How the Church Prays in Times of War


[1] Allow me to try to state the situation in which I think we find ourselves, since our perception of our situation governs our praying. I think there's a sense in which the current war began on September 11, 2001 when attacks on the World Trade Center precipitated a "war on terrorism" with far-reaching consequences domestically and internationally.

[2] It is clear that after September 11 President George W. Bush adopted the view that U.S. security depended on removing Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq. Seen in this light, war against Iraq was inevitable and is an extension of the war on terrorism. People may disagree that war with Iraq was necessary, but the reasons for the war were clearly couched in those terms by President Bush when he spoken to the nation on the night the attack on Iraq began.

[3] Many Americans, along with people around the world, have expressed objection to armed invasion of Iraq, for various reasons. Those who have had misgivings about the war have judged that waging the war would create greater evil than the evil it was supposed to redress. We would hope that there were those in the Administration who also raised this concern. But that same prudential concern must now affect our thinking and our praying as a church. Questions of whether this war is just, or even prudential, are moot. War has commenced and Christians especially must pray for the best outcomes, that is, the least evil outcomes. Those outcomes would surely be a swift and decisive conclusion with minimal harm to combatants and the Iraqi people, the removal of Saddam Hussein and his sons from power (even though "regime change" is a morally ambiguous policy for one nation to take against another one), minimal damage to the environment and oil reserves (a source of revenue for the rebuilding of Iraq), and the greatest potential for a harmonious, perhaps even a democratic, society to be built in post-war Iraq with all its competing ethnic and religious groups.

[4] This perspective might frame our intercessory prayers. Prayers must be included for peace among nations and a speedy conclusion to the war, but also for wisdom for the President of the United States, heads of allied states, and their advisers as they prosecute the war and its related aims and strategies; for service men and women that they may be protected while acting in harm's way, but also for the Iraqi people that they may be shielded from the collateral damage of war; for humanitarian aid workers who bring relief to the long suffering Iraqi people, and for peacemakers who will work to build a new society in Iraq when war is concluded. Congregations may have reason to remember by name members, friends, and relatives of members who are serving in the armed forces or as humanitarian workers. They will have reason to pray for those known to them who are wounded and to grieve for those who are killed in action. The intercessory prayers will become quite lengthy as the war continues. But humility in prayer suggests that we avoid moralizing, since prayer is addressed to God. It is sufficient to present in our petitions, to state our concerns to the Lord, and let God discern why we are asking for this or how to bring it about. For example:

"For all who suffer from the violence of war, for all who are placed in harm's way, for all who must make agonizing decisions that effect the lives of others, for all who are risking their lives for policies not their own, let us pray to the Lord.

 R/ Lord, have mercy."

[5] Crafting suitable prayer petitions calls for pastoral sensitivity, theological accuracy, eschatological humility, and therefore great creativity. Not everyone is a master of the language of prayer. But the resources of the liturgical tradition are rich and may be mined with spiritual profit. Historical collects of great genius are found in such anthologies of prayer as Lutheran Book of Worship, The Book of Common Prayer (Episcopal), and The Book of Common Worship (Presbyterian) under such categories as prayers for peace, for the nation, for armed forces, etc. I have found especially evocative the Prayer for Peace in the LBW, page 42.

O God, it is your will to hold both heaven and earth in a single peace. Let the design of your great love shine on the wastes of our wraths and sorrows, and give peace to your Church, peace among nations, peace in our homes, and peace in our hearts; through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

Prayer 146

[6] In a time of war we need not only many intercessions, we also need opportunities to lament the human situation in the light of the Gospel. The language of lament has not much been on Western lips in modern times. We may need to read and pray the psalms of lament in order to learn this language once again. We may need to pray that we can learn this language: "Lord and lover of humankind, teach us groan as you must groan over our human follies. Teach us to mourn as you must mourn the waste of your human creatures." We may need to express our anxiety: "What shall we do, Lord, about wars that seemed safely far away but are brought near by our mass media and instantaneous communication and by the procession of body bags on airport tarmacs?" We may need to wonder whether we have the nerve to face reality as Christians: "Good Lord, do we even dare to tear open the hard truths of the Gospel?" Are we willing to admit that we must repent even of our noblest intentions, since even our good deeds are like filthy rags before the holiness of God?

[7] A form of prayer held in the evening during Holy Week (although it is really a form of anticipated Lauds, or morning praise) is the Office of Tenebrae ("Shadows"). Pastors have done various things with the concept of this office with its gradual extinguishing of lights and loud noise at the end, but it is really a service of psalms. The Psalter, of course, is a privileged place to find words of lament for times of terror and warfare. The words of the psalms allow believers to express their deepest feelings and emotions, even words of rage and vengeance. But these words are being voiced to God, and not toward other human beings. There are Offices of Tenebrae for Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday evenings during Holy Week (note: on Thursday it is prayed after the Maundy Thursday Liturgy). The Wednesday Tenebrae seem especially appropriate for a time of war. This particular Office might be used on a Wednesday during Lent.

  • Psalm 69

  • Psalm 71

  • Psalm 74

  • The Lesson: Lamentations 1:1-6, 12

  • Responsory for Lent

  • Psalm 51

  • Psalm 36

  • Canticle: Exodus 15

  • Psalm 147

  • Canticle: The Benedictus (Song of Zechariah)

  • Darkness and silence (Lord's Prayer said in silence)

  • Collect for Good Friday

  • Silence

  • Loud noise; lighted candle brought into view

[8] During Lent in our parish we have prayed the Great Litany on Wednesdays at a Noon Prayer Office. This is also a prayer that gives voice to our lament. Among the all-inclusive petitions of this great penitential prayer are these:

From war, bloodshed, and violence; from corrupt and unjust government; from sedition and treason:

R/ Good Lord, deliver us.

To give to all nations justice and peace; to preserve our country from discord and strife; to direct and guard those who have civil authority; and to bless and guide all our people:

 R/ We implore you to hear us, good Lord. 

[9] The Noon Prayer Office in our parish began on September 12, 2001, the day after the terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C. We are a downtown church and I thought that people working downtown, as well as our own members, might seek a place of prayer on that day. I constructed a simple Prayer Office using the following materials:

  • A psalm (Psalm 46 on September 12)

  • A brief reading (Romans 8:31-39 on September 12)

  • A Gospel canticle: the Beatitudes (text in LBW Canticle 17)

  • Responsive Prayer 2 (LBW page 164)

[10] Some of the responses in that prayer (which used to be called "suffrages"), all psalm verses, stood out as especially relevant to the concerns that brought us to prayer:

Give peace, O Lord, in all the world;
for only in you can we live in safety.
Lord, keep this nation under your care,
and guide us in the way of justice and truth.
Let your way be known upon earth;
your saving health among all nations.
Let not the needy, O Lord, be forgotten,
nor the hope of the poor be taken away.
Create in us clean hearts, O God,
and sustain us with your Holy Spirit.

[11] The Noon Office continued as a parish practice, even though attendance waned as the time grew longer since September 11. So we have been praying these suffrages every Wednesday since then, only replacing them with the Great Litany on Wednesdays during Lent. The very "objectivity" of these prayers allows worshipers to put into them and take out of them according to their needs.

[12] Evening Prayer (Vespers) also provides prayers for peace. The Litany of Peace (LBW page 148), from the Byzantine tradition, prays "in peace" "For the peace of the whole world, for the well-being of the Church of God, and for the unity of all," and concludes with the Collect for Peace, "that peace which the world cannot give...; and also that we, being defended from the fear of our enemies, may live in peace and quietness."

[13] I am writing this piece during third week of Lent 2003, at the end of the first week of the U.S./U.K. invasion of Iraq. Journalists are asking whether the war is going according to plan; President Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair have just held a news conference in which they have said that there cannot be a timetable for the war. Nevertheless, we hope and pray that the war will not be prolonged. As I stand with my people around the great fire and paschal candle at the Easter Vigil, we will conclude the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving over the candle with the petition, "And we pray, O Lord, rule, govern, and preserve with your continual protection your whole Church, giving us peace in this time of our paschal rejoicing" (LBW Ministers Book, page 145).

[14] This petition has struck me this year in a way it has never struck me before. The church prays in this prayer that comes from sixth century Gaul that the world may be at peace during the fifty days of Easter so that the Easter festival will not be spoiled by bloodshed and conflict. Wise churchmen knew then, as now, as in the time of King David, that the spring of the year is "the time when kings go forth to battle" (2 Kings 11:1). The church placed a moratorium on fighting at the time of the year when tribes and nations were most likely to fight! It's as Jesus told his disciples to be: "wise as serpents, gentle as doves." This is how we need to be in our prayers no less than in the advice this eschatological community called the church of Jesus Christ would offer to the nations in their historical exigencies.


© June 2003
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 3, Issue 6