You may have heard the story of the time four decades ago when President Lyndon Johnson invited reporters to his ranch for dinner. Since his press secretary Bill Moyers had seminary training, LBJ asked him to say grace-and when the designated prayer spoke softly, requested that he speak up. Mr. Moyers replied, "I wasn't talking to you, Mr. President."
The focal point of that anecdote for some is LBJ's arrogance-but the late president was right. Public prayer, whether in church or at the dinner table, has two audiences, one on earth and one in heaven. Prayer tells God what He already knows but wants to hear from us, and it also may teach human listeners what they do not know but should.
Public prayer should be not only loud enough for all to hear but discerning concerning what people will hear. The goal should be to communicate with God but also to communicate about Him and His attributes, such as holiness and mercy. Thus far I hope most readers are with me, but pay attention, because a perhaps controversial application is coming: Public demonstration by Christians should also emphasize communication about God.
When American Christian activists are riled up about something, we show our displeasure. I can do this by writing, but I've learned that while rants may make me feel temporarily better and excite others, they don't accomplish much toward helping with what's appropriately called the Great Commission: "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations."
Christ's statement at the end of Matthew's Gospel is more complicated than it may seem. It specifies "baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit," so Trinitarian teaching and then a baptismal sign and seal of the faith brought about by God's grace are both important. It also emphasizes "teaching them to observe all that I commanded you," so neither a vague spirituality nor a theoretical mastery is sufficient. As part of a process that lasts a lifetime, believing hearers are to become doers of God's commands.
Put all this together and we start to see what an ideal Christian protest of a political or cultural event might look like. First, its goal should not be to make the demonstrators feel righteous or more cohesive in the face of a hostile world; the Christian slogan is not, "If it feels good, do it." Second, it should communicate that God brings in people and has expectations for them-in other words, both mercy and holiness.
Let's take abortion protests as a particularly appropriate example, given the Jan. 22 Roe v. Wade anniversary cover date of this issue. A Christian demonstration outside an abortion business should declare that abortion is wrong and that God is merciful to aborters and abortionists who come to faith in Him.
Protesters who seem hateful to troubled women because they appear to offer condemnation rather than hope are not helping the cause of Christ. On the other hand, a demonstration that merely offers cups of hot chocolate to women arriving for abortions on a wintry day is also sub-Christian, since demonstrators might seem like spectators at a race urging the contestants on to the finish line.
The frequent biblical metaphor of Christians as salt is apt not only because salt is both a preservative and a flavoring, but because the two elements that make up salt-NaCl, sodium and chlorine-are both poisonous when ingested by themselves. Salty protests highlight what God opposes but also show, both in words and style, what God proposes: acceptance of His mercy.
My ideal pro-life demonstration at an abortion business also includes protesters winsomely providing information about alternatives to abortion. Our folks would not use bullhorns, which The Blues Brothers effectively linked with Nazis. Some biased souls will see Christians as loudmouths no matter how we act, but we should not make it easy for them-and if we do, we're hurting rather than helping the cause of Christ.
Our models here should be Daniel in Babylon and Paul in Greece, both of which were rife with pagan belief and practice, probably including infanticide. When Paul walked in Athens and saw that the city was full of idols, he did not try to smash them. Instead, "he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there."