Over at Christianity Today, an Anglican cleric named Tish Harrison Warren is urging Christians to pray for Putin’s death. In her article, Ms. Warren admits that she finds herself praying the imprecatory psalms with Russia’s president in mind. “An imprecation is a curse,” she writes:
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.
Well, yes and no.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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Now, I don’t think it’s a sin to pray the imprecatory psalms against Putin. If anyone deserves God’s curse, it’s the man responsible for killing thousands of innocent civilians, wasting thousands more soldiers’ lives, and plunging two countries into turmoil while rocking the global economy on its heels. Putin is a bad man, and he’ll get his.
No, it’s not a sin. But I’m not sure I’d be bragging about it.
Remember what Jesus says about revenge:
You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
This is the difference between the Old Testament and the New Testament, between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant. The Jews were right to ask God to curse their enemies, but Christians are called to a higher form of combat. A good man might pray the imprecatory psalms against Putin; a perfect man would love him and pray for him. Which takes more courage? And which course should a member of the clergy be promoting?
Put it this way. If you look at the Canon of Saints, you’ll notice that the Church rarely (if ever) canonizes soldiers who die in combat. All the martyrs of the French Revolution, the Spanish Civil War, and the Cristero Rebellion are noncombatants who were executed.
Of course, the Church doesn’t say that all soldiers go to Hell. Far from it! But at the end of the day our greatest exemplar—the ideal to which we all strive—is the man who said, “My kingship is not of this world; if my kingship were of this world, my servants would fight, that I might not be handed over to the Jews; but my kingship is not from the world.”
The Romans who persecuted Jesus were thinking in terms of earthly power. So were the Jews, in their way—including the disciples of Jesus. Over and over, we hear Our Lord scold them for thinking only in worldly terms. Peter swears he’ll take up arms to defend Jesus from His captors, the Lord calls him Satan.
Really, it’s not their fault. The Jews had always expected a political Messiah, who would bring them glory in this world. But Jesus offers them a much higher reward. He promises to save them not from the Roman Empire but from sin.
Because His disciples followed His example, keeping their eyes fixed on Heaven, they also won Israel a reward far greater than freedom: the Emperor of Rome bowed down and worshipped the King of the Jews. It’s like what Seneca said: “The conquered have given laws to the conqueror.”
Or, as C.S. Lewis put it, “Aim at heaven and you will get earth thrown in. Aim at earth and you get neither.”
The man whose mind is fixed firmly on the City of God loves his enemy and prays for his persecutor. He does so because he himself is the enemy, the persecutor, of God. His sins are the scourge that tear at Jesus’ back and nail Him to the Cross. Yet He forgives. More than that, He offers to make us perfect, like Himself. And being freed from sin we can say, with St. Paul, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”
When Christ is alive in us, we love as He loves. And, hard as it is to believe, Jesus loves Putin. He died for Putin, just as surely as He died for you and me. He wants nothing more than for Putin to repent, confess his sins, and end this war. That’s what we should want, too.
Of course, if we ask God to strike him down, He doesn’t have to do it. There’s no risk of that. The point is to put on the mind of God. The point is for us sinners to desire the good of our fellow sinners—just like God does.
St. Augustine, expanding on Jesus’ teaching, declared that a Christian “loves his very enemies, and so loves them that he desires that his haters and detractors may be turned to righteousness, and become his associates, not in an earthly country, but in a heavenly country.”
That’s what we should want for Putin. If we can’t muster that kind of charity, that’s okay. We’re none of us perfect. But it’s something to which we might aspire.
What other choice do we have? Well, let’s ask Ms. Warren. She says, “If you’re like me and you gravitate to the seemingly more compassionate, less violent parts of Scripture, these kinds of prayers can be jarring. But we who are privileged, who live far from war and violence, risk failing to take evil and brutality seriously enough.”
That’s a funny way to use the word privilege. But turning back to the war, though, I’ll say this. There are good Christians in Ukraine taking up arms against the Russian army. They’re fighting not because they hate Russia but because they love Ukraine. Those here in the West, who are “privileged” to be far away from the fighting—what right do we have to hate? If the Ukrainians are driven by love, why should we expect anything less from ourselves?
Maybe I’m oversimplifying. Maybe I’m reading too much into Ms. Warren’s article. But it’s never a good sign when Christians make excuses not to love.
Now, if she’d said, “Pray the imprecatory psalms in hopes of ending the war,” it would be one thing. But it comes across more as, “I’m so distressed by this video I saw on Twitter that I relish the thought of God striking Putin dead.” That’s a very human sentiment, but it’s not a very Christian one.
Believe me, I’m all for putting the militant back in Church Militant. But Ms. Warren’s article doesn’t strike me as martial so much as emotional. It lacks good soldierly discipline. Now, if our ultimate goal is bringing peace and comfort to everyone on earth, her advice is sound. But if our goal is to get to Heaven by loving our enemy and praying for our persecutors, we’re headed for a rout.
One last note. I expect many of you are glad to see the clergy putting the fire and brimstone back into their teaching. So am I. It’s a nice break from the God we so often hear about, the Great Babysitter in the Sky who just wants us all to play nice and share our cookies.
Yet the social-justice gospel and the death-to-Putin gospel both stem from the same error: La politique d’abord. They use religion as a means to worldly ends. They fail to recognize what Jacques Maritain called the primacy of the spiritual.
Believe me, I get it. I don’t blame Ms. Warren or anyone else who wants Putin dead (except Lindsey Graham). But, again, for Christians, it’s not a question of what’s natural, or even acceptable. It’s a question of what’s going to get us into Heaven. The thoughts that appear in our unguarded minds don’t need to be splashed around the pages of Christianity Today—or Crisis, or Twitter, or Facebook, or anywhere else.
That shows a serious lack of discipline. That’s our failure as Christian soldiers.
“Let no evil talk come out of your mouths,” wrote St. Paul, “but only such as is good for edifying, as fits the occasion, that it may impart grace to those who hear.” That’s the golden rule of Christian journalism. And whatever truth there may be in Ms. Warren’s article, it falls short of that standard.
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