Praying for Our Enemies

by Rick Fabian

My tour group emerged from China into colonial Hong Kong the very weekend the British won their quick war over the Falkland/Malvinas Islands colony.

Everyone knew Britain had lost only a few warriors, while Argentina had lost thousands. (Indeed, the Argentine junta would collapse soon afterward.) So I was startled when at the Anglican cathedral evensong, a native Chinese priest prayed at length for the safe return of “our” British fliers and sailors—with no mention whatever of the heaping Argentine dead. Of course Hong Kong’s return to China was imminent, and his prayers showed the feelingý of Hong Kong residents used to growing freedoms under the British, and who were now fearing oppression by a native Communist government. But his bald omission of the Argentine dead felt eerie, and sent me praying earnestly for those myself. Surely Canterbury Cathedral offered no such exclusive prayers that Sunday!

Conflict makes enemies out of brave, loyal, idealistic people as well as out of greedy, treacherous ones. We can thank God that more countries today pursue peaceful trade rather than war and that oppression sometimes dies at the ballot box without bloodshed. But conflicts still abound. In a free society they multiply with diverse opinions and priorities, and only lies or willful blindness can conceal them. When they lead to social breakdown, a journalist can explain every argument, or the complex historý of injury that has driven each partisan to desperate resolve. Because understanding alone cannot banish real conflicts, the nicest strategy is to avoid them, and the nicest way to avoid them is to choose one’s companions and places carefully: gated communities, purist reform groups, like-minded schools and celebrations, gatherings where everyone agrees what it means to mean well. Hence church congregations characteristically conform in political vision more than in other conscious factors—certainly more than in theology, which everyone today knows not to wrangle about disruptively!

St. Gregory’s unusually joins left- and right-wing supporters in the same worship, prayers, social ministries, choir rehearsals, and dinner parties. At stressful times, apparently heedless remarks or prayers can strain this rare alliance: actually, I rather think these mark a heedful push toward that nicer strategy, an appeal for an illusory but comforting common mind. We would surely do better by exploring our different views together, and discovering what really unites us — and could one day unite humankind.

For conflict makes enemies, and churches must pray for them, and pray aloud. Scripture equivocates only slightly on this point. For every psalm asking God to destroy my foes, I find twenty biblical prophecies and commandments for reconciliation. The tale of Adam and Eve’s “Fall” in Genesis 2 expresses mythically the biblical view that humanity’s goodness remains somehow realer, more “original,” than the evil we encounter everywhere we humans interact. And Gregory of Nyssa taught that evil can never limit God and God’s goodness, no matter what terrible works we do. So synagogues pray even for anti-Jewish governments, and orthodox Christian prayer is shaped by living through persecution into public peace. Ours is a tradition of conversion from cynicism to faith, bringing order out of chaos, rebirth out of ruin, though our oppressors thereby escape suffering for the wrongs they do us. The Book of Jonah focuses on this problem precisely: God honors our witness to our enemies by denying our longing for their just punishment. The gospels exhort us to endurance instead of retribution. And Luke’s accounts of both Jesus’ passion and Stephen’s martyrdom—the last passion materials written in the New Testament—say God’s forgiveness absolves our mortal enemies whose evil defies understanding.

Yet we must “make no peace with oppression,” as the Prayer Book puts it. Martyrs have found no nice way to mollify the bloodthirsty mob; soldiers in every war lay down their lives for their comrades and their common cause; generals, diplomats, and police strive to enforce and reinforce peace against all who threaten it; and social reformers promise no peace without justice. Pacifists and militarists do disagree over means to their one end: this too is real conflict. But both belong in church, where both must pray for their opponents, and pray aloud.

How can we pray for our foes honestly together, without denial or emotional subterfuge? Cyprian, bishop of Carthage during the last great Roman persecution, set one classic example as he prayed for those who would soon kill him. Here are Cyprian’s prayers at length (I make no effort to correct his antique male pronouns):

Let us pray to the Lord without duplicity, in tune with one another, entreating him with sighs and tears, as befits people in our position placed as we are between the many, lamenting that they have fallen away (renouncing Christ’s faith during persecution), and the faithful remnant that fears it may do the same itself; between the weak, laid low in large numbers, and the few still standing firm.

Let us pray that peace may very soon be restored to us, help reach us in our dangers, to draw us from our dark retreats, and God’s gracious promises to his servants find fulfillment. May we see the Church restored and our salvation secured; after the rain, fair weather; after the darkness, light; after these storms and tempests, a gentle calm.

Let us ask him to help us, because he loves us as a father loves his children, and to give us the tokens of his divine power that are usual with him. So will our persecutors be stopped from blaspheming, those who have fallen away repent to some purpose, and the firm, unwavering faith of the steadfast be crowned with glory.

We beg and beseech the God whom the enemies of the Church are forever provoking and irritating that he would tame their wild hearts. May their rage subside and calm return to their hearts; may their minds, clouded by the darkness their sins produce, repent and see the light; may they seek the bishop’s prayers and not his blood.

Your prayers are more likely to be answered now, for it is easier to obtain what you ask when you are being persecuted. Beseech the good God, then, as earnestly as you can that we may all confess his name to the end, and that we too may emerge unscathed and glorious from the snares of this world and its darkness. As we have been linked together by charity and peace, and together have withstood persecution from the pagans, so may we rejoice together in the kingdom of heaven.

Finally, at Bishop Cyprian’s trial the proconsul read out his sentence from a tablet: “Our decision is that Thascius Cyprianus shall die by the sword.” And Bishop Cyprian prayed aloud: “Deo Gratias.”

(Cyprian quoted from A. Hamman, Early Christian Prayers)

Rick Fabian is co-rector at St. Gregory’s.

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