Prayer as Protest

Scrap book style image; reading 'Prayer As Protest' A monthly blog series on new, creative ways to protest.

“Why don’t you actually do something rather than just praying about it?”  

This is what a passer-by shouted to us during the 14 day 'No Faith in Fossil Fuels’ vigil we held outside Parliament in February. Joining together many people, including friends from Christian organisations, the 24/7 vigil took the form of a prayer ‘relay’, calling on the government to take action against climate change. This meant space was being held outside parliament constantly. It was about halfway through the day that William and I were spending there that a man walked past and made this comment. Which got me thinking… How can prayer be protest? 

Being a constant presence was itself a protest because the vigil was located by the gates into Parliament, walked past by MPs and decision makers. Combined with the signs sharing information about the climate crisis, our presence sparked conversation and helped to spread the word about our cause. Whilst we were there, we were approached by a couple of women who chatted to us about the protest, why we were there and who we were, and they commented on the power of using prayer and silence as a tool for change. In a country where the protest laws are changing, they wondered whether this was the only way we felt our voices could be heard legally now.  

It is hard to measure the success of protest as something quantifiable, and of course our vigil did not stop climate change, so did we do enough? One of the things that was brought forward as a positive effect of the protest were the conversations such as this one. We also found that connecting with people who stood against the same things as us, was an empowering experience. It can feel hopeless fighting something as big and abstract as climate change, however joining with others on the same fight gives energy to carry on trying- and I would consider that a success. We also provided people with information on how they could get involved with battling climate change and link with organisations with resources. The man who shouted at us for not “actually doing something” had not spent the time engaging in the protest enough to know that we were. As my colleague shouted back, “We do both.”- this is Faith in Action.  

'True godliness does not turn men out of the world, but enables them to live better in it and excites their endeavours to mend it.-William Penn

Faith in Action is a phrase we use a lot here at SCM, and for me nothing encapsulates it more than prayer as protest, or protest with prayer. For me, the Quakers in Britain define it best saying,  “Quakers find that their experience of worship leads them to try to change the world for the better.” There is an almost cyclical nature implied by this, that prayer influences action, which influences reflection- and it can continue to go around in this way.  However, it is important to state here that prayer does not act alone and must stand with action- whether that is making small changes in your own life or taking to the streets. The Quakers in Britain podcast on the theme of witness to spirituality and activism speaks of spirituality working with action to inform the work of Quakers to be tools of social change. One thing that stood out to me from the recording were the words of Chris who spoke on the podcast. He says; “It’s not just the person who’s locked onto the gates outside the Ministry of Defence or waving the placard outside Downing Street… it’s someone who is really trying to change the way we relate to other people.” I found this an important narrative to focus on for a moment. He is suggesting that protest is changing, and the way we act ethically can be as much of a protest as anything else. He talks of making small changes to our community and caring for one another as one of the steps we can take in being change makers. It is an interesting idea when we pair this with prayer as protest. As Jane, the other host of the podcast, states, “Prayer is also action, holding someone in the light is also action and knowing friends are doing that for you is hugely empowering and encouraging.” This is what we saw at the vigil. A group of people empowering each other and hoping for a better future. The stillness was a contrast to the goings on in London. This contrast was eye catching and could not be ignored. Caring for others can be a radical act and can inspire change. As Keith Hebden states in his book Re-enchanting the Activist, “When we recognise God in one another and in the space between us, our acts of violence become weightier, and our goodness becomes relational rather than legal.” Standing with others in solidarity not only creates a community but allows us to show a strength in numbers. It can be hard to recognise that of God in others who could be considered as acting inhumanely or even evilly, but when standing shoulder to shoulder with other Christians in a peaceful protest we can empower and encourage each other to do this, and hope for a better world. This element of hope is one of the most important outcomes from standing in prayer with others.  

This is not the only time I have witnessed a stillness as a form of protest. Again, in London, at the beginning of my year with SCM I attended the vigil against the DSEI arms fair. Once again, there was the hustle and bustle of being in London, the goings on of the arms trade inside the Excel Centre, and then outside in stillness and in silence we stood in prayerful vigil. It was an eye-catching and thought-provoking space, as we stood in solidarity with all those who have been negatively affected by war and the arms trade. It would be unsuitable to combat this violent trade with anything but peace. People who say we should “fight fire with fire” are mistaken, we should fight fire with water. Darkness with light. War with peace. Often when sat in Quaker meetings at school, I would hear a quote recited to me, it is one I have used before to describe the silent vigil outside the arms fair, but I will use it again;

“Peace cannot be kept by force; it can only be achieved by understanding. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” ~ Martin Luther King Jr. 

So, the next time someone turns to you and says “why don’t you actually do something rather than just praying about it” I hope you feel armed with these thoughts and words. Consider reflecting on how you live in your own life- what small changes are you making and how are you seeing the good in everyone you meet even when it’s difficult? I’d like to round off with Quaker Advices and Queries 17:  Do you respect that of God in everyone though it may be expressed in unfamiliar ways or be difficult to discern?  

Happy Protesting! 


Call to action: 

  • Pray for those in power- using the Human Right's Day prayer
  • Use the SCM social directory to find Christian social justice groups and get involved with their work. 
  • Use SCM’s Theological Reflection journal to help you prayerfully discern what action to take in response to injustice. You can download a free copy here or buy a printed version here