I am horrified and heartbroken over the war in the Middle East. I wake up in the morning feeling the grief of the parents whose children were killed at the Nova dance festival and of the relatives of people who were massacred in Kibbutz Be’eri and the village of Kfar Azza. The sense of outrage I feel is familiar. It’s the same feeling I have whenever there is a school shooting in this country. Now, as Israel responds, I feel the terror of civilians in Gaza, who are cut off from electricity, and therefore water, who are being bombed and starved. How will they protect their loved ones? How will they mourn their dead?
So I pray, and try to keep prayer from becoming a political act. There are good criticisms that can be leveled against prayer that isn’t accompanied by immediate action. After the Uvalde school shooting, I felt that our prayers had to be backed by activism. But there are moments when action is so entangled and the solutions so unclear that we need to pray first. To pray for someone is to acknowledge their humanity. This is why Jesus tells us to pray for our enemies. It is an act of empathy, an attempt to understand the other. We might later, and with much justification, condemn the actions of an individual or a group of people. But if we don’t attempt to gain some insight into their experience, our condemnation will be hollow and tinged by our prejudices.
The type of prayer that we offer in these moments is called “intercession.” The catechism in the Book of Common Prayer states that “intercession brings before God the needs of others.” I don’t think that God is unaware of the needs of people in the Middle East, or of the needs of people anywhere in the world. To bring someone’s needs before God doesn’t mean that we are alerting God to a problem. Rather, when we open ourselves to God through prayer, we bring all of the concerns that we carry into our relationship with God. Intercession brings our whole selves before God, especially the parts of ourselves that are entangled in the lives of others.
It is harder to know what to pray for when it comes to people we don’t know, because it’s harder to articulate our specific worries. But this very bewilderment is answered in prayer. God knows and loves the people we are praying for. We may not have much of a sense of their lives, might not be able to picture their faces. But if we touch the love God has for them, we will be able to love them, too. Sometimes I think of God as a conduit of compassion, the holy wire that my confused and terrified love can run along. Something flows back as well. A greater sense of empathy. An understanding of the world’s fragility. Teresa of Avila called this the “wound of compassion.” Intercessory prayer is a way of acknowledging the wounds of the world. It is also a way in which we are wounded by the world. Yet we cannot fear the wounds. We worship a God who willingly became incarnate in the world in the person of Jesus Christ, and allowed the world to wound him.
There are some actions we can take right away. We can reach out to Jewish and Palestinian friends. We can give to aid agencies that are dedicated to serving all of the victims of this conflict, and do advocacy work to ensure that our gifts can reach the people they’re meant to serve. But before we take any political action, or issue any political statements, we should pray, so that our actions and statements might arise out of the deep compassion that our relationship with God has wounded us with and rooted us in.