One of the most difficult things Jesus ever said was “love your enemies.” And he didn’t stop there. Jesus also said “pray for those who persecute you,” and then you will be like God. So it would appear that Jesus wants us to pray for our enemies because that is what God does.
But if we pray for our enemies, what do we say?
Jesus illustrated his remarks with reference to “rain on the just and the unjust.” Is rain on the unjust a way of saying God prays good things even for people that might be God’s enemy? If so, that would certainly be consistent with “love your enemy.”
Unfortunately, not everyone sees the matter this way. Rev. Wiley Drake, pastor of First Baptist Church in Buena Park, Calif., believes that when you pray for your enemies, you pray for God to do something wrathful to them. At least that’s what he is telling his congregation.
Using Psalm 109 as the basis for his theology, Pastor Drake is calling for what he has termed “imprecatory prayer.” These prayers call for misfortune or vengeance against God’s enemies.
The particular enemies Pastor Drake has in mind are the employees of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. This Washington, D.C.,-based group, we’ll call them AU for short, is dedicated to protecting and promoting a proper separation of church and state.
The problem began in mid-August, when the AU folks wrote a letter to the IRS complaining about Pastor Drake’s endorsement of Gov. Mike Huckabee for president. Obviously, individual persons are free to endorse whomever for whatever. But Pastor Drake’s mistake was putting the endorsement in writing on church letterhead. He also broadcast his endorsement over a church-owned radio station.
In the eyes of the AU folks, these actions constitute an endorsement by the church, a tax-exempt, non-profit organization. According to the law as set out in the IRS code that governs non-profits, partisan politics are not allowed.
This does not mean that a church cannot be involved in politics. The IRS code does not prohibit issue advocacy, unless it supersedes the primary function of the non-profit. The law also does not prohibit voter registration and voter education. Church leaders can invite all the candidates in the race to speak from their pulpit as much as they want. What they can’t do is put a sign on the front of the pulpit with the words “vote for this one.”
Of course, no one is forcing churches to be tax exempt. Any time a church or any other non-profit wants to engage in partisan politics, they are free to do so. They only need to give up the privilege of being tax exempt and receiving tax deductible donations. That’s the law.
Back to praying for our enemies, obviously there are “imprecatory” prayers in the Psalms and in other places, but it just doesn’t sound like something Jesus would pray. I wonder if it’s possible that Jesus, who Christians believe is God in the flesh, would have us now think differently about our enemies.
As one Baptist pastor noted in the LA Times about Pastor Drake’s call for imprecatory prayer, “Jesus taught us to forgive our enemies, love our enemies, pray for our enemies, and he died for his enemies.”
Now that sounds like Jesus.
James L. Evans, a syndicated columnist, also serves as pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.
James L. Evans is a retired Baptist preacher living in Alabama. Over 35 years, he served churches in Alabama, North Carolina and Virginia. In support of his pastoral work, Evans published 5 books including “First and Second Corinthians: Immersion Bible Studies” (Abingdon Press (2011).