Does God answer prayers to do someone ill?
Ever since Pastor Wiley Drake declared not once, but three times, on national radio that he was praying for the death of President Barack Obama, he has been trying to clarify.
Yes, he really does want God to smite Obama. No, it's not a partisan prayer. Yes, it's in the Bible, he says, and no, he wasn't kidding. He's deadly serious.
The former second vice president of the Southern Baptist Convention said he's merely practicing the age-old art of "imprecatory prayer" -- a theological term for praying that bad things happen to bad people.
Imprecatory prayer can turn a verse into curse through reciting Scripture aimed at one's foes. Rather than asking for, say, healing or a win in the big game, these prayers request that God smite one's enemies with -- among other things -- plagues, death and eternal damnation.
"That doesn't mean I spend every waking hour praying for the death of the president," said Drake, who leads Buena Park Southern Baptist Church, near Anaheim, Calif. "Of our prayers, 98 percent should be good prayers and 2 percent should be imprecatory."
Though Scripture says Jesus told his followers to love their enemies and pray for them, the Bible also depicts King David pleading with God to vanquish his adversaries. While famed Christian apologist C.S. Lewis found such imprecatory psalms distasteful and "devilish," even he could not deny their existence.
Derided by some as a bad Judeo-Christian imitation of voodoo, the literal practice of imprecatory prayer has some newfound fans.
Gordon Klingenschmitt, a former U.S. Navy chaplain, posted an online prayer on April 25 that targeted his old foes, the Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State; and Mikey Weinstein, founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation.
Klingenschmitt asked God "in Jesus' name" to "cut off their descendents" and "replace them with Godly people."
The reason? Lynn and Weinstein had chided Klingenschmitt for not identifying himself as a former, not current, naval chaplain on his Web site. Klingenschmitt was discharged in 2007 for disobeying a superior and wearing his uniform at political demonstrations.
Weinstein, who is Jewish, sees imprecatory prayers as hate speech. He has a few words of his own for his fellow Air Force Academy alumnus, Klingenschmitt.
"I would like to beat the s--- out of him in a boxing ring or in an alley behind a Safeway," said Weinstein, who has tangled with Klingenschmitt several times before over what he calls improper proselytizing in the military.
And while Lynn has been targeted before with prayers to do him ill, he nonetheless worries that religious figures who employ prayer as a weapon might inadvertently be condoning, or perhaps inciting, worse behavior.
"With the climate in this country, these prayers are an invitation to violence," said Lynn, an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. "They provide moral legitimacy to extreme hatred."
Yet God sometimes works in unusual ways, Drake and others say. His confession to praying against Obama came after Kansas abortionist George Tiller was gunned down in church. That killing, Drake said, was an answer to his prayers.
For his part, Drake is an equal-opportunity prayer warrior. His intercessory hit list has included Lynn, California megachurch pastor and best-selling author Rick Warren, and former Presidents Bill Clinton and even George W. Bush, whom Drake once maligned for not pardoning two border guards.
Many, including some leaders of Drake's own Southern Baptist Convention, argue Drake and Klingenschmitt are on the fringe of Christianity. Yet imprecatory prayers touch on human needs older than the Scripture itself: anger, injustice and a desire for vengeance.
"I never wish evil upon my enemies," Klingenschmitt said, "but the justice of God is not evil."
Where do these prayers come from? Mostly, the Psalms, which include not only Sunday school favorites like Psalm 23 ("The Lord is my Shepherd"), but also lines about washing one's feet in the blood of the wicked and making the children of enemies wander about and beg.
Long overlooked as the black sheep of the Bible, many of the imprecatory Psalms have been put out to pasture by churches, edited out of liturgy and Scripture readings.
Walter Brueggemann, one of the world's foremost Hebrew Bible scholars, wants to recover these problematic texts in Christian practice. He likens imprecatory prayers to venting sessions with a divine psychotherapist: honest words that function as a safety valve against harmful action.
"We live in a society of suppressed violence that breaks out all because of a thirst for vengeance that is unacknowledged and unprocessed," said Brueggemann, whose latest book is Praying the Psalms . "These psalms are vehicles by which that thirst can be processed in responsible and healthy ways."