As the January 15 deadline passed for Iraq to withdraw its forces from Kuwait, the American people were admonished by politicians and editorialists to seek spiritual counsel about the grave possibility of war. At the request of President Bush, Billy Graham was invited to spend the night at the White House to gather with the first family in prayer and petition to God.
Lest the gesture be perceived as a sign of the president's indecision and own last-minute fears of miscalculation, a White House spokesman assured the press the next day that Mr. Bush was and had always been resolute in his commitment to pursue military intervention for the liberation of Kuwait; conferring with the celebrated evangelist signaled no wavering on this point.
What then was substance of these prayers, and for what purpose have we been repeatedly summoned to our knees?
On the morning after war began, an editorial in The Sun read, ''This is a moment for prayer, for steadfastness, for belief in the rightness of our nation's cause. We go to war reluctantly but resolutely.''
There is always good reason to be suspicious of sudden and widespread outbursts of piety. Churches are packed on Christmas Eve but are sparsely attended on Super Sunday. The most religiously disaffected politicians intone sacred rhetoric when there are votes to be won among believers. Men under the scrutiny of criminal authorities get salvation in a moment's notice.
But these manifestations of civil religion are homely compared to the pernicious nature of the remark in the Sun editorial. Prayer as a prelude for belief in the rightness of our nation's cause is strange business indeed.
If we pray, and yet are resolute in our intention to wage war against Iraq, we appear to be confused about what prayer entails. Certainly we pray for the safety of our families and friends serving the country in the Persian Gulf. Yet the ''cause'' -- of our nation in this critical hour is above all the quick and decisive victory over our enemy. As one Pentagon official remarked, ''Everybody is down on his knees hoping these guys will break.'' America is not being asked to seek God's will; rather with our decision for war already made, we implore God for conquest in battle. This is not prayer; it is contempt for divine wisdom.
The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a man of deliberate piety. In 1933 he made the decision to leave his teaching post at the University of Berlin, even though he demonstrated exceptional intellectual promise, and work within the Confessing Church against Hitler and the Nazis. This commitment cost Bonhoeffer his life in 1945.
Though not a pacifist, Bonhoeffer realized that prayer in a time of momentous political decision had to be itself an experience of crisis and self-inspection. If not undertaken in the spirit of humility and driven by compassion for the other, prayer would amount to a display of utility and indulgence. If not undertaken with a genuine openness to change, prayer would amount to a monologue in which the person is simply talking to God by talking to himself in a loud voice.
Bonhoeffer understood prayer as a spiritual exercise which nurtures forgiveness and reconciliation. While directing a seminary in 1939 for pastors dissenting against the alliance of the German Christian Church and the Aryan policies of the Nationalist Socialist party, he wrote about prayer in a little book called ''Life Together:''
''It is perilous for the believer to lie down to sleep with an unreconciled heart. Therefore, it is well that there be a special place for the prayer of forgiveness, that reconciliation be made and fellowship established anew.''
The praying man, woman or child waits for God's word, and is patient and forbearing in the silence of meditation. Importantly, this waiting carries an ethical imperative. In prayerfulness, we go the enemy, stand beside him, and plead to God on his behalf. Prayer is an agonizing task, for when we pray for our enemy, we are taking upon ourselves the enemy's guilt and perdition, distress and poverty, and we are pleading to God for the enemy's redemption.
Our bombing of Iraq is quickly becoming a sad, vast emptiness. A woman in Baghdad grieved, ''They said it would be like war with Iran. This is different.'' If we are to pray together as a nation, we must learn what it means to pray with the woman in Baghdad, to pray for her children and her welfare as for our own.
But the task of prayer is even more demanding; we must pray for Saddam Hussein. As Jesus said, ''Love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you.'' We may find this an intolerable proposition, but at least it makes perfectly clear that prayer can never be a device for our own military advantage.
Charles Marsh is assistant professor of theology at Loyola College.