How do we pray for our enemies?

Full of questions after Trump caught the virus

I woke up in the middle of the night to the news that Donald Trump had contracted covid-19. I went to bed with the consciousness that he was going into quarantine and I was shocked when I heard the news. I couldn’t go back to sleep. (I know, my phone shouldn’t be next to me in bed, but spare me the lecture, please.) I wanted to wake up my wife to tell her the news. I thought better, and I just texted the pastors on our group chat with “Trump has covid-19.” I tossed and turned with all sorts of thoughts and feelings. “What if he dies?” “Serves him right after he made fun of Biden for wearing a mask.” “Is this God’s judgment?” “Maybe I should be praying for him to get better?” “What would Jesus do?” “What do I do with all these feelings?”

Eventually I went back to bed and when I woke up, I offered this message to my friends and followers: “Reminder that there isn’t a singular Christian feeling you should be having at this moment. Feel what you are feeling,” and “You contain multitudes. It’s OK to have more than one feeling about the news this morning.” I wanted to give people permission to feel all of the complex feelings they had about their President, acknowledging the fact that many of my friends are not supporters of his, and our church’s proverbs and convictions certainly contrast us from him.

Empathize with Trump, but pray he learns to empathize as well

As the day went on, I kept seeing prayers for him that acted like he was a regular person, as frail as any of us. Many people were praying for his speedy recovery. When even the worst of people get sick with a potentially life-threatening disease, I think our empathy peaks. And there’s something to be said to empathize with our enemies. In fact, I think there is something deeply Christian about doing so.

But I was also struck with the notion that, to folks, Trump’s physical well-being outdid his emotional and spiritual well-being, or at least seemingly. My most negative interpretation would be that those other matters are “abstract” and his physical health is the most important thing. That it is “insensitive” to bring up merely political disagreements in a time of crisis. I especially felt sick to my stomach when white pastors and white Christians had public calls to prayer of this variety. There was something dehumanizing about that prayer, though. Not just because it reduces Trump to his physical health (maybe we should have been praying for him to exercise and lose weight too), but also because it asks the victims of his cruelty—of which I am one—to ignore his abuse of them for the sake of his health.

But that’s not the enemy love and prayer for your persecutors that Jesus talks about in the Sermon on the Mount:

But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you so that you will be acting as children of your Father who is in heaven. He makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous.—Matthew 5:44-45

Jesus is calling us to another way of being. And he is not asking us to set aside our humanity to do so. In fact, he names, plainly, that the recipients of the Sermon on the Mount have actual enemies and people that harass them. The Christians that call for the banal prayers for Trump’s recovery are forgetting who he is the enemy of and who he has harassed, but our Lord doesn’t. Nevertheless, he instructs us to act in a different, transformative way, while allowing the sun to rise and fall on the evil and good, and the rain to fall on the righteous and unrighteous.

This is important: Jesus is actually making a distinction between evil and good and righteous and unrighteous. He doesn’t forget that fact, but he also doesn’t allow that fact to turn him toward hatred and violence.

Praying for your enemies doesn’t mean forgetting their victims

When we pray for our enemies, we need to remember the fact that they are enemies of us or of the oppressed. Why else would we pray for them if we didn’t remember that? And so when I pray for the President, I pray for his full recovery. “Praying for Trump’s recovery should be a prayer for his wholeness as a human. Not just recovery, but a full life. That would involve resigning, repenting, and restitution for the harm he’s caused. Praying for his recovery alone is incomplete. He’s been dying for a long time.

This sort of prayer is obvious to me because Trump has used my skin color as a weapon; he has been hostile toward immigrants, and made it clear that we don’t have the “best genes.” His brand of white nationalism and white supremacy has left me out. His hostility toward Arabs and other brown people is something I’m reminded of every day. His inability to condemn white supremacist groups adds to that. Him telling Western supremacists like the Proud Boys to “stand by,” is genuinely frightening for a man like me with children as brown as mine. Victims of Trump’s racism don’t forget their oppression when they pray for him, so in order to pray for him in love, we must pray for his full recovery.

Praying for our enemies keeps us from hating them, and keeps our hope alive that Jesus can redeem all of us. But if we forget that Jesus must redeem our enemies and those who persecute us or oppress us, we make light of Jesus’ teaching. And if we do, because it is too divisive to name their evil, we are then complicit in that evil.

I think one of the reasons that it is challenging for people to pray a prayer of full recovery for Trump, that includes all of his ailments, not just the one he contracted because of his recklessness, is because Trump, for many people in power and with privilege, might be a political opponent, but he’s far from an enemy. Sometimes I pick up on this sort of self-serving compassion when my well-meaning liberal friends read the story of the Exodus. It’s a brutal story, no doubt:

He clogged their chariot wheels so that they turned with difficulty. The Egyptians said, “Let us flee from the Israelites, for the Lord is fighting for them against Egypt.”

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the sea, so that the water may come back upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots and chariot drivers.” So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and at dawn the sea returned to its normal depth. As the Egyptians fled before it, the Lord tossed the Egyptians into the sea. The waters returned and covered the chariots and the chariot drivers, the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea; not one of them remained.—Exodus 14:25-28

God clogged the wheels of the Egyptians so they were stuck in the mud, and then the water came back down and “tossed the Egyptians into the seas” and “not one of them remained.” That’s retribution that came from God to aid his oppressors. My well-meaning liberal friends often feel for the Egyptians, not because they are praying for their enemies, but rather, because they are identifying and relating to the Egyptians. I think God is asking us to relate and identify with the Israelites. When we pray for our enemies, we must do so for them in total, and also with their victims in mind, especially when we do so in public, and especially for our political leaders.

Pray for your political leaders to be saved

In 1 Timothy 2, the writer suggests that we pray for our political leaders:

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.

This passage has been interpreted by Americans to summarily pray for our leaders and for them to be effective leaders. Some people read Romans 13 in a way that leads them to believe that all of our political leaders are appointed by God (here’s my take on that). So for many Christians, they are simply praying for who God appointed. But a careful reading of the passage, in my opinion, suggests something else.

The writer here simply tells us to pray for everyone even kings and people in high positions because they are also “everyone.” They are making everyone equivalent, I believe, in verse one and two, and they extend the kind of prayers we should pray, for peaceable living and dignity. Furthermore, the writer adds that these kinds of prayer are done because God desires “everyone to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth.” This radical passage is actually blurring the lines between ordinary people and emperors, and calling us to pray that everyone comes to the knowledge of the truth, and lives a quiet, peaceable life. Quite frankly, I would love if that came true for Trump. I hope you pray that with me, too.

I admit that Trump’s behavior after he was released from the hospital on Monday evening made praying for him even harder, though. Any sympathy he collected for his sickness he squandered by yet again downplaying the danger of the virus. Here, Twitter itself, flagged Trump’s errant tweet which perpetuated a rumor that the flu was more dangerous than covid-19, and earlier, Trump instructed his constituents to not be afraid of covid-19, which has taken the lives of 210,000 Americans (as of 10/6/20). So even as I see his horrendous leadership and his willingness to put Americans in harm’s way, I’m still moved to pray for him. He needs it, Lord knows.

So then, how do we pray for our political leaders and our enemies? I suggest that we pray for them in total, for their full redemption and transformation. And so if you feel moved by God to pray for the recovery of the President, good for you. Pray for the full recovery of the President, not forgetting his victims, not forgetting his depravity, but calling for his full transformation.

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