Friday, August 17, 2007

Imprecatory Prayer

Recently the subject of Imprecatory Prayer has come up, as called for by Southern Baptist Minister Wiley Drake. My cohort James F. Elliott is doing a stellar job debating Rhology on this topic in the Religious Idiots and Fringe and Mainstream threads; I'm busy and James obviously needs no help from me anyway.

But I wanted to write briefly about Imprecatory Prayer itself. An imprecatory prayer is essentially a curse, a prayer for suffering, calamity and death to befall the victim of the prayer.

Even someone indifferent to Christian theology as myself knows Christians don't believe they can command Jehovah to curse someone, but there is ample evidence in their scripture to "justify" the belief that he can be persuaded. At least in terms of intent and state of mind, an imprecatory prayer is a threat. The only reason it isn't considered criminal assault under secular law is the recognition that such prayer is ineffective, at least supernaturally.

Furthermore, it shows a general indifference to human life and well-being in general. The implication seems to be that the believer does not directly value the life of others; he values it only because God has happened to not have commanded him—at least not yet—to take it. This does not seem a good way to establish mutual trust: "Good night, Wesley, I'll most likely kill you in the morning."

Imprecatory prayer offends my humanist sensibilities. At the very least, it indicates that the believer desires and would be pleased by the suffering and death of another human being. I find such an attitude very offensive. Even worse, it indicates an intent (however ineffectual) to actually cause (by persuasion) the suffering and death of another. It is, in legal terms, a declaration of mens rea, i.e. criminal intent; again, only the preposterous ineffectuality of the means shields the believer from prosecution.

There is, however, an even more sinister implication to the call for imprecatory prayer: A coded incitement to perform an actual criminal act. Again, even the most cursory examination of Christian scripture shows that Jehovah often delegates his dirty work to mortals through an intermediary religious authority, sometimes contrary to civil, secular law. Jesus himself was executed by the legitimate governmental authorities for sedition and subversion.

It is not too much of a stretch to believe that some believer might feel himself commanded by God to perform this act, and not consider it murder or mayhem (note that assault and battery is not condemned in either version of the Ten Commandments). Since any action has—to the believer's mind—been both commanded by God and sanctioned by a religious authority, he might well rationalize the act as ethically permissible.

This is not idle or paranoid suspicion. One has only to look at Paul Jennings Hill, Timothy McVeigh, Christian militias and hate groups, as well as the growing Dominionist movement.


  1. A quick dip into the boring old Bible makes it abundantly clear that God - in this case Jehovah - doesn't need any encouragement to curse and harry people. Bringing death and destruction to his enemies is his favourite occupation [witness the ME today]. Even "gentle Jesus meek and mild" slagged off a harmless little fig tree, just because it was barren.

    Why anybody worships these so-called deities beats me!

  2. But why does imprecatory prayer show "a general indifference to human life and well-being in general"? It seems no worse than, say, arguing for the criminalization of something nasty. (The analogy might be with taking the law into your own hands in the case of witchcraft, but would be more like informing the police in the case of praying to God, were it not that God presumably knows all about it already, whence I wonder if it's a bit like lobbying for a change in the law, or policing practices.)

  3. (not that I don't believe that those who curse people in this way are not usually horrible people, I hasten to add :)

  4. It seems no worse than, say, arguing for the criminalization of something nasty.

    Given that criminalization today entails the intentional imposition of suffering for its own sake on the victim, imprecatory prayer isn't much worse than criminalization. Of course, I consider our modern system of punishment for criminals to be anti-humanist.

    I would argue for decriminalization of nonviolent victimless crimes (drugs, prostitution, etc.), restitution for economic crimes, treatment and restitution for minor violent crimes and simple segregation (without additional suffering) for serious violent crimes. But that's a post for another day.

  5. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  6. "...Christians don't believe they can command Jehovah to curse someone..."

    Interestingly enough, this is what the 3rd commandment is all about, a fact that escapes most Christians.

    Anyone who knows Yahweh's true name can command him to do anything.

    'To take a name in vain' does not mean 'use a name as an expletive' or 'insincerely swear by that name'. What it means is 'to vainly invoke a name curse'.

    At the time these passages were written, people believed that knowing someone's true name would allow magical power over that person; the habit became to give a child his true name once as an infant, then call him by another name from then on. This would prevent others from being able to invoke a name curse upon him.

    Yahweh, according to the 3rd commandment, is as susceptible to this as anyone else, which is why he commands people not to attempt it.

    This is also why Orthodox Jews use the tetragrammaton (YHWH, which eventually evolved into Jehovah) in place of Yahweh's name... and is also why when Moses asks Yahweh's name Yahweh says, "I am that I am." He wasn't about tell.

  7. Feel honored (I hope), or feel annoyed, but I tagged you at

  8. I've been tagged once, but I'll play again.

  9. In case anyone missed it, Riker's comment is laughable. Perhaps a good response is the word verification for this comment: puturk!

  10. Alex Liddell8/27/07, 12:45 AM

    Why resort to imprecatory prayer? Weren't the fatwas working?

  11. I guess there are some things a Supreme Being just can't delegate. If you want something done right...


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