On Praying for our Enemies

As I walked the airport hallways this Christmas traveling to and from family gatherings, I passed many soldiers in uniform.

Some of them, undoubtedly, were going to be soon heading to our active fronts in the ‘war on terror’ in Iraq and Afghanistan, especially now that President Obama has called for a large increase of troops in Afghanistan. As I passed these soldiers, I found myself praying for them and for the complex and difficult circumstances they face.

My father served in Korea, and then spent his life working for the United States Department of Agriculture. To this day he has a high view of what it is to serve one’s country.  So I, too, got some of that sense, and felt it acutely this Christmas season as we all tried to cope with the news of another Al Qaeda sponsored airline terrorist attack. Thank God the man in question, a 23 year old Nigerian Muslim named Abdul Farouk Abdulmutallab, failed in his attempt to blow up the Northwest Airlines flight as it began its descent into Detroit. Now in the aftermath, with lots of consternation about the Yemen-based branch of Al Qaeda and the role that radical Islam played in his actions, we come face to face to the other side of my sensibilities.

It is simply a fact of my coming of age in the post-Vietnam era that I look with some skepticism upon our government’s motives and means. The horrific treatment of detainees in the unending ‘war on terror’, including turning ourselves into knots to justify torturing specific detainees is only the most recent example of what produces such skepticism. And as I have grown into adult Christian faith I have edged very near to pacifism because I actually believe that Jesus is our ‘clearest window’ into God, and he taught us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, not to kill them.

I know all the arguments about just war, and I am finally not a pacifist because I think there is an important element of the love of neighbor that requires that I defend them from unjust harm, a call to love that may in extreme circumstances even mean that I must use force to do so. That does not mean it is morally good to harm another person. Ever. But my deep conviction about the reality and effects of sin–of utter selfishness and the will to power–in human life give me a Niebuhrian streak that holds at bay my tendencies to follow John Howard Yoder, a well known Mennonite theologian who argued for nonviolence as the way of Jesus.

Yet, it makes me angry to hear how often in churches, and even at our chapel at Luther Seminary, our prayers are offered for our troops and our safety while nary a word is spoken about those enemies we are called to love and pray for. I do not think it is simply a problem at Luther but a problem with the ‘established’ church. The long shadow of intertwining god and nation, faith and civilization, Christ and Constantine, has led us here. Our prayers disclose our idolatry, our supplication at the feet of the god of nation, of war and of defense.

(This cartoon by Pr. Dan Erlander portrays our national obsession with worshipping the god of war).

That we so readily participate in upholding uncritically a nation so poised to act with force and violence, and to use our resources including so many lives, in the service of such violence, makes me want to turn to liturgies of lament.

Such lament at violence and war, and the national obsession with security and defense, ought to make Lutherans nervous. Take, for example, the simple fact of the Lutheran tradition’s founder’s name, Martin. He was born on November 10, the eve of the feast of St. Martin of Tours. He was brought to the church for baptism the next day and was named after St. Martin of Tours. Martin was a Roman soldier who after a vision of Christ in rags, first cut his warm cape in half to share with the beggar Christ, and then cut his ties to the army in order to follow Christ. As the story goes, just before a battle with the Gauls at Worms in 336, Martin determined that his faith prohibited him from fighting, saying, “I am a soldier of Christ. I cannot fight.” He was charged with cowardice and jailed, but in response to the charge, he volunteered to go unarmed to the front of the troops. His superiors planned to take him up on the offer, but before they could, the invaders sued for peace, the battle never occurred, and Martin was released from military service.

Martin is, mercifully, the patron saint of soldiers, which ought to say something about how Christians should regard military service: a witness for peace and nonviolence as a strong preference to the call to arms. Or at least it ought to teach us to say, we are soldiers of Christ. “We love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.” For they will know we are Christians by our love, even and especially for those like Abdul Farouk Abdulmutallab.

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, do not pray for those who persecute us occasionally, but as a basic feature of our everyday, week in and week out reality of worship and communal prayer.  Thus we might ‘practice our baptism’ drowning sin and being born again as we were created: in love, by love, and for love. This love casts out all fear. This love can bear all things. For the love we share is not our own, but Christ’s love through us.