Go Into Your Room, Close the Door, and Engage the World

Why private prayers can be a public act.

Kristen Deede Johnson
Kristen Deede Johnson is Associate Professor of Theology and Christian Formation at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan. She and Bethany Hanke Hoang wrote the award-winning The Justice Calling: Where Passion Meets Perseverance (Brazos Press, 2016). Previous publications include Theology, Political Theory, and Pluralism: Beyond Tolerance and Difference (Cambridge University Press, 2007) and an array of articles and books chapters related to theology, culture, and political theory. She is married to Trygve Johnson, the Dean of the Chapel at Hope College. Together they have a son, age eight, and a daughter, age five.

Last Friday night, my seven-year-old son and I were on our way to say his bedtime prayers when we heard loud voices and saw police lights outside his bedroom. I looked out the window, and immediately an image was seared on my brain. An image of a person I will likely never meet, whose face I never saw, but whose half-naked body was face down, handcuffed, lying on my driveway.

In light of the heightened tensions between African Americans and police in recent years, combined with things I’ve been learning about our current criminal justice system in recent months, a million concerns flooded my mind and heart.

So my son and I prayed. We prayed for the safety of the handcuffed teenager and the safety of the police officers. We prayed that heightened tensions would dissipate. We prayed that if any wrongdoing had happened, things would be made right. We prayed for the long-term prospects of those who had just been arrested, and for the long-term well-being of those who had made the arrests.

Why was prayer our first response? Was it an escape from engaging the reality of what was really going on? Was it rooted in a naïve but unrealistic belief that the situation could actually be influenced by our prayers? What good was this seemingly private act of prayer, undertaken in the safety and security of our home, while this intense event—at once private and public—was unfolding?

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