlines are shaped, not by vengeance, but by a spirit of reconciliation and good will.

Let us pass to the third requirement, that of the surrender of absolute national sovereignty in the establishment of an international organization for justice and security. What does that mean in religious language? It means in the words of the first commandment, "Thou shalt have no other gods before me." It means -- to use a phrase that for awhile was out-moded theology but which is coming back again into its own -- the sovereignty of God. It means that only as we recognize that God is a God above all tribal deities, a God above all national interests, a God who is the Father of all men and who loves the people of all nations as his children, only so can God lead us in the way of peace and justice.

From my undergraduate days at Cornel University one of my deepest impressions is the inscription over the entrance to the main hall of the College of Arts and Sciences, "Above all nations is humanity" To this conviction which an increasing number of thoughtful people now accept must be added another, "Above all humanity is God." We shall have no true internationalism until the world is more nearly viewed from the perspective of the God who is the Father and Ruler of all mankind.

Many movements are on foot which urge, on the one hand, withholding of support from the United Nations organization to further national interests, and on the other, federal world government embracing ex-enemy states and all others. The isolationism of the first policy can only enhance conflict by its collective selfishness and head toward future wars in a world meant by nature to be one. The second policy is right in its goals but sometimes greatly oversimplifies the steps needed to arrive at them. We shall not move beyond the United Nations organization until we make much further use of what is possible through it.

How then can our idealism be farseeing, global in its outreach, and realistic enough to move toward true internationalism? A great deal of education in political affairs is needed, for prayer is no substitute for political wisdom. But such education is not likely to be sought, or very effective upon action when imparted, unless among the rank and file of citizens there are strong spiritual foundations. Statesmen are of varying degrees of moral and spiritual discernment, but none can move far beyond what the people will support. It is therefore imperative not only that there be much prayer for the delegates charged with responsibilities in the United Nations, but that there be much more linkage of prayer with education for peace and political action.

As a fourth requirement, a just and lasting peace requires economic security for all men. This means the subordination of private gain to the welfare of the community -- not the group immediately surrounding us, but the total human community.

In the foreground, more pressing than any other requirement of an economic nature, is the need to relieve suffering the world around. Both a Christian humanitarian concern and political expediency require it. To look backward again for a moment, after the first world war the hunger blockade imposed on Germany and kept up for several months after Germany had surrendered was one of the things that made the German spirit rankle until it could be goaded into a second world war. If the starvation and want now pervading central Europe are not soon alleviated, this may go a long way toward laying the foundations of a third world war. (Long before the danger of the advance of communism on the heels of hunger became current in political discussion, Christian observers pointed out this possibility. See for example "The Fight for Germany" by Reinhold Niebuhr in Life, October 21, 1946, reprinted in the January, 1947, issue of The Reader’s Digest.) Economic insecurity for one people means the weakening of economic foundations in the rest of the world, as we saw with terrible seriousness in the Great Depression. Today the economic crippling of Germany retards the economic recovery of all Europe, and has its repercussions in every industrial nation. As it has been put with blunt finality, "You can’t trade with a graveyard. Your customers have to be above ground." (An argument used in asking for UNRRA appropriations).

Yet knowledge of these facts will not make people magnanimous. The only thing that will do this is sensitiveness to human need. Economic security for all men means something about colonies, about tariffs, about the free access of goods to those people who must have raw materials and markets if they are to have in normal times a standard of living adequate to relieve hunger and permit the free development of body and spirit. If the people who now have not only comforts but luxuries are to be brought to accept the economic and political changes needed to achieve this end throughout the world, changes in inner perspective are necessary. Prayer has a bearing even on our business pursuits.

This leads to our fifth point, the need of democracy as a foundation for peace. In its ideological foundations political democracy is derived both from the Stoic conception of a natural law of human equality and the Christian idea of the worth and dignity of all men in the sight of God. As we see it functioning, it is a mixture of idealism and expediency with a great many bureaucratic and even some totalitarian elements corrupting its purity. It ought, therefore, never to be identified with Christianity; and "the American way of life" of which we heard so much during the war lacks much of being the Kingdom of God. Yet political democracy is the best vehicle we have for the expression in society of the requirements of the Christian gospel. What is needed is not to abandon what we have but to make what we have better through bringing more of the everyday, person-to-person democracy of Jesus into our group relations.

This means so many things that the bare enumeration of a few must suffice. At the head of the list stands the race question. With thirteen million Negroes in the United States denied privileges in housing, employment, education, recreation, medical care, and many other basic needs, this can hardly be called a democratic country. Race discrimination is the most pervasive and deadly poison in the world, with Russia and Brazil the only countries that are relatively free from it. With two-thirds of the world’s population colored, a war between Russia and the colored peoples of the Orient on one side and the white democracies of the West on the other would not be a happy prospect to contemplate. For peace and survival, if not for higher Christian considerations, racism must be ended.

Another affront to democracy is in the misuses of industrial power, whether by labor or management. Something has been done in this field towards arbitration; very little has been done to bring the insights of the Christian gospel to bear upon industrial conflict in creating attitudes of understanding, tolerance, the esteeming of persons as persons in whatever economic stratum they are. Here the field is wide open, not merely for the indictment of wrong in another person or group which is the usual approach, but for the appreciation and creation of right through the spiritual resources released in prayer.

One could go on enumerating undemocratic elements in our society -- the vast disparity in incomes and living conditions, the myth of equal opportunity for education and employment, the regimentation and militarization of the public mind, the threat to democracy which would ensue if a system of compulsory peacetime military training should be adopted. The list is long. The remedies are not simple. Yet however many steps need to be taken, nothing but a spiritual vision born of prayer will enable us to approximate Jesus’ estimate of every man, woman, and child as precious in God’s sight. And until we have this vision, nothing we do will be more than patchwork.

This brings us to our last point, the need of underlying spiritual foundations in a world community. It is here beyond all question that the Church -- the one community that transcends all divisions of nation, race, language, class, or culture can make its fullest contribution. It has been making this contribution over the years as missionaries have gone to remote places to serve "the last, the least, the lost" and as education in world-mindedness has been given in many missionary societies across the land. This world outreach has borne fruit in the ecumenical movement which centers in the World Council of Churches. It must be greatly enlarged as members of local congregations more fully understand and take their places in a world-wide Christian fellowship. And it must move in the direction, not only of bringing the churches together, but through the churches of bringing the world together.

To lay the foundations of world brotherhood through the churches we must have sermons, discussion groups, service projects, directed reading, and much else. It must be got into the emotional life through story, drama, and song. It must be an inherent part of religious education, not something occasionally tacked on. Two approaches, however, are more vital than any others, and these approaches anybody who cares enough can make.

One of these is personal conversation. It is by personal witness and the give-and-take of opinion in conversation, far more than by public addresses that attitudes are molded. To speak one’s mind, tactfully but firmly, whenever occasions arise that call for such witness -- far from being futile -- is the most effective social force there is. What is at first heard and perhaps scoffed at, if it is true gets listened to, thought about, and finally accepted by enough people to place behind it the power of public opinion. Slavery would never have been abolished in this or any other country if there had not first been a great deal of talk about it.

The other approach is prayer. As we bring before God in intercession not only the needs of our own people but those of the people of all lands, the circle of our own interest grows larger, and we are moved to service in such ways as are open. As we pray in loving concern for our enemies, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do," enmity recedes, and reconciliation replaces vindictiveness. As we seek in prayer to lay ourselves before God for his service, duty becomes clearer, and staying-power is given for the slow, hard steps that must be taken to fashion a peaceful world.

We can have peace in the world if enough people put away complacency and unrest to find within their souls the peace that leads to works of good will. There is no likelihood of a reconstructed world without reconstructed individuals. Without the discovery of spiritual resources by great numbers of men and women the future is dark. But such resources are available for the taking. So we come back to what was said at the beginning of this book -- that of all the many things the world now needs, none is more needed than an upsurge of vital, God-centered, intelligently-grounded prayer.

We can have peace. We can have it by the help of God, as we look to Jesus Christ, our Leader and Lord. There was never a time when the words of Jesus at the Last Supper had more relevance than they have at this moment when all over the world men’s souls are burdened with fear and unrest. Across the centuries we hear him say:

Let not your heart be troubled: believe in God, believe also in me. . . . Peace I leave with you; my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be fearful. . . . These things have I spoken unto you, that in me ye may have peace. In the world ye have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.

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