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Jul 04 2008

Independence day thoughts

(For this holiday, I am reposting an amalgam of two posts from two years ago.)

Today, being independence day in the US, will see a huge outpouring of patriotic fervor, with parades and bands and flag waving. I thought it might be appropriate to read one of Mark Twain’s lesser known works. I came across it during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. I was surprised by the fact that I had never even heard of it before, even though I have read quite a lot of Twain’s work and about Twain himself.

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, where he explores the dark underside of the seemingly innocuous act of praying for something.

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 wholesomeness is unquestioned. But Twain points out what should have been obvious if we had only thought it through.

The War Prayer
Mark Twain

It was a time of great and exalting excitement. The country was up in arms, the war was on, in every breast burned the holy fire of patriotism; the drums were beating, the bands playing, the toy pistols popping, the bunched firecrackers hissing and sputtering; on every hand and far down the receding and fading spreads of roofs and balconies a fluttering wilderness of flags flashed in the sun; daily the young volunteers marched down the wide avenue gay and fine in their new uniforms, the proud fathers and mothers and sisters and sweethearts cheering them with voices choked with happy emotion as they swung by; nightly the packed mass meetings listened, panting, to patriot oratory which stirred the deepest deeps of their hearts and which they interrupted at briefest intervals with cyclones of applause, the tears running down their cheeks the while; in the churches the pastors preached devotion to flag and country and invoked the God of Battles, beseeching His aid in our good cause in outpouring of fervid eloquence which moved every listener.

It was indeed a glad and gracious time, and the half dozen rash spirits that ventured to disapprove of the war and cast a doubt upon its righteousness straightway got such a stern and angry warning that for their personal safety’s sake they quickly shrank out of sight and offended no more in that way.

Sunday morning came – next day the battalions would leave for the front; the church was filled; the volunteers were there, their faces alight with material dreams – visions of a stern advance, the gathering momentum, the rushing charge, the flashing sabers, the flight of the foe, the tumult, the enveloping smoke, the fierce pursuit, the surrender! – then home from the war, bronzed heros, welcomed, adored, submerged in golden seas of glory! With the volunteers sat their dear ones, proud, happy, and envied by the neighbors and friends who had no sons and brothers to send forth to the field of honor, there to win for the flag or, failing, die the noblest of noble deaths. The service proceeded; a war chapter from the Old Testament was read; the first prayer was said; it was followed by an organ burst that shook the building, and with one impulse the house rose, with glowing eyes and beating hearts, and poured out that tremendous invocation – “God the all-terrible! Thou who ordainest, Thunder thy clarion and lightning thy sword!”

Then came the “long” prayer. None could remember the like of it for passionate pleading and moving and beautiful language. The burden of its supplication was that an ever-merciful and benignant Father of us all would watch over our noble young soldiers and aid, comfort, and encourage them in their patriotic work; bless them, shield them in His mighty hand, make them strong and confident, invincible in the bloody onset; help them to crush the foe, grant to them and to their flag and country imperishable honor and glory.

An aged stranger entered and moved with slow and noiseless step up the main aisle, his eyes fixed upon the minister, his long body clothed in a robe that reached to his feet, his head bare, his white hair descending in a frothy cataract to his shoulders, his seamy face unnaturally pale, pale even to ghastliness. With all eyes following him and wondering, he made his silent way; without pausing, he ascended to the preacher’s side and stood there, waiting.

With shut lids the preacher, unconscious of his presence, continued his moving prayer, and at last finished it with the words, uttered in fervent appeal,” Bless our arms, grant us the victory, O Lord our God, Father and Protector of our land and flag!”

The stranger touched his arm, motioned him to step aside – which the startled minister did – and took his place. During some moments he surveyed the spellbound audience with solemn eyes in which burned an uncanny light; then in a deep voice he said

“I come from the Throne – bearing a message from Almighty God!” The words smote the house with a shock; if the stranger perceived it he gave no attention. “He has heard the prayer of His servant your shepherd and grant it if such shall be your desire after I, His messenger, shall have explained to you its import – that is to say, its full import. 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. If you pray for the blessing of rain upon your crop which needs it, by that act you are possibly praying for a curse upon some neighbor’s crop which may not need rain and can be injured by it.

“You have heard your servant’s prayer – the uttered part of it. I am commissioned by God to put into words the other part of it – that part which the pastor, and also you in your hearts, fervently prayed silently. And ignorantly and unthinkingly? God grant that it was so! You heard these words: ‘Grant us the victory, O Lord our God!’ That is sufficient. The whole of the uttered prayer is compact into those pregnant words. Elaborations were not necessary. When you have prayed for victory you have prayed for many unmentioned results which follow victory – must follow it, cannot help but follow it. Upon the listening spirit of God the Father fell also the unspoken part of the prayer. He commandeth me to put it into words. Listen!

“O Lord our Father, our young patriots, idols of our hearts, go forth to battle – be Thou near them! With them, in spirit, we also go forth from the sweet peace of our beloved firesides to smite the foe. O Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with their little children to wander unfriended the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames of summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring Thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it – for our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimage, make heavy their steps, water their way with their tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet! We ask it, in the spirit of love, of Him Who is the Source of Love, and Who is ever-faithful refuge and friend of all that are sore beset and seek His aid with humble and contrite hearts. Amen.

(After a pause)

“Ye have prayed it; if ye still desire it, speak! The messenger of the Most High waits.”

It was believed afterward that the man was a lunatic, because there was no sense in what he said.

Twain accurately points out that intercessory prayers that ask for seemingly unimpeachable favors 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 massive death and destruction but prayers never explicitly ask god to do this. That would be seen as 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.

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 assist in finding 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 similar blessings from the people of other countries? What would justify such a request? Do people really believe that God prefers Americans to other people? Is God like an immigration officer who checks out the nationality of people before responding to prayers?

All 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, the more groveling the better, 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 even make sense to ask for limited rewards benefiting a restricted subset of people. But this obvious contradiction is not perceived because of the blindness that religion cultivates in its followers. 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 the whole world. 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.

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