Is AA Just For Christians?

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By Barb C.

At the beginning of every meeting of my home group, we read, “AA is not allied with any sect, denomination, politics, organization, or institution; does not wish to engage in any controversy, neither endorses nor opposes any causes.” This statement makes me feel good. As a person with strong spiritual, social, and political convictions, I wouldn’t have lasted a month in the program if AA had supported a political movement, economic interest, or organized religion. As it is, I’ve enjoyed two years of sobriety, spiritual growth, and amazing personal development in AA. I am past retirement age, but have never had a happier two years in my life.

However, there’s a fly in the ointment, for me and a few other AA members I know. It’s the practice of saying the Lord’s Prayer at the end of our meetings. Two people have told me that they left my home group because of this. To me, insisting on the use of a prayer taken from the New Testament of the Christian Bible (Matthew 6:9-13) is a contradiction of AA’s commitment never to be “allied with any sect, denomination, politics, organization, or institution.” As a Christian Internet source states, “Through this prayer, Jesus invites us to approach God as Father. Indeed, the Lord’s Prayer has been called a summary of the Christian gospel.” I am not a Christian. My spirituality does not embrace a personal God in the image of a deity of either gender.

I often attend Big Book study meetings where we read AA’s assurances to alcoholics that they’re free to choose their own higher power: “When, therefore, we speak to you of God, we mean your own conception of God.” We also read, “To us, the Realm of Spirit is broad, roomy, all inclusive.”

When I voice my objection to members of my home group, I’m generally told that the Lord’s Prayer is universal and applies to alcoholics of all creeds and religions, which is untrue. (The people who say this usually come from Christian backgrounds.) Some have implied that I’m being rebellious or controlling – in other words, behaving like an alcoholic. One woman suggested that I bring the matter up for a group conscience vote. I’m afraid to do this because I think I know what the outcome will be, and it will make me angry, and resentment is a feeling I can’t afford.

So, at the close of each meeting, I murmur my own prayer in cadence with the Lord’s Prayer, loud enough for my ears but not loud enough to disturb the group. While this helps, I still feel excluded from the group during the closing prayer. A little voice in me asks, “Why do they tell me I can have my own conception of God and then force theirs on me at the end of each meeting?” Moreover, I’ve often wondered why we have no Jews or Asians in our large morning meeting. Are there no Jewish or Asian alcoholics in Gainesville? Are they, too, turned off by our Christian orientation? Are we unwittingly discouraging people with non Christian beliefs from attending AA meetings?

Recently, I did an Internet search using the words “Lord’s Prayer” and “AA meetings” to see whether other recovering alcoholics shared my concern. I found more than two hundred links. In an e-journal article in Sober Times, a recovering alcoholic wrote, “Prayer at meetings, specifically the Lord’s Prayer, is a long-running hot topic that crops up on a regular basis at AA meetings around the world. To many AAs, the Twelve Steps may be, as the Big Book puts it, merely ‘suggested as a program of recovery,’ but the Lord’s Prayer is mandatory. . . . Insulting people with a prayer they do not believe in, or making them feel apart from instead of part of, is not helpful.” That’s exactly how I feel when I stand in the closing circle of our group and hear the Lord’s Prayer recited by everyone but me.

My Internet search also revealed that many Jews are troubled by AA’s use of the Lord’s Prayer. A website sponsored by Jewish Alcoholics, Chemically Dependent Persons, and Significant Others (JACS) contained an article by Rabbi Steven Morris describing his work with Jewish alcoholics. He says that he’s often asked, “Rabbi, can I say the Lord’s Prayer at the end of an AA meeting?” Rabbi Morris wrote, “The struggle for an answer has been a major focus of my rabbinical studies these last two years.” Obviously, I have company in my concern.

In another Internet article, reprinted from the Journal of Reform Judaism, a now-deceased alcoholic rabbi described how he requested the Central Committee of American Rabbis to address this issue in the mid-1980s. “The response of the committee was that the profound Christian associations of this prayer – particularly because it was prescribed by the founder of that faith – makes its use unacceptable to Jews.” A member of the committee advised, “As it is recited at the conclusion of the meeting, there is really no reason to participate. One can stand in silence, and I am sure that this would be respected and understood.”

An alcoholic who covered the Civil Rights movement in the sixties as a reporter, recently conducted an informal Internet survey of AA members and groups around the world, asking them to answer the questions: “What prayers do you use at your meetings?” and “Why?” E-mail responses came from sober Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Shintoists, Native Americans, atheists, and pagans from North America, Europe, Australia, Asia, and Africa. The responses indicated that most groups in non Christian parts of the world, particularly India and Asian countries, use the Serenity Prayer to close their meetings. A recovering alcoholic in Bangalore, India, reported that the Serenity Prayer has been translated into eight Indian languages and is used in most Alcoholics Anonymous meetings attended by Hindus and Buddhists. Some Japanese language groups modify the Serenity Prayer to omit the word “God.” Even in some primarily Christian countries like Australia and New Zealand, the Serenity Prayer is more common than the Lord’s Prayer. Other closing recitations reported in the survey were the Promises and AA’s Declaration of Responsibility. Native American groups often use a prayer to the Great Spirit.

If AAs are truly compassionate and accepting, why do they insist on closing meetings with a prayer to a God some of us don’t believe in? If I’m encouraged to find a God of my own understanding, why am I asked to pray to theirs? Words are important. If we mean what we say at the beginning of our meetings – “AA is not allied with any sect, denomination, politics, organization, or institution” – we should honor these words in the way we close our meetings.

Copyright © A.A. Grapevine, Inc. (October, 2003)

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