How are the faithful called to handle prayer life in a time when political leadership who oppose our own preferred agendas? Does that change if we assess the leadership as unfit, dangerous, or malevolent? Colbert King posed the question in a column at the Washington Post from the Christian perspective: Should he pray for Trump, and should other Christians as well?
King doesn’t make much mystery of his perspective:
When people of faith drop to their knees for nightly prayer, many, I suspect, find themselves struggling with the often preached injunction to pray for those in positions of public trust.
Are we, they may be asking, to pray for President Trump, the architect of un-American and un-Christian anti-immigrant measures grounded in paranoia and fear of the stranger? That description of Trump’s proposals was supplied by the Rev. Randolph Marshall Hollerith, dean of Washington National Cathedral.
Are they to pray for people placed by Trump in positions of civil authority, such as nationalist Stephen K. Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist; Attorney General Jeff Sessions with his tarnished history on race; and truth-challenged and ethics-challenged sycophant Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president?
Well, when you put it that way … King’s argument seems based on the assumption that praying for Trump is an endorsement of whatever Trump does, and whatever he and his advisers do — even if one agrees with King’s (rather uncharitable) judgment of them. However, we know from the Gospels that this is not how Jesus saw prayer at all. In Matthew 5:43-48, Jesus gave one of the most difficult of all instructions on prayer and love:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Clearly, Jesus did not mean for His disciples to love what their enemies did, or pray that their persecutors succeeded in their actions. Loving one’s enemies does not mean endorsing their intentions. Love in this case is caritas, the self-giving love that wills the best for others over our own desires. Jesus called us to love our enemies and persecutors, but not for any evil which they commit. Indeed, praying for them in love is to ask the Lord to save them from their evil, so that they may return to the Lord as well. This part of the Sermon on the Mount is meant to stress that all people are children of God and have the potential for redemption if they choose it. Jesus then exemplified this when he prayed for His tormentors as they crucified Him (Luke 23:34): “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.”
This teaching applies even more when we put this in the context of political opposition. We are not enemies but political opponents, a distinction that gets lost in today’s hyperbolic and polarized political environment. We are called to pray for each other as brethren, and especially for our nation’s leaders so that they may find wisdom. When I prayed for the Obamas and their administration — and I did — it was not meant as an endorsement of their agenda. Nor was it offered in the sense of, “Dear Lord, stop these people!”, although I can’t tell readers that was completely out of my mind, either. I prayed for wisdom in leadership and for the protection of the nation, imperfectly but still sincerely, despite my opposition to their policies and actions.
To act in love is also to testify to the truth. Offering prayers on behalf of our leadership does not negate our standing to criticize it and demand accountability for transgressions, too, in the hope of producing success and redemption … or the emergence of better leadership when the time comes. Hopefully that criticism stays focused on actions rather than attempts to judge what’s in the hearts of others, and prayer reminds us of the obligation to keep that perspective. Prayer helps us as Christians to focus on our calling to caritas — willing the best for others while participating in the public good in all other ways as well. Praying for our enemies and persecutors doesn’t just address their standing, but our own as well.
So yes, we should pray for Trump, and Obama, and everyone. That is the mission to which Jesus calls us — and it’s not easy.
King offers this as a conclusion:
Trump’s single-minded focus on himself, his dreadful narcissism, is deeply troubling, especially because he seems to be beyond anyone’s counsel. That could spell trouble for the country and the world.
Therefore, on behalf of our homeland, and for the sake of the nation, my humble prayer is that the president of the United States gets help.
It’s a start, it’s a start.
The American people elected Donald Trump as our president, just as we elected Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. We only have one president at a time. No matter who sits in the Oval Office, that person and his/her team needs our prayers — and we need them as well.
Update: As Rosy added on Twitter, Paul expressly called the faithful to pray for those in authority:
@EdMorrissey Yes is also commanded in 1st Timothy 2:2 that we pray for all who are in authority, that we may lead quiet & peaceful lives
— Rosy (@rosiewashere4) February 12, 2017
The verse that follows is especially pertinent in this case, emphasis mine:
I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.
Update: Keep the context of that verse in mind, too:
@EdMorrissey The highest ruler at the time when St. Paul urged prayer "for kings and all those in authority" was Emperor Nero.
— My Sisters Brother (@StuffForSisters) February 12, 2017
For those who may not know, Nero conducted cruel persecutions of Christians, perhaps the most cruel of the pre-Constantine era.