Praying for world leaders in crisis - even if I don't like them

COVID-19 and other global problems need our “spiritual war-work”

The language of “war” when referring to COVID-19, has caused me to reflect upon the insights of Evelyn Underhill – written during our last world war.

Her insights offer Christians an important challenge in our response to this current global health crisis.

Prayer is “Christian love in action.”

During World War 2, the British, Anglican, mystical theologian and spiritual director, Evelyn Underhill (1875-1941), encouraged a small “prayer group” to pray for world leaders, calling it their “spiritual war-work.”

In the 1930s, Underhill became a pacifist. By 1939, during World War 2, she joined the Peace Pledge Union and the Anglican Pacifist Fellowship. Alongside Underhill’s writing about pacifism during this time, she also wrote letters to her “prayer group” – around 12 women who had asked her to teach them about prayer.

Underhill taught them face-to-face in London on a couple of occasions but, with the onset of World War 2, the group became geographically scattered. So she sent each member a letter, linked to the Church’s liturgical calendar. One aspect of her encouragement of this group was that they pray for world leaders – their “spiritual war-work”.

For Underhill, prayer is “Christian love in action.”

Maintaining a “spirit of prayer” through “waiting on God” was viewed by Underhill as the greatest means by which these women could “help the world” during World War 2. So her prayer group was encouraged to pray for their enemies at noon daily, asking God to have compassion on them.

They prayed for Hitler and Mussolini — asking the Holy Spirit to come upon both leaders “with power” and “change their hearts.” And as these women prayed for their “enemies,” they were “reach[ing] out in love” to those for whom they interceded. Thus, the act of praying for world leaders not only impacted the world, but was formational – changing the women themselves.

Their intercessions not only impacted decisions made on the world stage during the war, but also enlarging their hearts towards those leaders.

In this COVID-19 world crisis, Underhill reminds us that it’s not enough to simply intercede when we “feel” like it. Rather, it’s our “duty” as the worldwide Christian Church – no matter what “flavour” or “tribe” we inhabit — to continue Jesus’ work on earth.

All of our world leaders need our prayers now, more than ever.

One of the “chief ways” this happens is through the “life of prayer” of the universal Church. Although Underhill emphasises the Church’s role in glorifying God through worshipful adoration, she also reminds us that individuals “become channels” of Jesus’ “saving love” as we intercede.

As we place ourselves at “God’s disposal, his Holy Spirit prays in us,” inviting us into intercession, as we lift to God the “world’s suffering, need and sin.” This is one of the greatest things we can do for humanity.

During this health crisis that unites the planet, all of our world leaders need our prayers now, more than ever. We see some nations closing in on themselves and a lack of cooperation with global solutions to the pandemic. For example, some are withdrawing WHO funding, withholding authentic coronavirus death statistics, or engaging in missile testing while hundreds of thousands die and economies falter.

All of our world leaders need our prayers for wisdom, generosity, kindness, compassion, and in some cases, protection from themselves – their myopia and their pride. This is no time for self-interest and self-preservation, but for enlarged, compassionate hearts and clear heads.

Giving up, for good

Underhill calls us all to generosity and sacrifice. She encourages us to give up any “comforts,” making our lives “more simple and plain” as an “act of love to God.” The COVID-19 crisis means we all inhabit greater financial uncertainty – particularly those who are unemployed, unable to pay their rent, mortgages, or loans. Perhaps this is a time when some of us, then, are called to prayerfully consider how we might be more generous with our money and our time – as we care for others.

COVID-19 already has brought forth some creative forms of generosity and sacrifice. For example, the British, 100-year-old veteran, Sir Tom Moore, walking laps of his back garden with his walker while raising funds for the NHS. There also have been voluntary pay-cuts for senior politicians in New Zealand, Singapore, and Equador; in the words of NZ Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern – “showing solidarity” in her nation’s “time of need,” to acknowledge the “hit” to many Kiwis. Such acts of creative empathy and generosity are inspiring.

How might we show compassion, love and generosity, in our own unique ways, in our shattered, fragile world?

The priority of prayer

For those of us who still have employment, but are working from home instead of travelling to the workplace, how might we most effectively use that gift of extra time – while it lasts? Perhaps this is a season not just for sleeping in, but also using that time for new morning rituals of prayer, or adopting the habit of praying for world leaders and peace each noon. Perhaps our daily lunch break could be our reminder to pray for world unity – the sharing of ventilators and vaccine research break-throughs and protection of medics on the front line.

This also might be a time to pray for the inequalities in our societies – knowing the poverty of some nations and communities with unequal access to quality healthcare making them more vulnerable to death from the virus. We also can offer prayers of protection of First Nations’ people, who tend to have worse health outcomes.

We could pray for structural change to enable better health care for all who are homeless, poor, or oppressed in our world and in our communities.

Do I care enough to pray?

Theologian and apologist Baron Friedrich von Hügel’s final words from his death bed were, “Caring is the greatest thing. Caring matters most …” These words remind us that caring love needs to be at the core of our response to this pandemic as followers of Jesus: Caring enough to pray for our neighbour, for justice, for the disabled or those who are vulnerable with underlying health conditions.

Caring enough to pray for the end of racism, for equality of all people, regardless of colour.

Caring enough to pray for those with mental health conditions, for women trapped in abusive relationships, or for children being abused.

In fact, caring enough to pray for the children of the world – who are the future. And caring enough to engage in “spiritual war-work” – praying for our world leaders – a spiritual practice I believe all Christians are called to participate in.

It’s easy to read the daily news, feel dismay and simply critique our world leaders. It’s much less automatic to pray for them.

May we all, like Underhill, become utterly convinced of the power of prayer, so that we, as the Christian Church, participate in what God is doing in the world, through our prayers for global leaders and global unity – our “spiritual war-work.”

Robyn Wrigley-Carr is a Senior Lecturer in Theology and Spirituality at Alphacrucis College, Sydney. She is also a Senior Research Fellow for 2020 at Anglican Deaconess Ministries, Sydney.

This article was first published by Laidlaw College, a Christian college based in New Zealand. Republished with permission.

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