Sometimes great writers reveal truths that are hidden. At other times they reveal truths that are squarely in front of our eyes but which we do not see because we have not asked the right question. Mark Twain’s story The War Prayer fits into the latter category.
The idea of the intercessory prayer, where one asks for a favor or blessing for oneself or for a designated group of people, is such a familiar staple of religious life that its basis is unquestioned. But Twain points out what should have been obvious if we had only thought it through. The key section about the nature of such prayers is revealed when he writes:
For it is like unto many of the prayers of men, in that it asks for more than he who utters it is aware of – except he pause and think.
God’s servant and yours has prayed his prayer. Has he paused and taken thought? Is it one prayer? No, it is two – one uttered, the other not. Both have reached the ear of His Who hearth all supplications, the spoken and the unspoken. Ponder this – keep it in mind. If you beseech a blessing upon yourself, beware! lest without intent you invoke a curse upon a neighbor at the same time.
Twain accurately points out that often such prayers always carry with them a dark underside. Prayers that ask for victory in war always carry with them the wish that god will destroy the other side. The losing side in a war must necessarily suffer death and destruction but prayers never explicitly ask god to do this. That would be too crass. But Twain says that whether we put those sentiments into words or not, that appeal is always present.
Twain carries this argument even further and says that even appeals for seemingly benign help for one person (such as rain for his crops) may prove to be a curse for someone else.
Twain’s point seems to be that any prayer that seeks special benefits for any one group is also a request to deny that same benefit to those who do not belong to that group. When people pray asking god’s help to help find a cure for cancer, aren’t they implicitly also asking him/her to not find a cure for AIDS or Alzheimers or any other of the countless diseases that afflict living things?
And what about the phrase “God bless America” that is now such a staple of political life that politicians routinely end their speeches with it? Fourth of July speeches are full of such appeals. What exactly is being asked for here? That god look out for the interests of Americans and withhold blessings from the people of other countries? What would justify such a request? Do such people really believe that God prefers Americans to other people? What kind of God would check the nationality of people before responding to prayers?
All such intercessory prayers are premised on an authoritarian/subservient model, with god as a kind of despot who has limited rewards at his/her disposal, and whose favors have to be curried by making special appeals, in the manner of kindergarteners with their teacher. Since most religious people also believe in a god who omnipotent and has the capacity to answer any intercessory prayer, and even knows the prayers before they are prayed, it does not make sense to ask for limited rewards benefiting a restricted subset of people. But this obvious contradiction is not perceived. It requires an astute observer like Twain to point it out.
Perhaps the only intercessory prayer that can be justified is the one I saw on a bumper sticker that said “God bless everyone. No exceptions.”
It is noteworthy that Mark Twain knew that he was asking for trouble with this story, writing it as he did during a major war, when strong and unthinking appeals to patriotism are used to brush aside any opposition, just as was done in during the preparations for the attack on Iraq.
Twain wrote The War Prayer during the Spanish-American War. It was submitted for publication, but on March 22, 1905, Harper’s Bazaar rejected it as “not quite suited to a woman’s magazine.” Eight days later, Twain wrote to his friend Dan Beard, to whom he had read the story, “I don’t think the prayer will be published in my time. None but the dead are permitted to tell the truth.” Because he had an exclusive contract with Harper & Brothers, Mark Twain could not publish “The War Prayer” elsewhere and it remained unpublished until 1923.
Mark Twain seems to have had a healthy skepticism towards religion that was not shared by his family and those who were charged with executing his estate.
In later years, Twain’s family suppressed some of his work which was especially irreverent toward conventional religion, notably Letters from the Earth, which was not published until 1962. The anti-religious The Mysterious Stranger was published in 1916, although there is some scholarly debate as to whether Twain actually wrote the most familiar version of this story.
Given that Mark Twain had achieved iconic status in his own lifetime and was so well-known and liked, his own apprehensions about whether this story could be published is indicative of how powerful a hold this combination of religion and patriotism has on people. Challenge those twin pillars of dogma and you become an outcast fast.
POST SCRIPT: Hunting endangered animals
Did you know that there is a hunting group that actually seeks as trophies endangered animals? And that one of its members was nominated last year to fill the position of acting director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service?
The organization in question is the Safari Club International (SCI), described as “an extreme trophy hunting organization that advocates the killing of rare species around the world.” A press release put out by the Humane Society of the US says:
The Arizona-based SCI has made a name for itself as one of the most extreme and elite trophy hunting organizations, representing some 40,000 wealthy trophy collectors, fostering and promoting competitive trophy hunting of exotic animals on five continents. SCI members shoot prescribed lists of animals to win so-called Grand Slam and Inner Circle titles. There’s the Africa Big Five (leopard, elephant, lion, rhino, and buffalo), the North American Twenty Nine (all species of bear, bison, sheep, moose, caribou, and deer), Big Cats of the World, Antlered Game of the Americas, and many other contests.
To complete all 29 award categories, a hunter must kill a minimum of 322 separate species and sub-species—enough to populate a large zoo. This is an extremely expensive and lengthy task, and many SCI members take the quick and easy route to see their names in the record books. They shoot captive animals in canned hunts, both in the United States and overseas, and some engage in other unethical conduct like shooting animals over bait, from vehicles, with spotlights, or on the periphery of national parks.
What is the matter with these people? How can anyone be so competitive that they will actually increase the risk of extinction of rare animals just for the sake of getting a trophy?