This past weekend Rev. Dr. William Barber described praying for Trump “theological malpractice bordering on heresy.” Certainly, if what Rev. Barber has in mind is the sort of QVC Christendom prayer captured in this picture above, then I agree.
Here’s a story from the Washington Post
Looking at the clergy gathered around the Donald, I can’t help but wonder if they’ve shut their eyes not out of piety but, like Indy and Marianne in Raiders of the Lost Ark, out of terror, afraid that the holiness of God will smote them for their idolatrous acts. Let’s not kid ourselves. This isn’t an image of God-fearers beseeching God for God’s providence or peace; it’s a picture of sycophantic partisans wanting Religion, like holiday bunting, to decorate, and so to bless, their culturally-derived agenda. It’s a still captured image of collective cognitive dissonance, seeing the Donald as either a Cyrus-like agent of God’s mysterious ways or just willfully ignoring the Donald’s manifest immorality, narcissism, and ineptitude.
Still, if what Rev. Barber condemns is instead the sort of prayer the Book of Common Prayer gives us, then I’d argue that it’s theological malpractice to judge even the Donald as so beyond the pale to be exempt from our practice prayer:
O Lord our Governor, whose glory is in all the world: We commend this nation to thy merciful care, that, being guided by thy Providence, we may dwell secure in thy peace. Grant to the President of the United States…and to all in authority, wisdom and strength to know and to do thy will. Fill them with the love of truth and righteousness, and make them ever mindful of their calling to serve this people in thy fear… Amen.
And if what Rev. Barber has in mind is this sort of prayer from the BCP, then he might be the one flirting with heresy:
O God, whose Son commanded us to love our enemies: Lead them and us from prejudice to truth: deliver them and us from hatred, cruelty, and revenge; and in your good time enable us all to stand reconciled before you…Amen.
“When you can P-R-A-Y for a president and others while they are P-R-E-Y, preying on the most vulnerable, you’re violating the sacred principles of religion.”
Citing the Prophet Amos, Barber suggested:
“What leaders ought to be doing is challenging the president, challenging McConnell Ryan, and challenging these senators and others and not trying to appease them. Instead, they’re acting like priests of the empire rather than prophets of God.”
Never mind that some of God’s prophets (Isaiah, Nathan) were in fact priests and scribes of the King’s court and that the actual ultimate indictment of prophets like Amos- idolatry- would twist secular progressives’ sphincters into a knot.
I think it’s revealing who Rev. Barber does not mention in this discussion of the president and prayer:
Notice how Rev. Barber referenced the sacred principles of (generic and abstract) “religion” rather than (the inconveniently specific) Christianity.
While I sympathize with his antipathy, Barber commits the same crimes of civil religion perpetrated by his peers on the religious right; that is, his argument is insufficiently Christocentric.
Just as ‘God bless America’ cannot be so easily transmuted into ‘Jesus Bless America’ or ‘God hates fags’ cannot be rendered as ‘Jesus hates fags” it’s difficult to argue that Jesus would not want his followers to pray for a man who, for progressives- admit it- personifies the word enemy.
Given his first sermon in Nazareth, a shameless cribbing of Isaiah, I’ve no doubt Jesus concurred with Amos’ condemnations of the affluent and their consequent apathy and that Jesus would take a dim view of Paul Ryan’s Ayn Randian worldview. But when Jesus stands on the mount like Moses and gives his disciples, the New Israel, a New Law, one of the commandments he issues instructs his followers to forgive, love, and pray for their enemies.
In such a partisan, divided culture, where political ideology continues to prove such an attractive religious idol, it’s difficult to believe the Donald isn’t for progressive Christians exactly the sort of enemy Jesus had in mind. For that matter, Donald-loving partisans just might be the neighbors that Jesus also commands progressive Christians to love as much as they love themselves or pretend to love God.
It’s one thing to pray for an enemy comfortably overseas who will never impinge on anything in your life but the newsfeed on your iPhone; it’s another to beseech God for sufficient civility to love the ignorant, possibly racist, definitely xenophobic neighbor with whom you actually have to make a life.
Barber warns that it borders on heresy to pray for the president, an odd comment from a clergyman.
Surely Rev. Barber knows that 1 Peter instructs Christians “to honor and pray for the emperor” just as surely as Rev. Barber recalls from Church History 101 that when Peter issued that command for Christians to honor and pray for the emperor he had the Emperor Nero in mind, for whom the Book of Revelation marks with the number 666- not a very popular president.
Christians should not be chaplains of civil religion, praying for the president in the partisan sense of festooning his political agenda (to the extent he has a discernible agenda) with the appearance of divine blessing.
But neither should Christians be so captured by their own blue-hued civil religion that they are willing to qualify their allegiance to the Lord’s commands.
Blessed are the poor. Check
Pray for your enemies. _______
I agree with Rev. Barber that Americans should agitate against an agenda that would harm, callously so, the most vulnerable of our neighbors.
Unfortunately, Christianity has “sacred principles” in addition to the principle that we should care for the poor, welcome the stranger, and comfort the victims of our indifference- and caring for the poor, let’s face it, is a principle that is hardly unique to Christianity.
Another sacred principle, not of generic, generalized religion but of the offensively particular Christian Gospel, is that God loves not the good people who care for the poor and welcome the stranger (nor the ones who at least think the government should care for the poor and welcome the stranger for them) but the ungodly.
God loves not just the victims of our indifference but God loves the victimizers too. Indeed God loves them enough to die for them, especially for them.
How can we not pray for someone like Donald Trump then when, Christians believe, Jesus prayed for someone just like him: ‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”
To exempt someone like the Donald from the command upon us to love our enemies risks our forgetting that while we were enemies of God, God died for us.
Just as prayer should not be used as a strategy by Jerry Falwell Jr. and Richard Jeffress to advance their own independently derived agenda, praying for our enemies is not a strategy.
It is instead part of our own ongoing conversion to- which is to say, exorcism from the Red and Blue idols in our hearts- the Lordship of Jesus Christ who commanded us to do so. Scripture doesn’t teach that by loving our enemies our enemies will cease to be our enemies. Rather, in a world of violence whose injustice, poverty, and loneliness is made possible by seeking to determine our enemies for us, the Lord has called us to be his subjects who love enemies.
We do this not because it ‘works’ but because Christ is the Lord to whom we owe our allegiance.