Christian Ethics Today

A Sermon on Temptation and Group Evil

By Lewis Brogdon

Matthew 6:9-15 “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. This, then, is how you should pray: “‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.” For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.

Like Jesus did in verses 5-7, we need to challenge ineffective practices of prayer. In that spirit, I ask the following questions. What is the point of prayer and why should we pray in the first place? Is prayer merely space for us to vent and lament what troubles us or to get our personal sin slates clean? Is prayer a form of magic where we say the right words to get the right results? Does prayer encourage passivity as we give our troubles to God and do nothing until God answers or moves in our lives? These are all common beliefs about prayer taught in churches that sustained forms of spirituality that have proven to be shallow and bankrupt. Why do I say this? Think about it. Genocide, slavery, Jim Crow segregation, redlining, mass incarceration, rampant poverty, wars, and gross economic disparities have been practiced for 400 years in this country with the sanction and silence of churches. How can we say that we understand prayer?

This is surprising considering the model prayer is so popular. Christian bookstores and online distributers offer an array of bookmarks, framed pictures, and postcards with the words of this prayer. I can recall my days in high school. Our football and basketball team knelt before each game to recite these words. This prayer is popular, but I am not certain that most Christians in America understand it because things we call normal do not reflect the vision of God’s kingdom that lies at the heart of this prayer. With all that is happening in our world, we need the words of the model prayer to ground our spirituality, theology, advocacy, and policy work. In the words that follow, I will provide a new way to engage and apply this text.

We Need a Different Encounter with this Text

What do I mean by a different encounter? As an African American biblical scholar, I am accustomed to engaging in counter-interpretation of Scripture. Some texts in the Bible have a problematic history for African Americans and so, black interpreters aid the community in understanding a different import or meaning of a text. A different encounter is reading and application of the model prayer, that unlearns the ways the model prayer functioned in the form of Christian religion that accepted racial hate, violence, and structural injustice. After unlearning these things, we can see the meaning of this text in a new way.

There are two interpretative errors we need to correct. First, we have the wrong the theological foundation. Look at the opening words of the prayer: “our Father who is in heaven.” The prayer does not say your father but our father. Let me give you an example. White churches have turned this phrase into “my white American Father who is in heaven.” They project whiteness and American national onto God and identify God as one like them, what the Bible calls idolatry. Most do not even know they are doing this because it is a part of culture. They rarely, if ever, think of God as not like them, as more than them. This is what I mean by a wrong theological foundation. Now others follow this same flawed and reductionistic way of thinking: projecting race, class, and other identity markers onto God. Second, we have to correct the individualistic focus we imposed on a prayer intended to be communal. The text does not say me but us. Much of American evangelicalism thinks of spirituality as a “me” issue and so again projects false ideas onto the text.

The text says… The text is changed to say…
Give us today our daily bread Give me today my daily bread
Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors Forgive me of my debts as I forgive my debtors
Lead us not into temptation Lead me not into temptation
Deliver us from evil Deliver me from evil

When we distort the meaning and import of the text, the prayer loses its ability to nurture values and thoughts that resemble God’s vision for the world. The New Testament stresses the relationship between prayer and Christian practice. It shows that the purpose of prayer is to affect how you think, how you live, and how you respond to others. So, it is incredibly important to get the meaning right. Here is a little corrective, an interpretive tip that can recondition your mind to grasp the inclusive and expansive nature of the prayer. In places you see the word “our” and “us,” add this qualifying phrase – “all persons in all places – black, brown, and white.”

To the God of all persons (in all places) – black, brown, and white – who is heaven. Holy is your name. May your kingdom come, and your will be done on earth as in heaven. Give all persons – black, brown, and white – daily bread. And forgive the sins of all your children – black, brown, and white – as we forgive all those who sin. And keep all your children – black, brown, and white – from temptation but deliver us from individual and communal (systemic) evils. For yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever, amen (Author’s paraphrase/translation).

This simple phrase broadens the import of this prayer to include your neighbors and corrects any tendency to think of this pray in an individualistic manner.

We Need to Focus on a Particular Phrase in This Prayer

Verse 13 introduces us to the idea of temptation and deliverance from evil as group or communal issues. The text says, “and lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.” This suggests the need to expand our understanding to see temptation as a “group thing.” Otherwise, we will miss evils that God wants to deliver us from like racism and classism. I like to think of verse 13 as sober reminders about temptation and the pervasiveness of evil in groups.

This country is drowning in evil. American society is in a constant state of unrest, confusion, strife, and decline because we do not think of sin and evil as communal problems. This has to change. In the book “Moral Man Immoral Society,” Reinhold Niebuhr makes an argument about human behavior in groups that helps us to see the import of the group nature of temptation in verse 13.

Individuals may be moral in the sense that they are able to consider interests other than their own…and are capable of preferring the advantages of others to their own…But all these achievements are more difficult, if not impossible, for human societies and social groups. In every human group there is less reason to guide and to check impulse, less capacity for self-transcendence, less ability to comprehend the needs of others and therefore more unrestrained egoism than the individuals, who compose the group, reveal in their personal relationships” (Reinhold Niebuhr, xxv)

There are three takeaways from this very important quote. First, this would suggest that we behave differently in groups than we do individually. Second, we need discernment, strength, courage, and radical honesty to resist what comes naturally to peers within our groups. Third, we also need to be aware of the different groups we are a part of – American citizens, members of a religion, denomination, congregation, social class, family, ethnicity, race, gender, etc. Each group presents unique temptations that if unchecked unleashes evil on others in the world.

Think about this. I may not kill someone individually but, as an American, will go along with killing someone from another country if we declare “war” on them. I may provide shelter for my family, but, as a member of the upper or middle class, will allow millions of people to live outside and experience deprivation. People in groups write laws and policies that benefit them and harm others, and they will justify it, even if it means locking kids in cages and letting people die. When we give into group temptation, we do evil things. This is why verse 13 is so relevant for the church today. It invites us to think about all the temptations tied to how identity, loyalty, differentiation, entitlement, and action work, then allowing Scripture to correct and guide what we do in groups. When scriptures like 1 John 2 talk about the lust of eyes, the lust of the flesh, and the pride or life or Romans 12:2 that exhorts readers not to be conformed to pattern of the world, that is group language. Those verses are talking to us and about the systems we create and sustain. 

We Need to Hear a Word of Warning about Temptation and Group Evil

Our fore parents missed the import of the model prayer. They prayed this while enslaving Africans or committing human atrocities against Native Americans. I do not want us to repeat their mistake. I want us to understand the model prayer, pray in this manner, and live according to its vision. I want this for an important reason. We are engulfed in a struggle for the soul of this nation. In a sense, the struggle is apocalyptic. In apocalyptic writings, there are often corrupt empires, material excess for the few, religion gets co-opted by socio-political power, and there is mass suffering, especially among poor and marginalized communities. These social conditions gave rise to the last book in Scripture, the book of Revelation. Listen to Jesus’ message to a group of Christians at Philadelphia “I will also keep thee from the hour of temptation, which shall come upon all the world to try them that dwell upon the earth” (Revelation 3:10). The language of the hour of temptation sounds a lot like 2020 – a season of great testing of who we are and the ties that bind us together.

 

 

 

Global Pandemic “Covid-19”

An Era of Great Social Upheaval & Deep Social Rifts
Political system w/ dysfunction & gridlock Entrenched Racism & Xenophobia Weakening Infrastructure Gross Economic Disparities & Mass Poverty Collapse of Meaning & Declining Influence of Religion

This graphic is helpful in seeing the component parts of major issues confronting us and causing such pain and loss. Events in 2020 have exposed painful things about American society and deep rifts, that if not addressed, threaten the future of this country as a thriving democracy. Please read the following articles to get a sense of the array of issues we are facing and the kind of temptations we face as a society: Joel Kotkin, “America’s Drift toward Feudalism,” Yoni Appelbaum, “How America Ends,” Jonathan Rauch, “Rethinking Polarization,” Wade Davis, “The Unraveling of America,” George Packer “We Live in a Failed State” and Jennifer Richeson, “The Mythology of Racial Progress.”

Amidst this struggle for our souls, we face two great temptations and evils I want to name. First, there is the temptation and attendant evils of justifying structural inequality and the neglect of our neighbors. This prayer reminds us that everyone should have daily bread, not just people in your groups. Second, there is the temptation and attendant evils of justifying hate toward those who are different from us and or those we differ with. This prayer challenges us to forgive and not succumb to temptations like hate, bitterness, resentment, and violence lest we become what we hate or become what we strive to fight against. I am not saying we should not resist injustice or stop protesting. Not at all. I am, however, challenging us to examine what is fueling and grounding our work.

This is why I keep reminding people of the teachings of Jesus and Dr. King’s writings. Both understood that we are in this together, even the people we oppose, that we cannot fight injustice with bitterness and hate or any form of evil; and that it is easy to disguise and justify hate and violence (having a good reason to hate or react with violence does not make it right). Again, this is how group evil becomes so pervasive, which is why we must be vigilant and steadfast in prayer as we fight the good fight. May these words both challenge and guide us in the coming days as we confront our own “hour of temptation” in the remaining days of 2020 and beyond.

— Lewis Brogdon (Ph.D.) is the Research Professor of Preaching and Black Church Studies at the Baptist Seminary of Kentucky and chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Simmons College of Kentucky.

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