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Go Ahead. Pray for Putin's Demise

Go Ahead. Pray for Putin's Demise.
The imprecatory psalms give us permission to push boldly against evil.

March 8, 2022

I saw an image last week that I cannot shake: a Ukrainian father gripping the face of his young son's lifeless body, which is entirely covered in a blood-stained sheet except for a halo of blond hair. This grief-stricken father presses his face against his son's hair, clinging to him, desperate and broken. I close my eyes to pray and I see this image.

When I think of it, I am heartbroken. But I also feel angry. I brush up against something like a maternal sense of rage. An innocent child was violently killed because Russia's leader decided that he wanted a neighboring sovereign country as his own.

The violence in Ukraine makes me, like many of us, feel powerless. I watch helplessly as tanks roll into cities, as civilian targets are shelled, as the lives of whole families are viciously snuffed out. What do I do with this anger and heartbreak?

As I discussed recently with David French and Curtis Chang, I find myself turning again and again to the imprecatory psalms. Each morning I'm praying Psalm 7:14--16 with Vladimir Putin in mind: "Behold, the wicked man conceives evil and is pregnant with mischief and gives birth to lies. He makes a pit, digging it out, and falls into the hole that he has made. His mischief returns upon his own head, and on his own skull his violence descends" (ESV).

An imprecation is a curse. The imprecatory psalms are those that call down destruction, calamity, and God's judgment on enemies. Honestly, I don't usually know what to do with them. I pray them simply as a rote practice. But I gravitate toward more even-keeled promises of God's presence and mercy. I am often uncomfortable with the violence and self-assured righteousness found in these kinds of psalms.

But they were made for moments like these.

In seminary, I had a Northern Irish professor who lived through the Troubles, the 30-year ethno-nationalist violence in Northern Ireland. He saw violence against the innocent firsthand.

When he was younger and a seminarian himself, he rewrote a psalm for a class assignment. In it, he prayed that any terrorist who made a bomb would have it blow up in his face. His American professor pulled him aside, chastised him for using such a violent image, and told him he needed to repent. My professor, reflecting on this memory, told me he realized then that his American professor had never witnessed unprovoked violence against innocents and children.

These psalms express our outrage about injustice unleashed on others, and they call on God to do something about it.

I strongly tend toward Christian nonviolence and pacifism. But I recognize that in the past, there have been times when calls to peace have been based in a naïve understanding of human evil.

In Who Would Jesus Kill? Mark Allman recaps 20th-century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr's view that "Christian pacifists have an overdeveloped confidence in human goodness; they believe that the gospel law of love is enough to rid the world of violence and evil."

"For Niebuhr," he continues, "such an approach is not only naïve, but heretical." It's based on a view of human nature that is fundamentally wrong: a stubborn insistence that we humans are not that bad and not capable of true evil and injustice.

The peace movement of the '60s often embodied this naivete. With its rejection of the idea of sin and evil and call to "make love, not war," it often turned a blind eye to the depth of human depravity in the world. It assumed that humanity was in an upward arc of progress that ended in utopia. But if we are naive about how dark human darkness actually is, our prayers and hopes for peace end up being flimsy covers for corruption and destruction.

The imprecatory psalms name evil. They remind us that those who have great power are able to destroy the lives of the weak with seeming impunity. This is the world we live in. We cannot simply hold hands, sing "Kumbaya," and hope for the best. Our hearts call out for judgment against the wickedness that leaves fathers weeping alone over their silent sons. We need words to express our indignation at this evil.

Those of us who long for lasting peace cannot base that hope on an idea that people are inherently good and therefore unworthy of true judgment. Instead, we find our hope in the belief that God is at work in the world, and he is as real--more real--than evil.

Tish Harrison Warren is a priest in the Anglican Church in North America. She is the author of Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life

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