Alison Benders, associate dean at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, published a book of prayers in June 2015 called Just Prayer: A Book of Hours for Peacemakers and Justice Seekers. Inside the book is a four-week prayer cycle for morning and evening readings, to support people (and groups) who “hunger and thirst for justice.” Elisabeth Kvernen spoke with Alison about the role of prayer in bringing about justice.
Your book, Just Prayer, is a collection of prayers focused on the theme of justice. What inspired you to write this book?
I was inspired to write Just Prayer because I love following the liturgy of the hours for personal and shared prayer. When I pray according to this ancient tradition, I am connected to those who pray daily around the world. The rhythms of the psalms and the prayer responses in this liturgy shape my understanding of the world, and give me words for what I experience.
In recent years, I’ve also become more aware of the suffering experienced around the world due to injustice and inequality. It seemed only fitting to create a regular practice of prayer that would help shape our sensitivity to injustice, and help transform our minds and hearts to better embody the kingdom values of justice and peace.
What life experiences shaped your perception and understanding of justice in the world?
My understanding of justice and the longing for a more just world began with my parents’ witness. This book is dedicated to them. As a law professor, my father was passionately engaged in teaching generations of law students about civil rights and economic justice, both in theory and practice. My mother was a community leader and later the mayor of Shaker Heights, a city known for its commitment to racial integration.
My parents were also influenced by the Second Vatican Council. The value of the “common good” came alive in their choices of home, friends, and professions. Their influence has greatly shaped the way I approach the world, and I hope to live up to their example.
You discuss the need for individuals to change their habits and beliefs in order to move toward a more just way of living. What is the role of prayer in this process? How can prayer help us live more justly?
Prayer supports the process of transformation in two ways. First, prayer transforms us because it anchors us in God’s grace. God’s grace permeates us and, when we open ourselves to it, allows us to move beyond our individual limitations. Prayer is the daily practice of opening ourselves up to God’s grace and love.
Second, I selected these “just prayers” to help readers (and myself) internalize what a just community looks and feels like. I am convinced that human beings are co-creators with God of the future promise of a new heaven and new earth. Our hearts are formed through the readings, specifically the petitions, and this personal transformation is the first step to creating a more just world.
How do we make sure that justice isn’t just something we give a nod to in our theology, but something we incorporate into our lives?
This is the most difficult question of all. How do we move from knowing what’s just to doing what’s just? I believe we can incorporate a new understanding of justice into our lives by a two-fold intentional practice. We must first seek out experiences that introduce us to people and situations of injustice. We must become aware of the extent to which human beings are causing human suffering—mostly on a systemic level—in the laws, customs, and practices of our human institutions.
Second, we must reflect on these situations through the lens of justice and peace, bringing them to prayer. Some call this cycle “theological reflection,” and there are many variations of this practice. Just Prayer offers a structured method of theological reflection. This book is particularly appropriate for groups who are active in the work of peace and justice, because it highlights injustice at the community and societal levels.
What is the role of lament in seeking justice? How is repentance an important part of seeking justice?
I organized Just Prayer around four themes—Justice Ordained, Justice Lamented, Justice Practiced, and Justice Celebrated. These themes build on each other, and outline a path of growing awareness and transformation. Rarely are we transformed by ideas; people need experiences, which in turn lead to new understanding and actions. Each of the four weeks points to a real human experience in the world, hopefully supplemented by actual encounter.
Lament gives voice to the suffering caused by humanity’s failure to live as God’s just community. When we feel the suffering of others, our hearts are engaged—maybe even enraged—and action becomes more likely and more sustainable. Repentance follows from acknowledging the suffering due to injustice of all sorts. All of us are responsible on some level for the perpetuation of societal evils. Prayers of repentance are the daily acknowledgement of our need for forgiveness and grace, as well as the continual recommitment of our hearts to act justly.
How do you anticipate groups using Just Prayer?
I hope that youth groups, mission and service participants, and congregations will use Just Prayer as a way to deepen their work for justice and peace. Shared prayer, even more than individual prayer, sheds new and unexpected light on our own situation, helping us grow in ways we couldn’t imagine. Specifically, the morning and evening petitions presume that people are actively engaged in community service. The petitions invite participants to pray specifically about what they will and have experienced each day. Additionally, I envision that groups will add readings, songs, and prayers to the liturgy that more directly emerge from their own heritage or the work they are doing. The prayer book is a framework that groups can use to create more transformative experiences, always in and through God’s grace.