Last week, I chatted with one of the most prominent politicians in Ethiopia. I asked him, “If you could use only three words to describe where Ethiopia is heading, what would they be?”
His answer was extremely sobering. He replied, “Syria on steroids.”
The day after Ethiopia’s civil war erupted in November 2020, the U.S. Institute of Peace published this statement: “The fragmentation of Ethiopia would be the largest state collapse in modern history… would lead to mass interethnic and interreligious conflict… would overshadow any existing conflict in the region, including Yemen.”
At the time, defenders of the war ridiculed this statement as nonsense designed to defame Ethiopia. They insisted that the war wasn’t even a “war” and that this surgical “law enforcement operation” would end quickly and secure Ethiopia’s “prosperity.”
But almost two years later, the bitter truth has become undeniable: this war is mass-producing human suffering and super-charging hate. It has only led to catastrophic displacement, death, destruction, and famine. Sadly, “Syria on steroids” no longer sounds far-fetched.
I then asked the politician, “What can be done, which might actually work, to prevent this from happening?” He’s not a very religious person, and so his answer surprised me.
He answered with one word: “Prayer.”
In March, I gave a public lecture at Calvin University entitled “Could Jesus’s Prayer Save Us from Civil War?” Ninety-eight percent of Ethiopians identity as people who pray. Around 63% identify as Christians. So I argued that seriously praying with Jesus could actually be a way out of this devastating war.
The politician’s answer reminded me of my lecture’s argument. In the rest of this essay, I want to suggest how patiently praying with Jesus every day could actually help heal Ethiopia’s civil war and conflicts in other contexts.
These reflections are based on my forthcoming book Flourishing on the Edge of Faith: 7 Practices for a New We.
- Our Father
When we pray with Jesus, hate for the ethnic and religious other must be surrendered, because God is our Father. In our most basic identity, we are not enemies or aliens. We are siblings in God’s family. Each time we pray, then, reminds us that we are we.
Hate is fueled by a vision that sees the other person or group as unrelated or less than ourselves. When we see others this way, we can drive them away or eliminate them without concern. This is how we treat subhuman animals.
But Jesus teaches us to address God as our shared Creator and thus to see one another as inseparably connected and equal in value. When we address God as our Father, we cut the root of hate and remind ourselves that we are our brother’s and sister’s keeper. This is why Jesus taught, “Love your enemies and pray for those that persecute you, that you might be children of your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:44-45).
- Hallowed Be Your Name
When we take God’s name on our lips, it is all too easy to do so with presumption and pride. We insist that God is on our side and that God will help us defeat our enemies. “God” becomes a weapon of war.
But Jesus teaches us to silence this arrogance by hallowing or reverencing God’s name. God is not our tribal mascot or a weapon for our warfare. God is Holy, the great Mystery at the heart of all reality Who stands above us and condemns our violence.
When we talk to God with Jesus, we are not self-justified and aggressive. Instead, we become humble and acutely aware of how infinitely different God is from us. Like Moses before the burning bush, we remove our shoes and rediscover a passion for human freedom.
- Your Kingdom Come on Earth as It is in Heaven
Jesus teaches that the kingdom of God looks like care for the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the foreigner, the imprisoned, and the sick. According to Jesus, the way we treat people in these situations determines our eternal destiny (Matthew 25:31-46).
Jesus’s descriptions of the kingdom’s VIP citizens are striking: people without the very basic resources for survival, people seen as outsiders and without welcome, people detained and jailed, people suffering and facing death. These people sound like victims of war.
Praying with Jesus, then, “Your kingdom come on earth” places these people at the very center of our hearts. Their security and dignity become our daily desire and the core of our prayer. When we pray like this, how could we give our loyalty to any human kingdom that destroys others?
- Give Us Today Our Daily Bread
Each time we pray with Jesus to our Father, we are reminded that God wills for us to have daily bread. God does not want us to go hungry or starve. Jesus teaches us to boldly pray, “Give us today our daily bread.”
But this is what war has produced and will continue producing: unsown fields, destroyed harvests, stunted children, and starved bodies. A recent documentary on famine and starvation in Ethiopia’s Tigray region is utterly heartbreaking.
We cannot pray with Jesus for our daily bread — bread for all of God’s children — and then wage campaigns that create hunger and make this prayer unanswerable. Praying with Jesus unlocks our empathy and action for others to be fed.
- Forgive Us as We Forgive
Jesus doesn’t assume that children of our Father always sit around a happy table and have perfectly peaceful relationships. Jesus is realistic and honest: we have conflict and hurt each other.
But Jesus teaches us to redirect our desire for revenge and to channel it toward forgiveness and the healing of our relationships: “Forgive us for our sins just like we forgive others who sin against us.” In fact, Jesus teaches that we cannot be forgiven by God if we don’t forgive our fellow humans (Matthew 6:15).
Forgiving one another is the key that unlocks God’s forgiveness for us and our shared future, as Desmond Tutu reminds us. If we think of the other as unforgivable and only worthy of punishment, how can God forgive us? What hope do we have for eternity as we struggle for the dust of the earth?
So Jesus teaches us to begin again with the power of forgiveness. Forgiveness holds on to people and releases the pain they’ve caused us. It interrupts the cycle of revenge and slowly unhostages a new future that seems humanly impossible.
- Don’t Lead Us into Temptation but Deliver Us from Evil
In the moment of Jesus’s greatest anguish, he taught his disciples to pray against temptation. What Jesus meant by “temptation” becomes clear when he’s arrested by an armed mob: it’s the assumption that violence can save us (Matthew 26:41).
Peter pulls out a weapon and tries to start killing people. He crumbles to his temptation. But Jesus resists seeing salvation in violence and cries out, “No more violence!” In fact, Jesus heals the man that Peter tried to decapitate (Luke 22:51).
In this penultimate prayer, Jesus teaches us to disavow that most seductive form of human temptation: believing that we can save ourselves by killing others. Instead, Jesus premeditates nonviolence and teaches us to pray, “Deliver us from evil!”
- Yours Is the Kingdom, Power, and Glory Forever
The final words of Jesus’s prayer are a confession of ultimate surrender. We are not crusaders called to capture kingdom, power, and glory for ourselves. These things belong to God, and the end of all our work is to let go of these power-hungry drives and give them to God: “Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever.”
And who is God? This takes us back to the beginning of Jesus’s prayer: God is “our Father” – the Holy One whose kingdom is for the most vulnerable and whose glory is revealed in the overturning of human values for inclusive belonging, genuine justice, daily bread, and courageous forgiveness.
When we declare Yours — not mine! not ours! — over kingdom and power and glory, we liberate ourselves from the lust for domination that so easily transforms God into a tribal demon and our siblings into alien enemies. Praying “Yours” is our shared liberation.
Dear friends, there are no easy answers or quick fixes for the explosive hate and violence convulsing Ethiopia today. No doubt, many people on each side feel like the others are praying to a fake god that doesn’t exist. An increasing number of young people are sickened by how religion is used as a tool to justify power, and they are no longer interested in this “God.”
But praying Jesus’s prayer can show us who God really is and open a new way of being human together. His prayer is not a dead religious ritual but a powerful spiritual practice that can interrupt war and prevent Ethiopia from becoming “Syria on steroids.”
Would you join me in making Jesus’s prayer your daily practice?
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins, as we also forgive those who sin against us.
And don’t lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
For yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever.
Adapted from my forthcoming book Flourishing on the Edge of Faith. Subscribe for updates here.