CGC contributor Greg Jarrell offers this reflection on an ancient tradition of prayer as it relates to our current political moment. Some prayers, he says, demand that we name our enemies. Only when they are so named can healing happen.
When news broke last week that the president was diagnosed with COVID-19, I tweeted that the psalm of the morning ought to be Psalm 109. It was not in jest. While people had varying reactions to the news, the imprecatory psalms give Christians guidance on how to pray.
First, Christians must identify Donald Trump as an enemy: He is an enemy of justice and an enemy of God’s reign in the world. This is not a comfortable arrangement for most white Christians, for whom our society generally works, at least on the surface. If a Trump presidency can be said to have any positive residuals, one is that it has stripped away the veneer that we are all somehow on the same side. For better or for worse, he has made that plain. We are not united in any meaningful way, and the word for people on the other side of that division is “enemy.”
So what to do with enemies? Obviously, there are multiple ways of approaching enemies, and there are multiple attestations of how to think about this in the Bible, including the imprecatory (or “cursing”) psalms, which find expression outside the Psalms as well. The best-known of these is Psalm 109. I think the key for interpretation of that psalm is the last verse, 31:
For God stands at the right hand of the needy/ to save them from those who would condemn them to death.
God’s justice poured out
This is a specific prayer for specific types of circumstances, namely, travesties of justice. The imprecatory psalms are prayers that highlight the works of enemies and ask for relief and for God to mete out some measure of justice. Though the language is strong, these psalms should not be read as being unmeasured or without limitations. I think that they should be read as making a demand of God to be summarized as a claim of justice: “God, please do not spare the wicked from the consequences of their actions.” You might imagine this in the context of the Babylonian exile, which is when much of the book of Psalms was written. A prayer against Nebuchadnezzar would be grounded in the specific actions he has taken, or the specific violence that he has done: making children orphans, pursuing the poor and the needy and the brokenhearted, etc.
In our context, I think that sort of prayer is quite fitting. Trump has built a career precisely on committing evil actions and then avoiding the consequences of those actions. When that evil was confined to New York real estate deals, the effect was perverse, but still rather narrow. That made it no less traumatic for those who experienced it, but the victims numbered in the hundreds or thousands, not in the millions, and not with world-historical consequences.
The case is different now. In “the most powerful office in the world,” the scale of evil has increased. Trump has become both the figurehead and the executive of making children into orphans by separating them from their parents at the border; he has encouraged white supremacist militias into our streets, resulting in murders and ongoing threats of violence; he has ignored the righteous cries of the poor who want basic necessities like health care and food and houses, and instead plundered their labor to funnel money upwards to the wealthy; he has turned others into objects of scorn.
Since February, at least, Trump has known the severity of the disease he currently has. He has intentionally, and without regard for human life, sowed confusion and intentionally misinformed those for whom he is obligated to care. He acted, and encouraged those around him to act, without regard for the seriousness of the disease or for the more than 200,000 people who have died from it. He now may be facing some consequences for his careless disregard. As with the psalmist, I say, may God’s justice be poured out.
In citing Psalm 109, I do not wish on him or his family any kind of generalized suffering; no evil for evil’s sake. I simply pray that he might finally experience the natural outflowing of what he has done. It is quite honest to wish this upon an enemy and the reasons for doing so do not have to be malignant ones. To restore an enemy into communion, or in this case, to have an enemy come into communion for the first time, can happen. As with Saul who becomes Paul, a bit of physical suffering can transform an enemy into a friend. I will hold out hope that this can happen.
Bring down ‘the powerful from their thrones’
I know that some Christians find the Old Testament archaic and hard to understand. It’s worth remembering that the New Testament has some witnesses similar to Psalm 109. The first text that comes to my mind is perhaps one of the most beloved songs in the Bible: Mary’s Magnificat. In Luke 1:52-53, she sings:
God has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
God has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
Mary’s prayer is not simply for the hungry to be filled, but also for the rich to be sent away empty. It is a prayer of both blessing and cursing. It is a prayer for justice. She does not use the prayer to wish Herod good health and good fortune.
Her song, according to the testimony of scripture, is the first song that Jesus would have experienced, while being nurtured in the womb. The vibrations of it would have radiated through her body and his. They would have been singing together. I think that Jesus could hold very well within him this song and his later teaching to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” To pray for a violent persecutor to be brought into communion does not in any way preclude them experiencing the consequences of their actions. Suffering through the basic accountability that humans expect of one another is one of the few ways that a would-be tyrant might recognize himself as a frail human.
Another pastor friend reminded me of Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 11:27-30:
Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgement against themselves. For this reason many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.
Just last week, there was new reporting on Trump’s relationship with evangelicals. In short, he has used them, knowingly and openly. (They know this and don’t care, but that is a different story.) Worse than just using them in a basic, but unsurprising, act of political expediency, he even claimed a conversion experience, garnering further support from white evangelicals. Trump has taken a sacred experience and tried to monetize it, which is precisely the sort of sin Paul mentions in the above passage. He is unsparing in naming the consequences of this, some of which are material in nature. Paul, as well as anyone, recognizes that an encounter with the living God can have physical effects. That is exactly Paul’s story. It is a regular story in the Bible and in human experience.
Praying psalms like Psalm 109 may make Christians uncomfortable. It may seem divisive. But none of this is comfortable. We live in a moment of necessary division. Division creates clarity. No unity without clarity. No healing without justice.