To say I was anxious during our time of corporate prayer last Sunday is an understatement. How would my congregants handle the news of Donald Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis, and how would they pray for him and the First Lady?
It turned out that they must have shared my same anxiety, because no one lifted up any prayers for or against the president’s health. That task was left to me, and as I prayed for the president’s health, I paired that with prayers for those who had died unnecessarily in this pandemic and with prayers that the president’s heart would be open to actions to safeguard American life. Such pairings felt natural to me, because prayer, criticism and repentance are not mutually exclusive; they often belong together.
I first learned this lesson as a seminarian organizer with Interfaith Worker Justice, where I learned about the labor movement and played the role as the “faith guy” in the room for meetings and protests alike. When called to pray, I often prayed for flourishing and repentance together, for economic success that would be shared with workers, for a transformation of a hardened heart to one that was more inclusive and just. It always was a prayer for shared prosperity, and for there to be a recognition of our interdependence with one another. That didn’t mean that I did not criticize the present action of an employer.
Prayer is not a zero-sum game. For progressive clergy like myself, praying for the president’s health does not mean I agree with his agenda. Indeed, I’m often a vocal critic of his policies from the pulpit.
Likewise, contracting COVID-19 does not mean leaders get a pass on their negligence or mishandling of this pandemic. Instead, as a pastor, I still believe in the capacity for hearts to change, especially in moments of great transition like this illness represents. Unfortunately, precious little of that capacity was on display when the president encouraged Americans not to let COVID-19 “dominate” their lives.
At the same time, prayer should not be weaponized. Those who posted on social media wishing the president’s death, or who may have prayed for him to succumb to his illness weaponized a holy act. Prayer, when properly directed, is always oriented toward flourishing. That flourishing often involves repentance, conversion or, at the very least, a cessation of harmful behavior. But this is always done with an eye toward someone’s flourishing.
The Christian tradition is adamant that repentance is good for you and is the only path forward. It would be wrong to read a prayer for repentance as exclusively criticism, but repentance also demands an acknowledgment of wrongdoing.
“Prayer ought not be politicized or used as a weapon, but prayer also should be utilized to challenge those in power to practice moral leadership.”
Politics and this current president especially throw into sharp relief the need for nuanced consideration of our faith. Prayer ought not be politicized or used as a weapon, but prayer also should be utilized to challenge those in power to practice moral leadership, to invite God to be at work in their lives so that they might change for the better and practice the values people of faith hold dear. As Christians, we ought never to cease calling for moral leadership from those in power.
But prayer is not just about the person being prayed for; it is also about the person doing the praying. What type of person do we become when we engage in a particular prayer practice?
This is why prayers for someone to become sick and die, or prayers for evil are always inadvisable. Not because those prayers are likely to be answered — I think it is clear that God would have no trouble brushing them aside. Rather, as we practice prayer, we also are changed. In praying for negative outcomes, we become the type of person who prays for negative outcomes. While someone’s failure or demise may tangibly benefit us, to pray for it puts us on the side of evil, twisting our faith to be a weapon.
But if we pray always for the flourishing and repentance of another, always with hope that their will would align with God’s, we also make ourselves more able to be in tune with God’s action in this world. Prayer ought always to move us more steadfastly into the center of our faith’s high ideals of justice, peace and mercy, and away from vengeance, spitefulness and hate.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that you have to like the person you’re praying for, an acknowledgment that Jesus’ command to pray for our enemies embodies. Rather, it is a proclamation that God is still not done with our world, and that repentance, transformation and good still can come from unlikely places.
That, at least, is my most ardent hope. For prayers often encapsulate our greatest hopes and aspirations, or they ought to. I am ambivalent about whether prayer moves God to action, but I do know it forms us in ways that we rarely understand at the time. Let us endeavor to be those who pray for repentance, for flourishing for all and for the moral leadership our nation needs.
Michael Woolf serves as senior minister at Lake Street Church of Evanston, Ill., and is a candidate for the doctor of theology degree at Harvard University.