The Serenity Prayer
Elisabeth Sifton
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The Serenity Prayer: Faith and Politics in Times of Peace and War* online

The Serenity Prayer: Faith and Politics in Times of Peace and War
Elisabeth Sifton
W.W. Norton
288 pages
October 2003
rated 3 1/2 of 5 possible stars

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This precise book is a fascinating testament to the social and religious interactions, worldwide, from the 1900’s to the 1950’s. One small prayer, written in 1943 by Reinhold Neibuhr, appealed to a complex society fraught with the threat of war for grace, peace and wisdom. The prayer came to be known as The Serenity Prayer; still popular today, many find solace in its very simplicity and directness.

Researched and written by Neibuhr’s daughter, Elizabeth Sifton, The Serenity Prayer traces the origins of the prayer through her father’s earliest theological constructs. It was influenced by Ghandi as well as in response to the fascist mentality of Adolph Hitler. A man of peace, Neibuhr struggled to formulate a prayer that was inclusive and ecumenical in nature, distressed by the increasingly fundamentalist nature of religion.

The general intention grew from a secular committee desirous of a prayer that would respect the religious integrity of all. As well, Neibuhr held an indomitable belief in the separate nature of religion, society and economics as specifically defined in The Serenity Prayer, which urges mutual harmony for all. Today The Serenity Prayer is included in the official literature of Alcoholics Anonymous, welcomed by this group of social outcasts who could not find acceptance elsewhere. Yet the very simplicity of the prayer serves to join all in a spirit of community.

Sifton is a skilled researcher/writer who presents compelling evidence of the ongoing struggle between politics and religion. She includes personal memories and anecdotes that support her own connections with the various participants of debate during those early years of dispute against zealotry and bigotry. The question of authorship is finally put to rest by Sifton’s extensive research. Although the wording has been changed in modern usage, she believes that the prayer is most powerful in its earliest form: “God gives us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish one from the other.”

Neibuhr’s commitment to “loving his neighbor” is evident; in fact, the choice of The Serenity Prayer for common use seems preordained. Unfortunately, as indicated by the author, Neibuhr did not copyright his prayer. Sifton finds the rewording and marketing of the prayer distasteful but is, of course, unable to alter the situation. That said, her father would no doubt be proud of the enormous popularity of his creation, realizing that it is impossible to control such things. It should suffice, regardless of Sifton’s disappointment, to acknowledge that The Serenity Prayer has brought solace to many in moments of utter desolation.

Begun as a warning against fundamentalist zealots, written in a form that is accessible to all, Niebuhr’s prayer has managed to survive Hitler’s fascism, the spiritual and moral crisis that continues to plague the world and any intention to subvert its generosity of spirit. The Serenity Prayer lives on, spoken frequently by those in need of such directness and simplicity, surely more valuable in everyday lives than Neibuhr could ever have imagined.

© 2003 by Luan Gaines for Curled Up With a Good Book

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