By Heather Abraham
During a recent MARTA trip to Georgia State University’s downtown Atlanta campus, I had an interesting encounter with an outspoken and somewhat thought provoking middle-aged woman. Arriving at the Chamblee MARTA station, I met up with a group of women, Jehovah’s Witnesses all, who regularly provide me with reading materials. These lovely ladies are aware of my academic and professional interest in all things religious and have been most helpful in answering questions about their tradition and keeping my library materials on the Jehovah’s Witness movement up to date.
After exchanging pleasantries and materials, I proceeded to the MARTA train and settled in for the twenty-five minute ride into the city. Almost immediately, a woman sitting across from me inquired about the materials in my hand. She asked if I was a Jehovah’s Witness and I replied that I was not a member of the tradition but that I was studying their movement. She quickly informed me that they weren’t “really” Christians and that their movement was one of the many groups of “false believers who are trying to steal the soul of Christianity.”
I did not engage her in a theological discussion but instead listened to what she was saying, asking her periodically to expand on her opinions or to ask about her sources. Suddenly, the topic turned away from the dangerous movements that “threatened the fabric of humanity” to the subject of prayer. Always a subject of fascination and one that I have had little time to pursue, I listened intently as she explained her understanding of the power of prayer.
Apparently, this devout Christian woman belongs to a prayer group that meets regularly to pray for, in her words, “our nation, family, friends, and fellow Christians.” I found it intriguing that the nation would be of first importance but continued to listen (and take notes) as she discussed how these prayers had helped so many and her belief that prayer is the “most powerful human force on earth.” According to her, prayer is dangerous when used by those “who are enemies of our Christian Nation” and that Christians everywhere need to pray in groups to “counteract the evil prayers that are offered up daily.”
Evil prayers? Now she really had my attention! Before I could ask what she meant, she continued expounding on these evil prayers and suddenly became agitated as she talked about how important it is to “pray for the deaths of our enemies, especially if they hold political office in our great country.” I quickly asked if she prayed for harm to come to those she considered dangerous to her ideals? “Yes”, she answered, “Of course. I pray for the assassination of some holding top offices [Obama?]. I also pray for some to get terrible incurable diseases so that they have a long painful death.” Hmmmm… Curious I asked her if she was cursing those she disliked and actually not praying. This sparked her ire and I was quickly and clearly advised, “curses come from Witches, Satanist, and sinners who can’t use real prayer because they are corrupted.” She continued, “asking God [through prayer] to harm someone who is evil is a Christian duty. Curses [on the other hand] are used to attack Christians.”
Unfortunately (or fortunately), my stop came and I continued my journey lost in thought about her curious definitions of prayers and curses. Many questions formed in my mind: Was there a Christian tradition of praying for harm to another? And, if so, from where did the tradition originate? Jesus’ New Testament teachings seemed eons away from praying for the assassination of another. How does one identify another as evil and thereby warranting harmful prayers? When do prayers become curses and when are curses actually prayers? Was this self-identified Christian woman a member of a small community that used prayer in this way? Or, is prayer for harm widespread within certain Christian traditions? Much food for thought and many questions raised.
Upon returning home, I rummaged through my library searching through various dictionaries and encyclopedias of religion in pursuit of definitions that may shed some light on my earlier encounter. According to the HarperCollins Dictionary of Religion, prayer is defined as follows:
Prayer, direct address to the god(s), especially in the form of praise. [In] Christianity prayer has four major dimensions, each of which may predominate in a given situation.
- Speaking to God
- Listening to God
- Attention to God’s presence
- Communion with other people. Prayer with others is basic to Christian worship, and prayer for others (intercession) is common; yet private prayer also takes place within the context of some supportive Christian community.
Obviously, the type of prayer the woman on the train was referring to belongs to the first and fourth dimensions, but how does this definition help in the understanding of the type of prayer in which she was engaged? Let’s look at the definition of curse.
Curse: powerful verbal formula designed to direct misfortune against persons or things. See also anathema.
Interesting, but again, how does this definition assist us in understanding the “prayer for harm” phenomena? See also anathema? Anathema, a word that, for many, entered mainstream pop culture through the quirky antics of George Costanza in the Seinfeld episode called “The Revenge.” George, wanting to improve his vocabulary, would periodically drop a word bomb into a conversation, thus showing his prowess with the English language,
George: Students can’t clean. It’s anathema. (explaining) They don’t like it.
Jerry: How long have you been waiting to squeeze that into a conversation?
Aside from George Costanza’s impressive but unenlightening usage and explanation, I referred again to the AAR approved dictionary of religion for a definition of anathema.
Anathema, In the New Testament, a Greek term referring to a curse. In Catholicism, a declaratory condemnation directed by Church Authority against those who are deemed immoral, heretical, or blasphemous.”
Nice definitions all, but unfortunately, not much help in this situation. Determined to find some information on “harmful prayers”, I did the unthinkable; I asked google. In short order, google revealed a definition and source for harmful prayers—or imprecatory prayers defined as: prayers found in the book of Psalms containing curses beseeching God to punish the wicked. According to Merriam Webster, imprecatory simply means curse! So are imprecatory prayers cursing prayers? Again, many questions and little in the way of answers.
Aside from the above four dimensions of prayer, I also found reference to five common types of prayer: adoration, intercession, faith, petition, and thanksgiving. Given my encounter with my fellow MARTA passenger and the little information I located on harmful prayers, I have to wonder if this is a new phenomena or one that is simply not a subject of study? Should imprecatory prayers be added to the list of common types of prayer? Are prayers and curses cousins that sometime merge? And, if so, how narrow is the realm between them?
I leave you with my many questions, and I hope many more of your own, but also with an example of an imprecatory prayer I found on google. I would love to hear your thoughts on the subject and any source recommendations would be much appreciated.
Incitation to violence, by Chaplain Gordon James Klingenschmitt
Let us pray. Almighty God, today we pray imprecatory prayers from Psalm 109 against the enemies of religious liberty, including Barry Lynn and Mikey Weinstein, who issued press releases this week attacking me personally. God, do not remain silent, for wicked men surround us and tell lies about us. We bless them, but they curse us. Therefore find them guilty, not me. Let their days be few, and replace them with Godly people. Plunder their fields, and seize their assets. Cut off their descendants, and remember their sins, in Jesus’ name. Amen.