Smite Them, Jesus?
“Let’s pray together. Father God, in the name of Jesus, Lord we’re so thankful for the life of Donald Trump. We’re thankful that you are guiding him, that you are giving him the words to unite this party, this country, that we together can defeat the liberal Democratic Party, to keep us divided and not united. Because we are the United States of America, and we are the conservative party under God.
“To defeat every attack that comes against us, to protect the life of Donald Trump, give him the words, give him the space, give him the power and the authority to be the next President of the United States of America, in Jesus’ name—if you believe it, shout Amen!”
With this prayer Pastor Mark Burns delivered the benediction for the first afternoon of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, on Monday, July 18. The negative responses came swiftly, with the prayer being called “weaponized,” “the most partisan convention prayer in modern history,” and, “the worst prayer I have ever heard.” I first noticed the controversy in my Twitter feed when I read Rebecca Cusey writing, “Dear @pastormarkburns Jesus told us to love our enemies. Not to pray harm on other human beings.”
To my surprise, I found myself defending Pastor Burns. Well, perhaps more accurately, arguing that it is sometimes appropriate to pray harm on other human beings.
Consider a few events in recent weeks.
Montrell Jackson and Matthew Gerald of the Baton Rouge Police Department and Brad Garafola of the East Baton Rouge Sheriff’s Office were killed on July 17. Lorne Ahrens, Michael Krol, Michael Smith, and Patrick Zamarripa of the Dallas Police Department, and Brent Thompson, a Dallas Area Rapid Transit police officer, were killed on July 7. Philando Castille was killed by a St. Anthony Police Department officer on July 6. Alton Sterling was killed by Baton Rouge Police Department officers on July 5.
At least 232 people were killed in an attempted coup in Turkey that started on July 15. At least 84 people were killed in a mass murder in Nice, France, on July 14. In South Sudan, the fifth anniversary of that country’s independence is marred by fighting among various factions with at least 300 people dying so far, and the fighting continues. Estimates of deaths in the ongoing Syrian Civil War vary between 155,587 and 402,819.
All this horror—the intimate personal reality of people being wrenched from those who love them, the large scale of death from war and terror—overwhelms me. And if I at so great a distance from all of these deaths feel punch drunk from the daily drumming of terrible news, how much greater must be the shock and grief and anger of people directly affected by these killings?
Sometimes I want to distance myself from all of this sorrow. But I believe the love of God invites me, instead, to draw closer to the sorrow, in prayerful outrage. As Jim Cotter writes in the introduction to the prayer book Out of the Silence … (Cairns Publications, 2006), “Denial of anger never does any good, and it is mealy-mouthed to pretend that our feelings are more civilized than those of our ancestors.” In my own morning prayers I have been drawn in these days to imprecatory prayers, prayers asking God to smite the perpetrators of these killings, prayers modeled on Psalms 69, 109, and 137.
In a world filled with violence, imprecatory prayer, prayer in which we tell God about our rage against evil and our sorrow over evil’s consequences, is a necessary part of an honest spirituality. Admitting to God our yearning to see enemies punished and evildoing brought to an end is included among the things the Psalms teach us we can say to God (as the theologian John Goldingay suggests).
I can relate somewhat to the kind of feelings that might have prompted Pastor Burns’s prayer. But the reality that imprecatory prayers are appropriate sometimes does not mean that an imprecatory prayer was appropriate this time. Imprecatory prayer stands to the full scope of worship as the fighting of a just war stands to the full scope of governmental action. Imprecatory prayers are appropriately prayed by or in solidarity with the victims of gross violations, like abduction, torture, murder, terror, and unjust war. Whatever one feels, to pray an imprecatory prayer against one’s opponents in a democratic electoral contest is always inappropriate.
In a time of extraordinary partisan enmity in America, with many Republicans and Democrats seemingly losing sight of the deeper bonds that bind them as compatriots, sometimes seemingly even losing sight of one another’s humanity, it would not be surprising if imprecatory prayers bubbled up in people’s hearts every now and then. Church leaders, by precept and example, must teach when imprecatory prayer is appropriate—and when it is not.
Gideon Strauss is a Senior Fellow of the Center for Public Justice and Associate Professor in Worldview Studies at the Institute for Christian Studies.
Photo Credit: Pastor Mark Burns gives prayer at Republican National Convention on Monday, July 18. By Donald Trump Speeches & Events, via YouTube.