Until last week, “imprecatory prayer” was not in many people’s vocabularies.
But then the Rev. Wiley S. Drake, pastor of the First Southern Baptist Church of Buena Park, urged his supporters to use Psalm 109 to focus prayers directed at the “enemies of God” -- including the leaders of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
Drake was urging the use of imprecatory prayer -- prayers for another’s misfortune or for vengeance against God’s enemies. Now such prayer is the talk of blogs and letters to the editor.
The controversy flared Aug. 14, the day the Washington-based group asked the Internal Revenue Service to probe the tax-exempt status of Drake’s congregation.
Churches, as tax-exempt organizations, are prohibited from campaigning for candidates. Drake had earlier issued a statement on a church letterhead endorsing former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Republican presidential candidate.
Drake told his supporters that he attempted to talk to Americans United for the Separation of Church and State about the issue. He cited a verse from the Gospel of Matthew that says “if your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you.” Drake said his efforts were rebuffed.
“Now that all efforts have been exhausted, we must begin our Imprecatory Prayer, at the key points of the parliamentary role in the earth where we live,” Drake wrote.
Under the heading, “HOW TO PRAY,” he listed all 31 verses of Psalm 109, in which King David appeals to divine justice. Drake provided his congregation the King James Version of the psalm, including Verse 9, which says: Let his children be fatherless, and his wife a widow.
On the advice of his attorneys, Drake has since declined to be interviewed.
Experts in Scripture say it’s easy to misread David’s intentions and the purpose of imprecatory prayer in general.
There needs to be a distinction between one’s personal enemies and the enemies of God, said Sister Thomas Bernard MacConnell, founder of the Spirituality Center on the campus of Mount St. Mary’s College and a veteran teacher of spiritual direction.
“It is very possible that my enemies are not God’s enemies,” she said. Referring to Drake’s targets, she added, “Who is to say that those people are God’s enemies?”
The Rev. Kurt Fredrickson, who directs doctoral programs for 700 working pastors from around the world at Fuller Theological Seminary, says imprecatory prayers are atypical.
“They are more of a window into the sinfulness of human beings,” said Fredrickson, an assistant professor of pastoral ministry at the Pasadena school. “Normally when we think about praying, we’re thinking about prayers of adoration, prayers of confession, prayers for someone we’re concerned about who is sick or going through a hard time, or those sort of prayers for ourselves -- not the sort of vindictive, revengeful statements. These prayers are contrary to the way of Jesus.”
Clearly, David is angry in Psalm 109, he said. But David’s words are less an example for others than a window into the troubled king’s mind. As Fredrickson put it, “Is this David just letting off steam?”
Fredrickson said when his daughter was going through a tough time a year ago when her kidneys shut down, he sometimes was so “mad at God” that he said things he wouldn’t want to see in print. (He was able to donate one of his kidneys to save her life.)
Scripture, especially the psalms, gives humans “permission,” in the worst of times, just to be human, as David is in Psalm 109, he said. That’s the wonderful thing about the psalms, he said.
The Rev. John Goldingay, a professor of the Old Testament at Fuller, said that one value of imprecatory prayer is that it asks God to take action -- not for humans to take matters into their own hands.
“When you’re calling down trouble, calamity and disaster on somebody else, you’re saying to God, ‘You’ve got to bring trouble on those people,’ ” he said. “It’s not just asking for trouble because you don’t like them or you’re a nasty person. You’re asking for justice.”
Other faiths take varying views of such prayers.
Imam Ali Siddiqui, of the Islamic Society of Corona/Norco in Corona, said there was no tradition of imprecatory prayer in Islam. But there is a prayer in which the believer asks Allah to “liberate me from people who are trying to hurt me,” Siddiqui said.
He told a story about the Prophet Muhammad that embodies the opposite of imprecatory prayer: A woman used to throw trash at the prophet. Once she did not come to abuse him, so Muhammad inquired about her. Upon learning that she was ill, he went to see her and prayed for her well-being.
Rabbi Stephen Julius Stein, of Wilshire Boulevard Temple, said the kind of prayer called for by Drake is not “normative” in Jewish tradition.
“We ask God certainly to do justice and to bring those who are errant to justice, but what I would consider an imprecatory prayer is not normative in Judaism,” he said. “There is a difference between saying, ‘May the wicked be brought to justice,’ and ‘May John Smith be cursed.’ When we start naming names, that takes ‘prayer’ to an entirely different level.”
The Rev. Dickson Yagi, a Southern Baptist pastor and an expert on Buddhism, says in some streams of esoteric Buddhism, such as Shingon and Tendai, adherents perform a fire ritual as the main worship.
He said Kukai, founder of Shingon Buddhism, established this ritual in Kyoto, when the city was the Japanese capital, and used it to curse an enemy when two men claimed the title of emperor.
Kukai backed one and cursed the fake emperor, who as a result, the story goes, went mad and died.
When Yagi asked a Shingon priest friend in Japan whether his priests practiced that form of curse with their fire ritual, the priest told Yagi: “No, we don’t do those things, but there is a rumor that some monks were cursing the Americans during Wold War II with the fire ritual.”
Speaking of the raw language of Psalm 109, Yagi said his denomination has no tradition of using prayer to curse anyone.
“This would be quite shocking to all Southern Baptists,” he said.
“In the New Testament, Jesus Christ comes and says, ‘Forgive your enemies, pray for your enemies, love your enemies,’ ” Yagi said. “This idea of enemies has really changed in the New Testament. We cannot do those things, because Jesus Christ taught us to forgive our enemies, love our enemies, pray for our enemies and he died for his enemies.”
One in a series of occasional stories on prayer
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“Let his days be few”
Excerpts from Psalm 109, the King James Version:
Let his days be few; and let another take his office.
Let his children be fatherless, and his wife a widow.
Let his children be continually vagabonds, and beg: let them seek their bread also out of their desolate places.
Let the extortioner catch all that he hath; and let the strangers spoil his labor.
Let there be none to extend mercy unto him: neither let there be any to favor his fatherless children.
Let his posterity be cut off; and in the generation following let their name be blotted out.