There was a prayer for Ukraine in church on Sunday: “Lord, we pray for peace in Ukraine, and that Putin would see sense.” That was it. There was no mention of the atrocities, the barbarism, the bloodshed, or the seismic panic, dismay and dread of a nation living under terror and manifest evil. Just a terse prayer for peace, and that Putin “would see sense”.
How can one say ‘Amen’ to a vacuous prayer that Putin might “see sense” when the intense yearning of the heart is for his downfall, doom and destruction; that the Lord might dash his head against a rock, as the Psalmist might implore?
The Church of England’s prayer for Ukraine is a plea for peace, for wisdom and discernment, and for basic respect for human dignity. God is the God of the whole world, and so all nations are subject to His will, and the wicked will be judged as enemies of righteousness and justice.
Does the “God of peace and justice” desire the destruction of Vladimir Putin? Does He desire for him to be removed from power, with violence, if necessary?
The Psalms are replete not only with the splendour and glory of God, but also with lament and imprecation. The cursing may offend modern Christian sensibilities, but they can’t just be excused or ignored. Take, for example:
Surely thou wilt slay the wicked, O God: depart from me therefore, ye bloody men.
For they speak against thee wickedly, and thine enemies take thy name in vain.
Do not I hate them, O Lord, that hate thee? and am not I grieved with those that rise up against thee?
I hate them with perfect hatred: I count them mine enemies (Ps 139:19-22).
Break their teeth, O God, in their mouth: break out the great teeth of the young lions, O Lord.
Let them melt away as waters which run continually: when he bendeth his bow to shoot his arrows, let them be as cut in pieces.
As a snail which melteth, let every one of them pass away: like the untimely birth of a woman, that they may not see the sun.
Before your pots can feel the thorns, he shall take them away as with a whirlwind, both living, and in his wrath.
The righteous shall rejoice when he seeth the vengeance: he shall wash his feet in the blood of the wicked.
So that a man shall say, Verily there is a reward for the righteous: verily he is a God that judgeth in the earth (58:6-11).
Let their table become a snare before them: and that which should have been for their welfare, let it become a trap.
Let their eyes be darkened, that they see not; and make their loins continually to shake.
Pour out thine indignation upon them, and let thy wrathful anger take hold of them.
Let their habitation be desolate; and let none dwell in their tents.
For they persecute him whom thou hast smitten; and they talk to the grief of those whom thou hast wounded.
Add iniquity unto their iniquity: and let them not come into thy righteousness.
Let them be blotted out of the book of the living, and not be written with the righteous (69:22-28)
There are many more (eg Pss 83:9-18, 137:7-9, 149:5-9), and possibly most Christians would say these have been superseded by the exhortation of Jesus to forgive those who persecute us and to love one’s enemies; or St Paul’s exhortation not to repay evil with evil. It helps to liberate the Psalter from its association with ecclesiastical decorum, because Jesus and St Paul were addressing individuals, not nations. If we had forgiven and loved Hitler in 1939, the peace which would have ensued would have been no peace at all. It is one thing to ‘turn the other cheek’ in response to personal injury or the malicious impulse to exact revenge; quite another to let a brutal dictator rape your wives, slaughter your children, and incinerate your cities.
Certainly, the Psalms have distinct sociological, political and theological contexts, or a setting in life [Sitz im Leben]: they are the literature of a specific people and tangible expressions of their spiritual experience and history. And that experience includes intense suffering and exile in an alien land. The judgment of the wicked was a profound longing, and the psalmists’ imprecations are contiguous with their passion for justice. An extended imprecation is expressed in Psalm 109:
Set thou a wicked man over him: and let Satan stand at his right hand.
When he shall be judged, let him be condemned: and let his prayer become sin.
Let his days be few; and let another take his office.
Let his children be fatherless, and his wife a widow.
Let his children be continually vagabonds, and beg: let them seek their bread also out of their desolate places.
Let the extortioner catch all that he hath; and let the strangers spoil his labour.
Let there be none to extend mercy unto him: neither let there be any to favour his fatherless children.
Let his posterity be cut off; and in the generation following let their name be blotted out.
Let the iniquity of his fathers be remembered with the Lord; and let not the sin of his mother be blotted out.
Let them be before the Lord continually, that he may cut off the memory of them from the earth.
Because that he remembered not to shew mercy, but persecuted the poor and needy man, that he might even slay the broken in heart.
As he loved cursing, so let it come unto him: as he delighted not in blessing, so let it be far from him.
As he clothed himself with cursing like as with his garment, so let it come into his bowels like water, and like oil into his bones.
Let it be unto him as the garment which covereth him, and for a girdle wherewith he is girded continually (vv6-19).
And the plea for earthly judgment is manifest in the following verse 20: ‘Let this be the reward of mine adversaries from the Lord..’. It’s easy to dismiss such bitter curses as belonging to the devotion of Israel and the Jewish understanding of the cultic doctrine and worship of YHWH, but this is to ignore some of the sayings of Jesus (eg ‘Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword‘ [Mt 10:34]); and the yearning of the martyrs for justice and vengeance:
And when he had opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the word of God, and for the testimony which they held:
And they cried with a loud voice, saying, How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth? (Rev 6:9f).
It isn’t so easy to ‘spiritualise’ such New Testament demands for earthly judgment, or to reduce Christian imprecation to metaphor. They are an unrefined human response to intense frustration, humiliation and despair: a natural desire is for the destruction of those who seek to destroy us. As St Athanasius (C4th) observed: “..most of scripture speaks to us while the Psalms speak for us.” We can pray in the comfort of our Sunday pews in a nice Anglican way that God might help Putin “see sense”, but Ukrainians want God to pour out His wrath upon their enemies. And it is not somehow degenerate or sub-Christian for us to empathise greatly with their longing, or to join them in the hope, or, indeed, their prayer that disaster might befall Putin, and that the power of the Kremlin might be confounded.
Where wickedness continues to triumph on earth, it is emboldened to exact more wickedness. It may sound ‘un-Christian’ or feel distinctly un-Anglican to say, but defending and sustaining freedom and sovereignty sometimes demands a robust military response: God isn’t averse to meting out crushing destruction upon evil people in order to manifest His holiness and sovereignty, or from using other nations to uphold His honour and righteousness in doing so. By all means, love Vladimir Putin if you want to, and pray that he might find wisdom and discernment or somehow might come to “see sense”. But if you have no faith for that; if you believe Putin should be removed from power, by assassination, if necessary, then you might indeed pray:
your Son battled with the powers of darkness,
as Ukraine now battles with the forces of evil.
Help them to drive the enemy out and destroy him,
and may Putin be brought to his knees and fall,
in Jesus Christ our Lord.
He may not answer this prayer, any more than He might make Putin “see sense”, but outstanding injustice awaits the final intervention of God to judge the world and to give life to the dead.