On the morning that I learned of the Russian army’s invasion of Ukraine, I was incensed. My sense of justice was offended. It was so simply and plainly and extravagantly wrong that I felt outraged. And so, I found myself hoping that bad things would happen to Vladimir Putin and all his forces attacking the people of Ukraine. And almost immediately I thought, “Ooo, I don’t think I’m supposed to hope for things like that.”
But who can deny that Vladimir Putin’s aggressive act of sending his army into Ukraine, targeting cities and their civilian inhabitants, is an outrageous offense against justice to which outrage is the only proper response? What are the people of Christ, then, to do with their proper outrage?
I am not a pacifist. I accept the reality that sometimes violent injustice must be met with violent opposition. But I also recognize that it is all but impossible to use violence to stop injustice without committing unjust acts in the process. My Christian conscience at this point ties itself in a knot. That’s why it’s always easier to pontificate about injustice than go out into the world and actively confront injustice. Maybe that’s why I’m far more comfortable sitting here at my desk stringing together words than forging out into the world to do something concrete. Though, I do have some hope that stringing words together can also sometimes do something of concrete value.
What is certainly true is that even those whose consciences are tied in knots can do something by praying. I am convinced that praying is action. To pray is to do something concrete in the world. Not only that but also prayer is the one universal calling of all Christians. We may each have our own calling that is specific to each of us, but one universal calling that all Christians share is the calling to pray. When we pray, we can ask for God’s intervention into the world and into its outrages and injustices. But even prayer is not without its complexities and tensions.
I was recently listening to a wise Christian, someone whose opinion I value and trust. He insisted that, when we see others suffering injustices and oppressions, we ought to pray for God’s swift intervention to bring such evils to an end. But more than that, he also insisted that we should not shy away from praying for the destruction, even the violent destruction, of the people who do this evil. As I listened, I was right with him until he got to the part about praying for the violent destruction of the evildoer. Then something in me said, “Wait! He’s gone a step too far.” But am I right about that? Did he go a step too far?
“Imprecatory prayer” is the name that theologians and Bible scholars give to this kind of prayer. Calling down God’s judgment and punishment onto the heads of those who commit injustice and evil is the essence of imprecatory praying. Many Christians make a biblical case for why it is proper for us to ask God to bring an oppressor’s injustices to a violent end. They argue that compassion for the sufferers demands that kind of prayer from us. They point to the many examples of it in the psalms and the prophets. Psalm 10 is one particular example I’ve seen used lately as a model prayer for this moment in history. “Break the arm of the wicked and evil person; call his wickedness into account until nothing remains of it” (Psalm 10:15 HCSB). I have even heard folks who lean toward pacifism pray Psalm 10 with Vladimir Putin in mind.
I’ll confess that the thought of praying like that makes me uncomfortable. And yet after meditating on Psalm 10 and other such biblical prayers and after watching the ongoing rolling barbarism of the invasion of Ukraine, I find myself persuaded that prayers like Psalm 10 do have a place on the lips of the followers of Jesus. But I believe there are good reasons why we should never become too comfortable praying down God’s judgment on other human beings. And here’s why. Although praying down judgment on oppressors is not wrong, it is dangerous.
I have a friend who likes to climb mountains. That activity often involves navigating steep ice fields, narrow ledges, rockfall zones, and numerous other threats to life and limb. Climbing high mountains is not wrong, but it is dangerous. And so, my friend takes precautions. He never goes up a mountain alone. He always takes at least one partner, preferably someone experienced in outdoor adventuring. He always takes an ice pick, crampons, rope, and other climbing equipment. His pack also includes first aid supplies because he knows that, in spite of the best precautions, mishaps still happen. And, if things start to go wrong, he doesn’t hesitate to turn back and cut his climb short.
Asking God to “break the arm of the wicked and evil person” is not necessarily wrong, but it is always dangerous for us. And the followers of Jesus should do it only with great care and taking serious precautions because the distance between seeking justice and seeking vengeance is very short indeed. Our human hearts can cross that distance in an instant. Falling from a mountain peak into a rocky ravine will do serious damage to our human bodies. Falling from the heights of justice-seeking to the rocky pit of vengeance-seeking will do serious damage to our human hearts. Precautions are essential.
Proportionality is an important factor. Keeping my response in proportion to the seriousness of the offense is key. We can easily run afoul of this measure when the emotions of our outrage distort our perspective. There are many things that stir up anger in me at various times. The fact that I am angry about something, even outraged about it, is not in itself an indication that a real injustice has taken place and that I should call down judgment on the offender. On one occasion Jesus’ disciples became outraged at the treatment he was receiving and wanted to call down fire on the offenders. Jesus told them to calm down and move on (see Luke 9:54-56). I need always to check my emotions against the mind of Christ.
Here, humility shows itself as a necessary precaution before engaging in imprecatory praying. Humility helps me to recognize that the intensity of my anger and outrage are not in themselves necessarily a sound measure of the degree of injustice or abuse that has occurred. My emotions and reason are not infallible. My vision is limited. My information may be incomplete or incorrect. Humility should not stop me from praying for judgment to fall upon an oppressor, but it should make me cautious about it. If our imprecatory praying is becoming fertilizer for the hatreds and resentments in my own heart, I have certainly begun to hurt myself. Humility can be crucial to pulling me back.
I would argue that praying judgment down on someone who is committing injustice and oppression should always be public and corporate prayer and never private and personal. We shouldn’t do it alone. I don’t lay this guidance down as a law but as a matter of wisdom. When we pray together with other followers of Jesus, we can guard one another’s hearts.
Love in our hearts is another essential precaution. Without it, we should not pray imprecatory prayers. We are children of the God, who is Love. Therefore, everything we do must be motivated always and only by love. But let me be very clear on this matter. Love can never overlook or turn a blind eye to abuse, injustice, or oppression. People of love can and sometimes must pray for God to “break the arm of the wicked and evil person.” But here is how love works in that kind of praying. Whenever I pray for God to break the arm of the oppressor, it must always be out of love for the oppressed and never out of hatred for the oppressor. Love may well lead me to pray imprecatory prayers, but let me never fail to keep watch on my heart to make sure that it is love and compassion for the sufferer that puts such prayers on my lips.
Let us be well-informed about the injustices of our world. Let us have tender hearts for those who are suffering at the hands of oppressors. Let us be passionate and wise in laying that suffering before our just and good God. Let us seek justice for those who suffer in Ukraine. And let us fervently pursue the day when: “They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Isaiah 11:9 NRSV)
© 2022 Gary A. Chorpenning; all rights reserved; use with permission.