On Praying for Enemies

As I walked the airport hallways this Christmas traveling to and from family gatherings, I passed lots of soldiers in uniform.  Some were no doubt soon headed to our active fronts in the ‘war on terror’ in Iraq and Afghanistan, especially with President Obama’s call late last year 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 circumstance 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, share that sense of patriotism, 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 Umar 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 (shared, I might point out, by President Obama) 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 don’t think it is simply a problem with Lutherans 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 below by Pr. Dan Erlander pointedly portrays our national obsession with worshipping the god of war).  45modernsacrifice 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 songs and liturgies of lament.

Such lament at violence and war, and the national obsession with security and defense, ought to make Lutheran Christians especially nervous.  Take, for example, the simple fact of  Martin Luther’s name.  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.  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: as 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’ll know we are Christians by our love, even and especially for such as Mr. Abdulmutallab.  As the story has come out about this young man, it is as we might suspect a complex tale, one that ought to give us pause if we too quickly move to discard the humanity of our enemies.  As we remember the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. today, brothers and sisters in Christ, we ought to rededicate ourselves to not just pray for those who persecute us in general and occasionally, but by name and as a basic feature of our weekly liturgy.   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.



  1. For what I consider the most striking treatment of this subject, I would suggest Mark Twain’s “The War Prayer”…takes about 5 minutes to read and will stay with you forever.

  2. “The War Prayer” is absolutely fantastic and, I think, fits very well with your comments regarding praying for others. In the book, Twain shows an Angel who speaks the “unspoken prayer”–the prayer that God hears–when we pray for victory and success on behalf of our soldiers. The unspoken prayer is one of damnation and death for the enemy. The book changed my perspective on war and peace. I highly recommend it.

  3. Thank you for this profound reflection. I was very moved by it, and I especially appreciated the call to “practice our baptism.” Bravo!

  4. I am deeply grateful for the thoughtful and nuanced way this issue is addressed. As the daughter of an English father who sought exemption from military service on religious grounds during WWII, I would seem to be a natural fit for a pacifist point of view, but I struggle on every level. I am a member of Pax Christi yet I have friends in the military. The issue of praying for ememies reminded me of the time someone in my parish in our parish started shouting at the priest during a homily when he suggested the war in Iraq “might” have been unjustified. Similarly, when I suggested prayers for the Moslem people who are themselves the victims of terrorists, I was told that might offend some parishioners. I am starting an “enemies” list of my own: people who have harmed me personally or those I love, harmed our country and harmed our world. I can’t expect anyone else to pray for them if I don’t start with myself.

  5. Brilliant reflection which names the elephant in the room we too often ignore. I agree with Rita Ferrone wholeheartedly and appreciate this call to “practice our baptism”. This our work of a faithful lifetime. I serve in a multifaith hospital chaplaincy team with whom I will share this commentary. I know it will be most gratefully received! Thank you.

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