When Christians Curse

Foul language varies by culture but misappropriating divine judgment does not.

From ISIS to police brutality to the Planned Parenthood allegations to mass murderers, the world never seems to disappoint when it comes to evil. And for most Christians, there's little practical action to take besides joining in on hashtags like #BlackLivesMatter or #DefundPP. But we can always pray. Unfortunately, not everyone agrees on how to do this.

Sure, we can all skim through the Psalter and pray for the rescue of the persecuted and the justice of evildoers, but there are a number of psalms that ought to at least give us pause before rendering their words on our enemies.

These psalms are called imprecatory psalms. To imprecate is to invoke a curse; thus, the imprecatory psalms are essentially curses called down upon God's enemies. At least 14 of the Psalter's 150 psalms fall into this category. And there are those that would say that these psalms have special significance to today's atrocities.

For example, Stephen Altrogge recently wrote an article encouraging Christians to pray Psalms 10, 17, 58, 59, 69, and 83 against Planned Parenthood. Choice phrases include, "Break the arm of the wicked man", "consume them in your wrath, consume them till they are no more," and "May they be like a slug that melts away as it moves along..."

Ironically, Stephen neglected to include the second part of that final couplet from Psalm 58 which goes on to say, "...like a stillborn child that never sees the sun." Perhaps that's because some of the language in the imprecatory psalms might sound hypocritical as it relates to the enemy in question. Consider these words from Psalm 137:
Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.
Praying this psalm against Planned Parenthood would be like saying, "How dare you murder innocent babies! Only the truly sick and evil would do such a thing! God, please murder their babies." Last time I checked, an eye-for-an-eye was fulfilled when Jesus said do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

But apart from the disturbing double-standard this represents, it reveals an even more disturbing belief: many Christians think that the Bible encourages us to curse our enemies.

One reason some feel justified in doing this is because God is a just God and this world doesn't meet his requirements. That's why in the Old Testament (i.e. the era of the Psalms), we see God's people calling for judgment and him meting it out accordingly.

But we're not God's people; we're his church. And as I wrote a few weeks ago, God doesn't spread his witness through judgment anymore because that's now our job. Before the incarnation, people met God through his judgment. Today they meet him through the person of Christ that they see in us so that, hopefully, they don't have to experience his judgment. 

But that doesn't mean we ignore injustice or shrug as our brothers and sisters get beheaded. It just means that our prayers need to have an eschatological expectation, not an immediate one. Like the martyrs of Revelation, we cry out, "How long, oh Lord?" Because even though God takes no pleasure in evil, he takes no pleasure in the death of those who commit it either.

Another reason some feel justified in praying curses is because, as Paul says, all Scripture is useful. Or simply (as someone argued with me a few years ago), if we're not supposed to pray the imprecatory psalms, then why are they there?

The problem with this logic is that it assumes that a given passage will carry the same significance to us as it did to the original audience. For the Israelites held captive in Babylon, Psalm 137 was a song of promise that God's judgment would bring retribution for all that they had lost, including their little ones. As the father of a toddler, I think I would echo that sentiment toward anyone who would tear my precious girl from me.

But for those of us today who are not held captive by a cruel, totalitarian empire, this psalm cannot hold the same purpose. Instead, it's a reminder that the God who works all things for our good is the same God who jealously rendered judgment for his loved ones. People like Dylann Roof and Vester Flanagan--their judgment is sure. And the families of their victims will be avenged. The Bible's usefulness isn't always measured in action but in passive reflection on the greatness of our God. There's a time to do and a time to be still.

In the meantime, take these words of Paul to heart:
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.
Weep in hardship, lament over persecution, but don't curse those who glory in evil and think that the God who desires all to come to repentance approves. As much patience as he demonstrates, you would think we ought also to exercise restraint in our desires for adversarial extinction. Rather than pray for their judgment (read: destruction), we should pray that they meet Jesus.

photo credit: IMAG1051 via photopin (license)