“Intercessory prayer,” a term of practical theology, started trending on social media almost as soon as the news broke that President Trump and his wife tested positive for the coronavirus. Christians offered up millions of sincere prayers for healing for the Trumps, but a significant number of believers also prayed — a lot more privately — for a different medical outcome.
This brings up an important question: Are Christians required to pray that the president recovers and goes back to work? Or is it more faithful to pray that he be permanently kept away from an office in which he has done so much damage to the country? Would praying for his quick recovery and return to power be akin to praying for an abuser to reenter a household?
The Bible supports both options. Prayers for destruction of one’s enemies fill the scriptures. Some passages from the Psalms are particularly vivid: “Happy is the one who repays you according to what you have done to us. Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks” (Psalm 137:9). But the New Testament includes the seemingly contradictory exhortation to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44).
Christian tradition honors examples of prayers for unconditional healing, but also for a tangible display of heaven’s judgment on those who have done evil. When Harriet Tubman learned the slaveholder who had tortured her and many others had grown sick, she prayed, “Oh Lord, if you ain’t never going to change that man’s heart, kill him, Lord, and take him out of the way.”
This is a prayer from a righteous and faithful woman, fully engaged in serving God throughout her life. Tubman knew that if the slaveholder recovered with no change of heart, he would continue to perpetrate evil and cause grave harm. Few could fault Tubman for such a prayer.
But we also have the witness of theologian Howard Thurman. In one of his most acclaimed books, “Jesus and the Disinherited,” published in 1949, Thurman analyses how the responses that allow the oppressed to survive can become toxic. Writing for Black Americans in the lynching era, Thurman contends that fear, deception and hate are natural responses to oppression and can be successful survival techniques. However, he continues, these same responses can scar the soul of the person who harbors them. Thurman exhorts Black people living in conditions of great danger to love their enemies, not because he wants to protect the white citizens, but because he wants to protect the souls of those who have their backs against the wall.
Neither the Bible nor tradition gives us strict answers about how to pray in this moment. This makes it even more important to remember what Christians’ prayer actually is: relating with God, even in confusion. Asking God for a particular outcome is not like telling Alexa to have a package delivered through Amazon Prime. Saying prayers out loud is an opportunity to bring one’s thoughts and feelings to God, while letting divinity have the final say.
The creator might well take our suggestions into account, but the primary result of prayer is not getting what we want to happen in the world; it is getting to know God because we took the time to have the conversation. Theologian Marilyn McCord Adams advised that God considers all prayers — even if they are outbreaks of anger — as “friendly gestures.” No matter what we pray about Donald and Melania Trump at this moment, Christians can know that God was present at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and God is present with each of us.
There is room in this national moment for many different types of prayers regarding the president, even angry ones. Christianity does not demand or require a uniform response. However, if a “prayer” is lifted only on Facebook or Twitter, and not in personal conversation with God, then it isn’t prayer. It’s performance.
Surely we can pray that he finally understands the terrible reality of the virus he has long downplayed. Will he learn from this experience and govern differently? Or will he never change and perhaps go back into his powerful office to inflict more damage? Only God knows the answer to that question.
The Rev. Shannon Craigo-Snell is a professor of theology at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.