Pray for good government
Posted by Sen on November 7, 2008
In many Christian churches, and in Sunni Islam in particular, prayers for the ruler or government are a routine part of collective worship. Bahais too are told to pray for their rulers. But we do not seem to be comfortable with it: how often is a prayer for the government part of a Baha’i meeting? Perhaps some background will help.
In his Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, Baha’u’llah quotes the Gospel passage “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s” and from Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers…”. Between these two citations, he places a prayer:
“O God, my God, and my Master, and my Mainstay, and my Desire, and my Beloved! I ask Thee by the mysteries which were hid in Thy knowledge, and by the signs which have diffused the fragrance of Thy loving-kindness, and by the billows of the ocean of Thy bounty, and by the heaven of Thy grace and generosity, and by the blood spilt in Thy path, and by the hearts consumed in their love for Thee, to assist His Majesty the Shah with Thy power and Thy sovereignty, that from him may be manifested that which will everlastingly endure in Thy Books, and Thy Scriptures, and Thy Tablets. Hold Thou his hand, O my Lord, with the hand of Thine omnipotence, and illuminate him with the light of Thy knowledge, and adorn him with the adornment of Thy virtues. Potent art Thou to do what pleaseth Thee, and in Thy grasp are the reins of all created things. No God is there but Thee, the Ever-Forgiving, the All-Bounteous.”
In the talks which he gave in the United States, Abdu’l-Baha frequently concluded with a prayer for the government. In most cases these cannot be authenticated, but we can be confident that he did in fact make such prayers, and in at least one case the words are authenticated. This is at a meeting on 26 May 1912, which is published in Khatabat-e Abdu’l-Baha volume 2 page 97:
“O Lord! Bestow Thy gracious aid and confirmation upon this just government. These regions are under the sheltering shadow of Thy protection and this people is in Thy service. O Lord! Confer upon them Thy favours and make them worthy of your love. Glorify this esteemed nation and enable it to be admitted into Thy kingdom. Thou art the Powerful, the Omnipotent, the Merciful, and Thou art the Generous, the Beneficent, the Lord of grace abounding.” (My translation)
Do such prayers indicate Baha’u’llah’s approval of the Shah, or of absolute monarchy? Do they indicate that Abdu’l-Baha gave particular support to the American government of his day? I do not think so.
As I’ve indicated, the practice of praying for the government has a long history, in both Islam and Christianity. In Shiah Islam, the theologian Majlisi the Younger said that the faithful were obliged to pray for the success of their king, if he was just, or for the improvement of his character, if he was oppressive. (Arjomand, Shadow of God 176.) There you have the two meanings (in socio-political terms) of such prayer. On the one hand, it means that the religious community acknowledges the legitimacy of civil government. A religious group that prays for its government is not one that’s about to establish a theocracy. Vice versa, if you see that the preachers are leaving out that prayer, and denounce the government, watch out: pretty soon they will be trying to supplant the government.
On the other hand, to pray that the government may be just and virtuous is also to hold up a mirror to it. “We pray that your character may improve” is not the message a ruler wants to hear, and not one a government can easily censor. Can you punish someone for praying for you?
Baha’u’llah has left us some prayers like that, such as this prayer – with a sting in its tail – for Sultan AbulAziz:
“Have I, O King, ever disobeyed thee?… We pray to God on thy behalf, that He may graciously aid thee to be obedient unto Him and to observe His commandment … (Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, CXIV 240.)
The implication is, the Sultan is busy breaking every law of God and man — but first Baha’u’llah assures the Sultan that he is not about to lead a revolt. A moral critique is one thing: it is one of the functions of religion to provide this. But it does not entail any disobedience to government.
There’s another passage that makes the link between praying for government, and a religious recognition that civil government has a right to exist. It’s from Baha’u’llah again:
“O ye the loved ones and the trustees of God! Kings are the manifestations of the power, and the daysprings of the might and riches, of God. Pray ye on their behalf. He hath invested them with the rulership of the earth and hath singled out the hearts of men as His Own domain.
Conflict and contention are categorically forbidden in His Book. This is a decree of God in this Most Great Revelation. It is divinely preserved from annulment … It is incumbent upon everyone to aid those daysprings of authority and sources of command who are adorned with the ornament of equity and justice. (In Tablets of Baha’u’llah 220-221, cf. Majmu`ih az alwah-ye Jamal-e Aqdas-e Abha 135-6 (para. 5-7))
and once again, there is a sting in the tail of this – we are to aid those rulers who are adorned with justice.
Clearly this is a religious, not a political response, when we face bad government: it would not be effective as a strategy for a political party. That is precisely the point: the separation of church and state is not just a legal provision, it also means that what a religious community can do, in political terms, is limited and has to take a religious form and be judged by religious norms; what political groups can and should do is to be judged in terms of political effect. It’s not just that church and state are two different institutions; doing religion and doing politics are two different spheres of each person’s life, each with its own rules and logic.