Praying for the President

(a bit belated, with apology, but I was asked for a response)

I prayed for George W. Bush.

Now, most of you know that I have never been a big fan of the man. I think he was not a good leader, he made horrific blunders that cost thousands of lives, and his policies did damage to international affairs, global health, and the well-being of the planet. I’m not convinced he’s a terribly decent human being. But I prayed for him. Not for violence to befall him; not for a coup to overthrow him. I prayed in the tradition of the Psalms (in this case, Psalm 72): “Give to the King– or President– your justice, O God.” May this man, our leader in this time and place, have the wisdom, humility, and vision, to govern well, to lead with justice, to defend the oppressed and the poor, to seek the paths of peace. I don’t know how well my prayer was answered, but I kept praying it.

Not to toot my own horn or anything, but I consider this the proper way to pray for one’s governmental leaders. Win or lose, like them or hate them, agree or disagree, one should, if motivated to pray, pray that they heed the wisdom of God.

In the past weeks, there’s been talk of another way to “pray” for the President. On “The Rachel Maddow Show,” the host described a marketing campaign which suggests another prayer for the Obama, also taken from the Psalms. The suggested verse is from Psalm 109, which you can read in its entirety here. The verse in question reads: “May his days be few; may another seize his position” (New Revised Standard Version, although I’m betting those spouting it prefer King James, which has a similar translation: “Let his days be few; let another take his office”).

Rachel has a fascinating segment, on YouTube here, where she examines this and interviews Frank Schaeffer, a member of the Evangelical community and author of several books about evangelical faith.

First, I want to be clear that those marketing this idea are quoting the above verse 8, not the more horrifying verse 9 which follows (“May his children be orphans, and his wife a widow”). While that sentiment is certainly inferred, it is not the primary focus of the verse, which may call for bloody revolution, but not outright murder. Hardly a comfort to me, but still worth mentioning.

Second, in defense of the text itself, the whole of Psalm 109 is a prayer, allegedly by King David, ironically seeking vindication against those who seek vengeance upon him. It is to those vengeance-seekers, those people who hate King David, that the words of verses 6-19 are attributed. In short, these are the words of the bad guys against the good guy (although the good guy hopes to turn their words back on them, so he’s not a saint, either). There are actually places in the Bible where the people of God pray for violence and death to befall their enemies. It’s not pretty, but it’s there. Psalm 109:8 is not one of those places.

But third and most importantly, this despicable use of the Biblical text and the concept of prayer cannot and should not be defended, excused, or ignored. To covertly or overtly pray for harm to befall another, for violence or death to overtake someone– not because of their aggression against the defenseless or their oppression of a class of people, even, but because of political differences, this is inexcusable. This is, if I may be so bold as to speak for two religious groups at once, a complete perversion of the Jewish and Christian traditions from which the text is drawn.

To be clear– I have on occasion prayed that a person find peace and relief from pain, knowing full well that this release would only come from death. I have sat with a person who was tortured by every breath, and I have indeed prayed for death to come. I don’t feel great about it (and I always intersperse a little “but Your will be done, O God” in with it), but there is a context in which I think it is, if not okay at least understandable, when a person might pray for another’s death. Not when that person is the President whose policies you don’t like. Not when that person is a Supreme Court Justice you’d like to see out of the way so one who agrees with your position can be appointed in their place. Not even when someone is an enemy. I did not pray for the death of Saddam Hussein; I do not pray for the death of Osama Bin Laden. I do not even pray that great harm befall these people. I pray for wisdom, justice, and peace to prevail. I pray that they experience a change of heart and turn from the hatred and violence that suffuse their lives. I do this in the tradition of the man who taught that one should turn the other cheek, and pray for those who persecute you.

And those violent individuals who do harm to their own citizens and the citizens of the world, they are not the fairly, freely-elected ruler of my own nation. If I cannot condone praying for bloody revolution against them, how much more should we object to praying for revolution or harm against President Obama?

As my friend Jeremy sarcastically puts it, “Yea for Christians calling for assassinations!  UGH. [weeps].”

Frank Schaeffer, the author and evangelical community member interviewed on “The Rachel Maddow Show,” highlights the dangerous nature of this “pray for Obama” concept. He states that the ramped-up political call for violence couched in religious language promotes an extremism that is incredibly scary. “This is the American version of the Taliban… This is the Old Testament biblical equivalent of calling for holy war,” he says in the interview. I am inclined to agree. Whether or not the verse being promoted advocates assassination or ‘mere’ coup, the underlying message is that God opposes President Obama, and anyone else who does so– even, potentially, violently– is acting on the will of God. This is a terrifying line of thinking. The hubris in assuming one can know God’s will notwithstanding, to argue that violence, harm, or political assassination could ever be a Godly or a Christian thing is frightful.

The Reformed Pastor, an Evangelical Presbyterian blogger, puts it this way:

If Paul could tell his readers to pray for those in authority in the Roman Empire– a pagan state that persecuted Christians with some frequency, and obviously didn’t operate according to Christian principles– without suggesting they pray for bad stuff to happen to their rulers, nether should we. We can disagree as fiercely as we can with anyone in authority, without wishing personal ill to come to them because of our disagreements.

Reformed Pastor, who pretty clearly comes at Christianity from a different angle than I do, not only responds wisely and well to this mini-movement, but he rises (intended or not) to a further challenge posed by Frank Schaeffer, when the latter said, “What surprises me is that responsible leadership do not stand up in holy horror and denounce this,” and later, “Where are the people speaking out against this? I don’t hear these voices in the evangelical fundamentalist community. Until I do, they are culpable [should something happen to the President].”

Well, there was one voice, denouncing this madness as wrong, unChristian, outside the scope and intent of what prayer is mean to be. Bravo to him, and to other voices, inside and outside the evangelical community, who join in denouncing (or frankly, even, taking notice of) this mutilation and manipulation of the use of prayer and the words of sacred writings. We need all the voices we can get.

So here’s mine: this is stupid, dangerous, and wrong. May the people who started and perpetuate this movement… may they find a change of heart, and seek wisdom, justice, and God’s peace. I’ll pray for them.

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