Last Friday President Donald Trump announced that he and the First Lady had tested positive for COVID19, sparking a flurry of reactions across the country and the globe. There was some irony to this announcement, following the President’s mocking of Joe Biden in last week’s debate for wearing “the biggest mask I have ever seen”. A few days later, the man who has routinely flouted CDC guidelines and dismissed the seriousness of COVID19, was hospitalized at Walter Reed.
The reaction from the public to Trump’s COVID diagnosis ranged from shock and fear to satisfaction and even glee. For the President’s followers, this illness revealed a sudden vulnerability in a man who has been considered by many to be absolutely invulnerable. For the President’s detractors, there was some satisfaction that the President’s own rhetoric about COVID19 had come home to roost.
In other corners of the internet reaction machine, a conversation emerged with some troubling, if not completely unsurprising, suggestions. This conversation wondered whether Americans should be wishing and hoping for the President’s death. Furthermore, the question arose about a Christian response to the President’s illness and whether the Christian may be justified in praying for the death of Donald Trump, or at the very least not praying for his swift recovery.
Now, this isn’t a question we can easily dismiss, despite some of our temptations to. Imprecatory Prayer, or a cursing prayer, is a totally legitimate and long-standing element of Christian worship and practice. The Psalms, perhaps our greatest resource for the imprecatory prayer, routinely call down God’s wrath and punishment on those who routinely attack and oppress the poor and the marginalized.
3 The wicked go astray from the womb;
they err from their birth, speaking lies.
4 They have venom like the venom of a serpent,
like the deaf adder that stops its ear,
5 so that it does not hear the voice of charmers
or of the cunning enchanter.
6 O God, break the teeth in their mouths;
tear out the fangs of the young lions, O Lord!
7 Let them vanish like water that runs away;
like grass let them be trodden down[b] and wither.
8 Let them be like the snail that dissolves into slime;
like the untimely birth that never sees the sun.
9 Sooner than your pots can feel the heat of thorns,
whether green or ablaze, may he sweep them away! – Psalm 58
The Psalm above is just a taste of the cursing prayers across the scriptural witness. Ananias and Sapphira are another example of people struck down by God alongside the prayerful intervention of the Church. And in the Lutheran tradition, imprecatory prayer was a routine element of Martin Luther’s instruction for the Christian, and we know how forcefully he called on God to punish and curse his opponents, who he saw as enemies of the true Gospel.
But a distinction must be made about the imprecatory prayer, which I fear is missed in the seemingly gleeful cursing of Donald Trump amid his diagnosis by some of my Christian siblings. This prayer, or this form of prayer, is rooted not in our personal feelings about an individual, but in the goodness of God’s justice and the promise of God’s redemption. It is perhaps a subtle distinction, but one that I think makes a world of difference.
Donald Trump has perpetuated and profited from sowing discord, weaponizing the federal government, and violently persecuting immigrants, poor folks, and Black and Brown movement leaders. He has separated children from their parents at the border, bungled the federal response to a dangerous pandemic, resulting in the deaths of over 200,000 Americans, and marched unrepentant towards a devastating climate disaster through policy and rhetoric.
Yes, I believe that our nation and this world would be better served with Trump out of power and incapable of animating and encouraging a dangerous rise in white nationalism. I pray that God’s justice will prevail. I pray that God will remove Trump from office. I pray that his COVID19 diagnosis will teach him humility and empathy.
But, I cannot personally bring myself to pray for his death.
The imprecatory prayer is no small thing, and for myself, I doubt my own motivation and ability to remain focused on Trump as enemy of God’s justice rather than Trump as man I hate. Now certainly, both things can be true. Trump can be an enemy of God’s justice and I can hate him (Christ have mercy on me a sinner), but the minute I acknowledge my personal hatred I cannot help but hear the words of Jesus in my ears.
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. – Matt 5:43-45
Jesus’ words do not invalidate the legitimate use of the imprecatory prayer, but for me his words call me back to that humble acknowledgement that God’s sun rises on me just as it does on Donald Trump. Jesus’ call to love our enemies is maybe the most challenging and yet vital element of our life as God’s people. Without it we are as vindictive and as self-righteous as the rest of the world.
Now to be clear, I would never and will never demand that anyone pray a certain way or think a certain way about this President. There is something unbelievably cruel in demanding that we pray for the wellbeing of someone who is so painfully harming our neighbors, especially when that demand is aimed at those who bear the brunt of his cruelty.
But as for me, I find myself caught in a paradox between the good and holy practice of calling on God’s justice, and the challenge to love even those who persecute me and my community.
Maybe some of my discomfort lies in the perception that some of my Christian siblings seem to find satisfaction, and even a kind of pleasure, in the President’s illness. Whether we feel justified in praying for God’s justice amid his diagnosis or not, it seems to me that our hearts should break at the need. God does not rejoice at the destruction of any of his Beloved, yes, even Donald Trump.
For me, Jesus’ call to love our enemy supersedes our right or our desire to call down God’s wrath. I will pray for God’s justice to be done, trusting that God knows how best to administer. I will pray for health and wellness for this President, not only in recovery from COVID19 but in the transformation of his own heart. I do not do this exclusively for the benefit of Donald Trump, but also for my own. The path that is littered with my own self-righteous condemnation of even the worst among us, leads inevitably to my own self-condemnation.
I know that may not be where you are, and I realize that this position may be entirely easier for me as a straight white man who hasn’t faced the direct cruelty of this President. Perhaps our best option is to acknowledge a range of reactions and practices at play in this conversation. Some of our siblings cannot bring themselves to pray for the health and wellness of this President. Others cannot confidently call down the wrath of God. This is the beauty and the challenge of authentic Christian community.
Wherever you fall on this continuum, I hope that we can all take comfort in the promise of God and the words of the Apostle Paul, that “…all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (Rom 8:28). Love justice, love your enemies, and love God. The rest is in God’s hands.
*Photo by Charles Deluvio on Unsplash