“Life is infinitely stranger than anything the mind can invent,” so says Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes. These days, the words of politicians are infinitely stranger than anything the mind can invent. Kansas Speaker of the House Mike O’Neal, noted for his recent description of Michelle Obama as “Mrs. YoMama,” is now in the news for forwarding a prayer that some people interpret as asking God for the President’s death.
The forwarded e-mail goes as follows: “At last – I can honestly voice a Biblical prayer for our president! Look it up – it is word for word! Let us all bow our heads and pray. Brothers and Sisters, can I get an AMEN? AMEN!!!!!!” O’Neal’s message referred to a bumper sticker that reads: “Pray for Obama. Psalm 109:8.” The Psalm goes, “May his days be few; may another seize his position.” Although the Speaker’s press secretary insists that the reference relates specifically to the President’s last day in office, controversy emerged among those who noted that the next section of the prayer reads, “May his children be orphans, and his wife a widow,” thus implying that the word “few” refers to lifespan not tenure in office.
While I don’t know the intent of Speaker’s email, and suspect his comments reflect his ignorance, it raises a set of theological issues, raised in scripture itself. The words of Psalm 109, and the Speaker’s email, beg the questions: Do curses count as prayers? What does God “do” with our curses? Do they create a negative field of resonance around those we curse? What do curses say about our vision of God?
Physician Larry Dossey has written a perceptive text on the nature of prayer, entitled Be Careful What You Pray For, in which he notes that 5% of the people pray for bad things to happen to others. No doubt, the figure is much higher if we factor in prayers about sporting events and wars with other nations.
Speaker O’Neal’s invocation of Psalm 109 is nothing new in religious experience: curses are part of the biblical tradition. Deuteronomy 27 pronounces curses on those who dishonor their parents, mislead a blind person, move property lines, and lies with an animal, sister, or mother. Prayers of vengeance appear in the Psalms as well as in a handful of sayings attributed to Jesus.
The question is whether Christians (in particular) should curse other people. Even the first part of Speaker O’Neal’s curse – “May his days be few; may another seize his position” – suggests a number of things:
- Prayer for another’s misfortune is warranted
- Certainty that the other deserves to be cursed
- Certainty that his or her successor deserves to be blessed
- Clarity that those whom we oppose are simply wrong and deserve no respect or good forturne
- Belief that God is on our side and reflects our political viewpoints
Although we can’t separate religion and politics, I think Speaker O’Neal’s comments are a challenge for politicians to be careful about their religious vocabulary, whether it involves calling yourself “the Jesus candidate,” saying that God opposes “President Obama’s policies,” or that “God is punishing the USA for laws that promote same sex marriage.” Such comments betray the hubris – or pride – of politicians who think that they can discern God’s vision for our world. Worse yet, such comments of God’s preferences ensnare the God of the universe – 125 million galaxies and a fourteen billion year evolutionary adventure – in our petty polarizing perorations. God can’t be encompassed by our partisanship, whether left or right. God is always more than we can imagine, and much more affirmative of otherness than we are. They also assume that the God who seeks abundant life (John 10:10) really only intends to bless us and not our adversaries.
Paul Tillich, I am told, once suggested that we should refrain from invoking the name of God for twenty year so that when we begin to use God’s name again, it will be meaningful. Given the proclivity of USA politicians and religious groups to baptize their politics with biblical passages, such counsel would definitely be important for politicians. In a political environment in which politicians, like beauty pageant contestants, try to curry favor by public display of piety, our nation and churches would be healthier if we took a political vow of silence in regards to associating God’s name with our policies. This would please St. Francis, who counseled, “Preach the gospel, if necessary use words.”
Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, pastor, and author of twenty two books, including Process Theology: A Guide to the Perplexed, Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living, Philippians: An Interactive Bible Study, and The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality for the Postmodern Age. His most recent text is Emerging Process: Adventurous Theology for a Missional Church to be released in January. He seeks to share good news in ways that transform lives and heal the planet. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.