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Reversèd Thunder: The Significance of Prayer for Political Theology

Prayer and theology are not two entirely different things.1 To be sure, one can draw a distinction between them: prayer would involve discourse with God and theology would involve discourse about God. But however clear-cut this distinction may be, it does not actually settle the question of how these two types of conversation are related. Close historical study reveals a wide range of highly complicated combinations of prayer and theology, some of which are more integrated and coherent than others. One could certainly think, for instance, about Augustine of Hippo’s Confessions, Anselm of Canterbury’s Proslogion, Teresa of Ávila’s Interior Castle, and any number of other great classics in the Christian tradition. When approaching texts such as these, the best question is probably not whether they are more prayerful or theological but, rather, in what ways they manage to be both.

As Hans Urs von Balthasar and others have argued, a total divorce of prayer from theology would be unthinkable. It would entail the radical negation of both conversations and, therefore, the erasure of the entire problematic. And yet there are currents of modern and postmodern intellectual history that lay the groundwork for and ultimately approximate this sort of collapse.2 On the one hand, as prayer becomes uncoupled from theology, it gives way to an almost entirely subjective spiritual or mystical experience, which tends to be articulated together with a highly indeterminate notion of (perhaps merely anthropological or cosmological) transcendence. On the other hand, as theology distances itself from prayer, it becomes more and more closely aligned with the idea of metaphysics as an absolutely certain and objective science, which, to the extent that it feigns conceptual mastery of the whole, also becomes vulnerable to endless deconstruction. Both tracks terminate in the malaise of secular postmodernity. One figure who is emblematic of the extreme conclusion of the complex genealogy of this destructive separation is Georges Bataille. He replaces prayer with atheological mysticism and rejects theology as hopelessly metaphysical, thereby leaving us bereft of both of the discourses with which we began.3

Fortunately, matters are not presently as grim as this sort of declinist narrative might suggest—at least not across the board. Many who continue to devote themselves to the life of prayer and to the intellectual labor of theology remain very aware of the porous boundary between the two. This promising trend is evident in many areas—particularly, I would argue, in some of the most important movements of political theology in the last several decades. The theological rigor and vitality of these movements has been sustained by a deep familiarity with specific traditions of prayerful spirituality. It seems to me that we do not spend enough time pondering this remarkable fact.

Thus, my goal in the space of this short essay is to demonstrate that if prayer remains an indispensable source or aspect of theology, then this is especially the case for a theology that has begun to understand itself as political. At least four points of positive significance can be distinguished: (1) prayer gives spiritual strength and moral courage to the theologian, who is also an actor in the world; (2) prayer puts an important limit on political ambition; (3) prayer offers a crucial way of remembering and sustaining hope for the victims of history; and (4) prayer constitutes a meaningful act of solidarity with those who are suffering in the present. I shall discuss these four points using such examples as Martin Luther King Jr., Gustavo Gutiérrez, Johann Baptist Metz, James Cone, and Sarah Coakley.

First, however, I want to state clearly that it matters a great deal not only whether one allows for some reciprocity between prayer and theology but also how one does so. The danger of an idolatrously violent distortion of prayer, in which one would falsify the mystery of divine and human encounter by turning it into an instrument of hatred or injustice, is as great as ever. The biblical prophets, including Jesus himself, associate grave consequences with praying falsely. They teach collectively that one of the clearest signs of true worship—that is, authentic love of God—is that it will lead us to love our neighbor as ourselves; to defend the rights of the widow, the orphan, and the stranger; and to give of ourselves without counting the cost. Therefore, while considering the positive significance of prayer for political theology, it will be important to take note of the particular kinds of prayer that are involved.


We should never forget that, in addition to being a powerful force of political change, Martin Luther King Jr. was a theologically educated and deeply prayerful person. Lewis Baldwin highlights this important fact in his Never to Leave Us Alone: The Prayer Life of Martin Luther King Jr. Baldwin demonstrates that prayer contributed to every aspect of King’s development as a public leader—from his early days as a student to his roles as a preacher and an activist—and that it profoundly shaped his ways of thinking and acting throughout his life. Baldwin points to one famous episode that has come to be called “the vision in the kitchen”:

In January, 1956, as the fervor driving the Montgomery bus boycott reached fever pitch, King received a telephone call at midnight from a racist who called him a “nigger” and threatened to kill him and “blow up” his home. Deeply disturbed and unable to sleep, King retreated to his kitchen for coffee, thinking that this could possibly provide some relief. Love for family and church, devotion to the struggle, and feelings of utter helplessness gripped him in that moment of deep restlessness, painful stillness, and desperate searching. . . . King had a face-to-face encounter with what he, in the tradition of his forebears, called “a Waymaker,” exposing his fears, insecurities, and vulnerabilities with sincerity and humility. Great comfort came as an “inner voice” spoke to King, reminding him that he was not alone, commanding him to “stand up” for righteousness, justice, and truth, and assuring him that “lo, I will be with you, even to the end of the world.”4

Baldwin argues that this experience restored King’s faith that “the sovereign work of the Almighty was being manifested in both his own life and in the bus protest.”5

What is the significance of this event? At one level, it seems fairly clear. By turning to prayer, King received the strength and courage to go on, to continue fighting nonviolently for justice, and to risk and ultimately lose his life in the process. There is a way to ask hypothetical questions about this moment of prayer in order to increase its dramatic effect: What if King had not decided to pray that night? What if God had not answered? Would history have moved in a different direction? But these sorts of questions can only take one so far; it is certainly conceivable that, without ever deciding to pray, one might substantially change the world for the good and find the inner strength to do so. And yet, the fact remains that King did pray that night. In the face of terror, he turned to God and found consolation. Moreover, this was the sort of practice that fueled and sustained his entire movement. Perhaps this single instance would not have been decisive. He might have, at any given moment of the struggle, refused to pray, resisted that level of vulnerability before himself and before God, and such an act would not necessarily have been fatal to the whole operation. But the cumulative effect of a prayerful disposition was undoubtedly momentous. King drew his strength precisely from a long-term dialogical relationship with God.

Baldwin gives us reason to believe that King modeled his own prayer life on the prophets, especially Jeremiah.6 The elements that King, as a theology student at seminary, associated with Jeremiah’s prayer—particularly its self-disclosive character and the promise that it holds for an empowering divine response—appear again several years later, in the kitchen, in his own prayer. That which he learned about God, and God’s ways of relating to humanity, he did not forget as he began to converse passionately with God. Thus, despite Baldwin’s assertion that King knew that night that the “theology he had studied in the corridors of the academia could not help him,”7 the fact is that it did help him and helped him to pray in a theologically rigorous manner. Did God speak directly to King that night or through the remembered words of the Book of Jeremiah? This may very well be a false opposition. His prayer was an extension of his theology, and his theology was realized in his prayer—and this unity changed a nation.


The danger in any political theology corresponds to its level of soteriological ambition. To what extent do our own political efforts participate in, contribute to, or establish the meaning of salvation? If we claim too little in this respect, then politics and theology tend to be severed, and the grounds for apathy increase on both sides. However, if we claim too much, then politics and theology tend to be elided, and the result is an extremely dangerous practice of self-deification, in which humanity—whether in the form of a ruler, a class, or a people—begins to think of itself as messianic. I contend that an explicitly prayerful form of political theology is well equipped to strike the right balance here. It enables us to understand that we have to take responsibility for our own histories and societies while simultaneously placing our ultimate trust in the infinite mercy and justice of God.

One can see this dynamic at work in the writings of Gustavo Gutiérrez, one of the most influential figures of Latin American liberation theology. In A Theology of Liberation, he does not hesitate to speak in utopian terms about the need to construct a new human society. He argues that humankind must assume “responsibility for its own destiny.”8 He even risks describing the work of political liberation as an act of “human self-creation” and as a constitutive feature of a “saving process.”9 In short, Gutiérrez weds politics to theology by arguing that what we do for the sake of justice in the here and now mediates the coming of the kingdom of God. If this were all Gutiérrez had said on the matter, there would perhaps be grounds for legitimate concern, at least insofar as one might be tempted to interpret his position as involving an anthropological reduction of the theological roles of Creator and Savior.

But the fact is that Gutiérrez’s argument does not stop at this point. He clarifies that liberative political praxis has its proper place only as one element of a comprehensive “spirituality of liberation,” adding that the other element of this spirituality has to be prayer. In this context, he defines prayer as “an experience of gratuitousness.”10 In his book, On Job, he calls it a “mysterious meeting of two freedoms.”11 The idea in both instances is essentially the same: prayer reminds us that human agency is transcended and limited by the grace of God, which alone creates and redeems us in an absolute sense. Prayer is an encounter with this grace; it is the key practice through which we acknowledge that our freedom is infinitely surpassed by another. Although Gutiérrez maintains, in continuity with the Council of Trent, that “we do not do nothing,” his commitment to prayer allows him to affirm even more strongly that we do not do everything. He quotes a line from God’s discourse at the end of the Book of Job that crystallizes this point: “Has your arm the strength of God’s, / can your voice thunder as loud?” (Job 40:9).12 The force of this rhetorical question, which is given by God as a response to Job’s cries of lament, redounds to the whole field of political theology. From prayer, the political or liberation theologian would learn humility.


This lesson of humility is not lost on Johann Baptist Metz, the German Catholic theologian who has become well known as the founder of a “new political theology.” He connects humility with the Christian call to remember and hope for the dead. In his classic text Faith in History and Society, Metz argues that the problem with any pure utopia is that it “only knows about a promise for those still to come, a ‘paradise for the victorious,’ but nothing for those who died suffering unjustly.”13 Metz thus contends that an excessive political ambition, which would seek to install humanity in the place of God, ultimately implies a refusal of solidarity with those countless human beings who have already been destroyed by the violence of history. He observes that no one prays to a utopia and for good reason: as a mere human ideal, it lacks the power to respond to our deepest longings. But people do pray to the God of the living and the dead. They thereby not only acknowledge their own limits but also sustain a sense of communion and fellowship with the vanquished. The act of prayer—and particularly, in Metz’s case, the apocalyptic cry, “Come, Lord Jesus!” (Revelation 22:20 NRSV)—expresses a desire for an eschatological future in which the hopes of all might be realized and the crimes of history might be definitively rectified.14

Metz is especially concerned with the need for Christians to remember the Jewish victims of the Shoah. He has a saying, which he repeats in many of his works: “We can and should pray after Auschwitz because even in Auschwitz, in the hell of Auschwitz, they prayed.”15 According to Metz, the prayers of Christians will be legitimate now only if they are voiced in remembrance of the millions of Jewish men, women, and children who were murdered in the Nazi death camps—an unspeakable atrocity that he acknowledges was largely an extension of the grisly history of Christian anti-Semitism.16 To meet this requirement of solidaristic memory, prayer will have to take on a particular form. It will have to involve an “impassioned questioning of God” in continuity with Job, the psalmist, and the prophets of Israel.17 But another point also needs to be emphasized, namely, that there can be no sufficient remembrance of the Jewish victims without such prayer. Metz argues that, in its absence, there is little to prevent the descent of culture into forgetfulness, resignation, and indifference. Prayer is that which keeps the question of definitive justice alive in the aftermath of the world’s horrors.


It is not recognized often enough that the choice to go without prayer is typically a luxury. It is usually a sign that one enjoys a relatively high level of comfort and security, an indication that most things have been taken care of and, therefore, that one feels little immediate need to cry out to God. This is not the situation in which much of the human race presently finds itself. For countless people around the world and close at hand—in urban slums, refugee camps, and war-torn landscapes—prayer is not so much a choice as an inevitability. Life has imposed it as a last resort. For those not trapped in these conditions, prayer becomes a basis for intellectual and practical solidarity with those who are.

James Cone, one of the major proponents of black liberation theology, confirms these points in his recent book The Cross and the Lynching Tree. He explains that, in the heyday of the Jim Crow era, “black people ‘stretched their hands to God’ because they had nowhere else to turn.” Like Job, the oppressed black community was provoked into the practice of prayer by the urgency of their desperate situation. Cone makes similar observations in The Spirituals and the Blues, an earlier work in which he is concerned above all with the prayer practices of the slaves. He notes that, “when the burdens became too much for them to bear, they would take them to the Lord in prayer. ‘Sometimes I hangs my head an’ cries, / But Jesus goin’ to wipe my weep’n eyes.’”18 Many of the lines that Cone quotes in both texts are drawn from the tradition of slave spirituals. These prayerful songs were passed on through the generations of black worshippers and constitute a major source not only of Cone’s thought but also of King’s. Moreover, like the sorts of prayer that Metz recommends, these spirituals give voice to unjust suffering and raise it up as a hopeful question and supplication to God.

There are many in our midst who remain in need of solidarity, precisely in the form of a liberating spirituality that would integrate prayer, thought, and action into a single way of life. In terms of those in need, Cone mentions the “more than one million black people behind bars” in the United States alone. This is just one example, but it is an important one. In harmony with Michelle Alexander, Cone likens it to a contemporary form of lynching.19 To pray and think and live according to the logic of the spirituals today requires us to become cognizant of the injustices of this system and to speak out prophetically against them. Such a spirituality demands a willingness to enter into the sorts of physical and mental spaces that would occasion the appropriate kinds of discourse—not only about God but also with God—which would constitute and cultivate genuine forms of solidarity with the incarcerated.

Several years ago, the Anglican theologian Sarah Coakley worked for a semester as a prison chaplain and led a small group of inmates in the practice of silent prayer. She wrote about her experience in an essay called “Jail Break: Meditation as Subversive Activity.” She explains that by the end of the semester she “learned some wholly unexpected lessons about the transformative power of prayer in a jail setting; about the effects on the body of such personal transformation; and about this country’s systemic racism and how it is in some ways coterminous with the attempt to prevent or repress such transformation.” It is with that last point in particular that her insights begin to resonate most deeply with Cone’s. In implicit keeping with his recommendations “to become black,”20 Coakley enters into a place of physical and mental prayer in company with many oppressed people of color and learns to see the world through their eyes. The brief moments of tranquil respiration that she shares with them bear witness to the ancient, and yet still largely unforeseen, promise of a prayerful mode of theory and practice.

Although the spiritual traditions upon which Cone and Coakley draw are distinct—the one turns language into song, the other into silence—these two theologians are in agreement regarding prayer’s simultaneously theological and political significance. What would solidarity be without these musical and contemplative ways of sharing in the deepest sufferings and hopes of the disinherited? Arguably it would be at once less human and less divine. A significant part of what needs to be sought in a more humane world—namely, that part of our humanity which becomes intelligible only as homo adorans—would not be seen. Moreover, the One upon whom the fullness of liberation ultimately depends would be nearly forgotten—that is, God would be remembered, if at all, only as a sterile object of scholarly discourse and, therefore, not as the true and living God, who cherishes all of the vulnerable creatures of the world and actively opposes the forces that conspire against them. Hence, for those privileged ones who are called to much greater solidarity and for those who are in desperate need of it—and, indeed, for both of these groups gathered together—prayer constitutes an indispensable form of preparation for the coming of the kingdom.


There is a great deal more that needs to be studied, articulated, and enacted with respect to the relationship between prayer and theology. I have merely presented several disparate examples that suggest a variety of promising approaches and some of the issues that are at stake. I have stressed that there is no real theology without prayer, and vice versa; that the way in which we interpret this relationship is crucial; and that, if we interpret it rightly, it has the potential to empower transformative action, remind us of our limitations, help us to remember those who have died, and bring us into active solidarity with those bearing a disproportionate share of the world’s sorrow. There is no ultimately legitimate contrast between a prayerful and a political theology. There is only the hope for an increasingly profound and liberative interweaving of the two, through which we may finally learn to see them as one.


1. The phrase “reversèd thunder” is from George Herbert’s poem, “Prayer (1),” which can be found in the Norton Anthology of English Literature, 7th ed., vol. 1, ed. M. H. Abrams (New York, NY: Norton and Company, 2000), 1601. In its original context, this phrase seems to be associated with sinful rebellion against God; it is situated in apposition to “Engine against th’ Almighty, sinner’s tower” and “Christ-side-piercing spear.” Nevertheless, I have used it here because of its broader resonances, which might include not only legitimate forms of thundering against God (as in the case of Job) but also the sense that in prayer there is a thunder—that is, a great power—which we receive from God and are perhaps capable of reorienting in positive ways toward the world. This would be at least an aspect of what has been called political theology.

2. Hans Urs von Balthasar develops his account of this collapse in Glory of the Lord, Volume V: The Realm of Metaphysics in the Modern Age, trans. Oliver Davies, Andrew Louth, Brian McNeil, C. R.V., John Saward, and Rowan Williams (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius, 1991). Mark McIntosh reaffirms von Balthasar’s basic thesis in his Mystical Theology: The Integrity of Spirituality and Theology (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1998), 10 and 35, n. 15.

3. See especially Bataille, “Post-Scriptum to the Torment (Or the New Mystical Theology),” in Inner Experience, trans. Leslie Anne Boldt (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1988), 99–157.

4. Lewis V. Baldwin, Never to Leave Us Alone: The Prayer Life of Martin Luther King Jr. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2010), 69.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid., 32–33.

7. Ibid., 69.

8. Gustavo Gutiérrez, A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation, trans. Sister Caridad Inda and John Eagleson (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2005), 135 and 24.

9. Ibid., 87 and 91.

10. Ibid., 116–17 and 119.

11. Gutiérrez, On Job: God-Talk and the Suffering of the Innocent, trans. Matthew J. O’Connell (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1987), 67.

12. Ibid., 77. The Scripture reference is from the NJB.

13. Metz, Faith in History and Society: Toward a Practical Fundamental Theology, trans. J. Matthew Ashley (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 2007), 80.

14. Metz and Karl Rahner, The Courage to Pray, trans. Sarah O’Brien Twohig (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 1981), 28.

15. Ibid., 9.

16. Metz, “Christians and Jews after Auschwitz: Being a Meditation also on the End of Bourgeois Religion,” in Love’s Strategy: The Political Theology of Johann Baptist Metz, ed. John K. Downey (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1999), 40.

17. Metz and Rahner, The Courage to Pray, 12.

18. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2011), 23; and Cone, The Spirituals and the Blues (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1992), 50.

19. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, 163; and Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York, NY: New Press, 2010).

20. Coakley, “Jail Break: Meditation as Subversive Activity,” Christian Century 121.13 (2004): 18–21; and Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2005), 65.

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Andrew Prevot :
Andrew Prevot will be starting as an assistant professor of systematic theology at Boston College in January 2013. He is currently completing his dissertation at the University of Notre Dame, entitled Thinking Prayer: Doxology, Spirituality, and the Crises of Modernity. His research interests include philosophical theology; political, liberation, and black theologies; and the constructive study of spirituality and mysticism.