Psalm 79:8, 9, 11, 13
I read the prayer of Daniel 9 sitting here on sabbatical in Jerusalem, very much in the midst of bad news (the good news being that some people are waking up to the bad news). As a professional student of Scripture, I know that the book of Daniel was written in the 160's B.C., when the people of Judah were suffering persecution from the Syrian tyrant Antiochus IV who liked to be called Epiphanes (that’s like saying, “Just call me God for short”). The author of this apocalypse saw a parallel between his time and the time of the Babylonian Exile; so he uses the figure of Daniel, pictured as a refugee in Babylon, to present a model for Jewish fidelity against all odds in his own second-century B.C. time. The author is saying, “We’ve got to pray a prayer of repentance like the one I’m putting into the mouth of Daniel during the similar experience our people had four hundred years ago.”
Notice that Daniel is not wallowing in personal guilt; he’s praying for all Israel, the collectivity of his people—“WE have sinned”—together. And he agrees with the authors of the Deuteronomist history (that’s the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings) when they deal with the question: How is it that we— God’s chosen people—have wound up here in exile, without land, temple, and king? There answer was, in a nutshell, “We have rebelled against our God by not keeping the covenant of Sinai. For that we have been fittingly punished. But if we repent, and resume worshiping our Creator by keeping the covenant again, we will again experience God’s fidelity to his promises, for God never breaks his part of the bargain.”
So around 167 B.C., some four centuries after the Babylonian exile, the author of Daniel is saying, “Folks, let’s face it: We may have returned to Judah and rebuilt the temple, but we’re still in a genuine exile—a spiritual exile, not fully in tune with God’s love for us, and God’s expectations of us.”
As I ponder this prayer in Jerusalem in February of 2002, I put on the “we” of Daniel’s prayer and find myself trying to pray it as a citizen of the United States. And I find myself saying, “we have sinned.”
Forgive us, Lord, for focusing, Hollywood style, on the personalities of leaders (Mr. Sharon and Mr. Arafat) instead of the common good of the peoples they represent. Help us to focus on the justice that achieving the common good requires.
Forgive us for cooperating with other nations only when it is in (what we perceive as) our own interest.
Forgive us for forgetting that six and a half billion of us share your gift of this ancient and fragile planet and for refusing to do our part in cutting back our pollution of the air we all breathe.
Forgive us for trusting so completely in the power of guns and bombs to solve political problems.
Forgive us for preferring to see life as a possession to be defended instead of a gift to be shared.
Forgive us for neglecting to tell the wielders of power what we think of their decisions when those decisions violate our sense of what is right.
Forgive us for thinking that Lent is about self-improvement instead of opening up to your view of the world and acting in that world as if you were truly its king.
Pardon me, dear reader, if this prayer has turned into a rant.
But when I take seriously Daniel’s “we,” a new awareness sets in and I
have to pray it. I pray for the grace to live it.
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