Prince Rivers: I won’t pray at your city council meeting

Want a public prayer? How about 'Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!'

Most new pastors know the ritual well. People and organizations in the new community welcome us by asking us to do things they think pastors should do. “Will you serve on the board of …?” “Will you give the blessing at our banquet?” “Hi, I’m from the food bank (or the homeless shelter or any number of local agencies) and I’d love to have lunch with you and tell you more about our work in the community.” And, in my city, “Will you say a prayer at the city council meeting?”

If you’re a pastor who hasn’t  had one of these calls, you probably will. My answers to these questions, in order, are fairly routine: “Yes,” “Sure,” “OK” and “No, I will not.” Twice, I have been invited to offer the opening prayer for the city council meeting. Both times, I’ve declined.

Of course, the council isn't the only government body in the area that likes to open their meetings with prayer. Two residents have already sued our county government, arguing that prayer to a specific deity at government meetings is unconstitutional and not in the public interest. In a news article about the lawsuit last month, a local pastor who disagrees with the plaintiffs offered this opinion: “Why do we allow a minority of people to call the shots when the majority of people in this country rule?” I sure would like to know where this guy stands on health care for the minority who are uninsured, free and reduced lunches for the minority of students who are hungry and living wages for the minority of people who are poor (using only the U.S. demographics, of course).

Is this debate about a desire to pray or is it really a struggle for power? Many, though not all, of the advocates for public prayer at our city council meetings are people who want to put non-Christians in their place -- which at the rate we’re going will not likely be in a church pew.

While I know and respect some pastors who support prayer at government meetings, I’ve always wondered exactly what the city council would expect me to say if I prayed at one of their sessions. Perhaps I could offer a memorable prayer from the Psalter. “Why do the nations rage, and the people plot a vain thing? The kings of the earth set themselves and the rulers take counsel together…” (Psalms 2:1-2a). Maybe they would prefer prayer inspired by the poetry of the prophets? “Therefore thus says the Lord: ‘Behold, I will surely bring calamity on them which they will not be able to escape; and though they cry out to me, I will not listen to them.” (Jeremiah 11:11)

If this Old Testament stuff is too strong, I could always give them a little Jesus. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cleanse the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of extortion and self indulgence.”(Matthew 23:25)

The public prayers so many people are fighting for are a façade of spirituality at best and blasphemy at worst. They are thinly veiled political endorsements and sacraments of civil religion. So, yes, if my schedule permits, I will bless the food at the Senior Olympics banquet. But any praying I do for the city council will be done in my prayer closet or within the context of my worshipping community.

In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Prince Raney Rivers is pastor of United Metropolitan Missionary Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, NC.