How Shall We Pray?

Jesus goes up to a local hill and speaks to his followers. They ask him how they should pray, which we may take as meaning either, “what form should our prayers take?” or else “what should we pray for?” I believe the latter is the way Jesus chose to understand the question, and it is the content of the prayer he taught them, not the form or rhythm of the words, that is of great importance to us today. “Our Father” he begins, “Who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name”. We note that by specifying that “our father” is in Heaven it is clear that Jesus is not referring to the Roman Emperor to whom it was customary to pray[1]. So this is already a political statement. But even in establishing the authority of God as one addresses God, this is merely a greeting, and a courtesy. If one is speaking to the greatest being in the universe, to the Creator, one should begin with courtesy, especially if you are asking for something. And Jesus, as we shall see, is about to ask for something very big. “Thy Kingdom Come, Thy will be done” – Nothing less, that is, than the Kingdom of God and God’s will to be realized. This is a big request: help us to bring about your Kingdom, and to make your will reality.

But it is the next phrase that is the most decisive one in the entire prayer: “on Earth”. Stop there. That is the key. Malcolm X, in his most famous speech said “We will have our rights on this Earth, in this life, and we will have them by any means necessary.” This is the force with which the phrase “on Earth” must be heard. The effect on his followers massed up there in the hills all day, must have been electric. The Kingdom of God on Earth. That is the demand. “On Earth, as it is in Heaven.” That is, on Earth as though it were Heaven. On Earth just as it is in Heaven. We want Heaven on Earth. Nothing less. How many Christians have smugly argued that the utopian dreams of socialists, communists and others were useless in the face of a failed, flawed, and sinful humanity, yet recited this prayer every day, or at least every Sunday of their lives?[2]Never has there been a more radical proposal. But there is in fact nothing utopian about it, for just as Marx and Engels would insist on centuries later, there is a concrete program based on existing social forces to bring about this revolutionary proposal.

I imagine that God, being busy, is pleased by such well-meaning and selfless requests as “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done”, such as when Miss America hopes for World Peace, or any of us for a better world, and probably gives a blessing. But to really get God moving on things requires asking for something very concrete, something that can be done. Jesus is not playing. He knows how to bring about the Kingdom of God, make the Will of God law, he knows how to make Heaven on Earth.

It takes exactly two things:“Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts”.[3] This is the Swedish or postwar British Welfare State, or the American New Deal in its better days right after Johnson’s Great Society programs, all the result of the class conflicts of the 1930s and the 1960s movements, combined with the demand for debt cancellation by people across the Third World. This is a program for changing the world. That Christian churches have managed to take plain speaking and turn Jesus’ clear language into metaphor: daily bread is faith, debts are sins, is testimony to the power of dead labor when it gets the upper hand. For two thousand years, this clear, everyday language has been overwhelmed by institutional power and its exegisis. It is true that Jesus often speaks in metaphor, in both the New Testament Gospels and the Gnostic Gospels. But he does so almost always when telling parables. Parables are about rendering difficult concepts into language and context that ordinary people can more easily understand. But here he is speaking with God directly, and telling his followers to do the same. No need to simplify. Further, since the words “faith” and “sin” appear quite often in the Bible, and appear in Jesus’ other discourses, those words were readily available and more easily understood by his followers as standing for themselves had this been Jesus’ intention. And whenever he tells a parable, he always explains later what the metaphors stand for in spiritual terms. More importantly, he is standing before people who lack bread, or lack the security of it – “food security” and “food sovereignty” as we call it today, and who are in debt. Without his elaborating on metaphorical language to make clear what he meant, as he usually did in the case of his parables, it is difficult to believe that Jesus said bread and debt when he meant faith and sin. The Lord’s Prayer is one point for the materialist interpretation of history, as Marx called it.

But there is more to this call for daily bread and forgiveness of debts. The people listening to Jesus would have understood exactly what these phrases meant. For they were part of the experience of the world they lived in. Daily bread, as is widely known even today, was a right of Roman citizens. It had been one of the victories of the social struggles of the Gracchi brothers – Gaius Gracchus introduced grain distribution as part of the class conflicts of the second century B.C.E. for the population in Rome only in 123, and these were made free and regularized in 58 B.C.E. by Clodius.[4] The people that were listening to Jesus were a colonial people, conquered and occupied, and they were not included in this deal. They did not have the right of daily bread. Give us this day our daily bread, coming from a colonial subject of the Empire like Jesus, or from his followers following his advice to pray in this way, that is, for this, was revolutionary. That theprayer is not directed to the Emperor but to God only makes it clearer how revolutionary, for it seeks divine assistance in establishing this, but not merely as a concession from the Imperial power itself.

The references to daily bread and to forgiving debtors placed together are not casual, for they link two traditions with long histories of social struggles. Daily bread is the right of Roman citizens within the capital city, for if the former is a right not available to Jesus’ people as non-citizens and colonial subjects, cancelling debts is an ancient tradition of the Israelites and other peoples of Canaan. In the Jubilee year, which comes every 50 years, all slaves are freed, all debts cancelled, all land restored to the original possessors, and the fields are left fallow for the earth to restore itself in a year of non-work. Every seven years a kind of mini-Jubilee takes place[5]. Jesus thus links the rights of the dominant peoples to the traditional struggles of the poor and colonized. The offer is this – we want the right to daily bread that is currently applies only to those in Rome to be made available to all.

We offer to you our tradition – the cancellation of debts, something that would not have been uninteresting to Romans, since debt had been a means of reducing the plebeians, with their long democratic tradition of small landownership and crafts to a propertyless proletariat, a process that had led to ferocious class struggles, and had lain at the basis of the land reform projects of the Gracchi and land and debt reforms of Julius Caesar himself.

The Lord’s Prayer as it has become unfortunately named, is nothing less than a program for the total reconstitution of the society encompassed by the Roman Empire itself as a whole, on the basis of social justice. When Jesus finishes speaking, “the crowds were astonished at his teaching” – I bet they were! — “for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes.” That is to say, he spoke with the creative power of living labor as spoken word, not as dead labor turning to dust on the pages of a book. Even the scriptural reference, to the Jubilee, is made into something living, something new and fresh by applying it creatively to the problems of Jesus’ own day and not treating it as a “tradition”, nor as a narrowly applicable law for his people locally only. Instead, combined with daily bread it is a program to unite Romans and Canaanites, Greeks and Galileans. The parable of the Good Samaritan makes exactly this point about who one’s “neighbor” is in a universal, cosmopolis like the one ruled over by Rome. This revolutionary program of Jesus is the basis of Christianity, and its initial appeal (“feed the hungry, heal the sick, visit those in prison”) and its subsequent spread. But it stands in glaring contrast to the program of the Church and its founders in later centuries, as Rome entered its death throes.

Saint Augustine’s City of God is traditionally interpreted as stating Christians’ interest in the hereafter rather than the world of politics and affairs, of the Roman Empire of Augustine’s own day which was crumbling, literally, around his ears as Germanic tribes overthrew it. In this interpretation, either the superiority of spiritual over worldy concerns is asserted, or the failure of Christians to realize what was at stake by this very preference is criticized.[6] Toni Negri and Michael Hardt have instead argued that Augustine is, by calling on Christians to refuse to participate in the political affairs and institutions of the empire, projecting an Empire-wide movement to transform it. This is a possible interpretation, but seems forced to me, and lacks any concrete program for such a transformation. Instead, it seems more fruitful to find a genuine Christian, or at least Jesus-inspired project directly in the reported spoken words of Jesus himself with their concrete program for social transformation on a universal scale, through a syncretic combining of Roman and Middle Eastern approaches to social justice, linking the two local class struggles into one seamless one at the level of the larger cosmopolitan world encompassed by the Empire. The lessons for us today – that the “daily bread” available to the “West” or Global North – both in the form of abundance and in the form of Social Democracy or the Welfare State needs to be made available to all six billion inhabitants of the planet, and that the demand for debt cancellation and restoration of common land– for a Jubilee – on the part of the whole Global South is now, after the recent crises in Greece, Spain and Portugal, and the financial collapse brought on by the unsustainable mountain of personal debt crushing most people in the United States – could not be clearer or more relevant. ”

STEVEN COLATRELLA has long participated in the collective Midnight Notes. This article is an excerpt from his forthcoming book “The Making of Democratic Civilization”.


[1] I am grateful to my colleague, the erudite classicist Prof.Tom Govero, for this insight.

[2] Hegel wrote that the old man recites the same prayers as he did in childhood, but now recites them with the knowledge and wisdom of a lifetime of experience. We may doubt in many cases that the lifetime of lessons allegedly learned furthered rather than prevented understanding of the simple, straightforward message of the Lord’s Prayer.

[3] Holy Bible, Revised Standard Version, Matthew 6:11-12.

[4] David Stockton, The Gracchi Clarendon: Oxford 1979 p. 19; on the larger context of class struggles in Rome in this period, see the wonderful work by Michael Parenti, The Assassination of Julius Caesar: A People’s History of Ancient Rome The New Press: New York 2003.

[5] Leviticus, chapter 25.

[6] For an example of the latter approach, see the magnificent work by that original thinker Lewis Mumford in his The Condition of Man Harcourt Brace Jovanavich: New York 1973 pp. 83-88.