Last October, I had the incredible opportunity to travel to Jordan.
It was amazing.
In one day alone we went from hiking at sunrise through the ancient city of Petra to trekking through Wadi Rum in the back of beat up old pickup trucks to riding through the desert on camels and then ended the day of amazingness by camping out under the stars with the bedouins.
I’m not exaggerating when I say it was one of the best 24 hour periods of my life.
But we did a lot of other amazing things in Jordan too – and if you get the chance, I can’t encourage you enough to visit. It is an incredible country full of some of the warmest and most hospitable people you could ever hope to meet.
There was one thing, however, that wasn’t…stellar.
We did a lot of walking.
Like 13 miles just on that glorious day alone. Which is fine because when you’re experiencing iconic sites like Petra, you don’t really notice it. (Except on the Trail of Sacrifice at Petra, which I cannot recommend. It feels like you’re walking up at least 1,000 stairs only to get to the top and realize there’s really nothing special to see. You were the sacrifice being advertised.)
But when you’re hiking up a giant hill in the desert near the Dead Sea and the sun is blazing down on you and there doesn’t seem to be another living organism outside of your tour group for as far as the eye can see, you begin to think, “If this is was how the disciples of Jesus had it back in the day and Jesus turned to me and said, ‘Follow me,’ I gotta be honest. I probably would have looked around at those sun drenched, nothing but rocks and sand mountains and said, “You know, no thanks. I think I’m good.”
Ok, maybe not 100% seriously, but kinda seriously. We had an air-conditioned bus and chilled bottles of water to come back to after every what felt like death defying jaunt through the desert.
Jesus and his disciples had…more desert to walk through.
I would say I can only imagine how difficult it must have been, but I don’t have to imagine. I got a small taste of it and oh my. I have no idea how Jesus and his disciples did it. I mean, honestly, walking up and down desert mountains in sandals just to get to the next town sounds awful. We drove from town to down, but still. All I could think of was, “If literally hiking through desert mountains everyday was what was required of me to be one of those first followers of Jesus, I don’t know if I could have done it.”
Of course, I jest…a bit…but up until that moment, I sincerely thought that was the worst Jesus following requirement I could ever imagine.
And then Donald Trump became President.
And I remembered the words of Paul in 1 Timothy 2.
First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.
I confess: I cringe every time I read this passage and think about having to pray for someone like Donald Trump – an unapologetic, narcissistic, bigoted, racist, fear-mongering, misogynistic, pathological liar.
The idea that I should pray for someone like that seems beyond the pale.
And to be totally honest, I feel like I could exegete my out of this passage if I really tried. After all, Paul is writing these words under the yoke of a tyrannical emperor who could have him killed if he wrote anything other than support for the empire. Paul, you could argue, is just putting out good PR to save his own bacon. And then there are the verses that follow, “Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing…” I mean, I love you Paul, but nope. I can’t get behind first century patriarchal attitudes being sanctified in the name of Jesus.
You see, I can (and do) use my exegetical skills to avoid embracing Paul’s (or who is writing in his name) misogyny (and let’s not kid ourselves, that’s exactly what it is) because 1)he is clearly writing in a particular socio-historical context and 2)as St. Augustine would say, landing on a interpretation of Paul’s words that leads me towards not fully loving my neighbors – and there’s nothing loving about treating our sisters like second class citizens – is simply not the correct interpretation, no matter what you think the words on the page “clearly say.”
And so, why not use the same exegesis to refute Paul’s command to pray for our leaders?
Believe me, I’ve been sorely tempted to do just that.
The problem is even if I tell myself Paul was just trying to play nice in front of his enemies, Jesus also talks about praying for our enemies and his instructions are pretty clear…and unavoidable if I want to call myself a Christian.
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Man, come on, Jesus!! Don’t you know about Donald Trump??
So, I’ve got no choice.
I’ve got to pray for Donald Trump whether I like it or not.
Now, I admit that may not be the best attitude, but frankly, it’s the best I can muster right now. Maybe the more I pray for him, the easier it will become. I’ve heard these sorts of things tend to work that way. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.
So, if I’ve got to pray for Trump, my question is how do I do it? Because a lot of the calls to “pray for our president” that I see on social media often feel like an attempt to shame non-Trump supports into supporting Trump in the name of Jesus; sanctified support which, I gotta be honest again, seems a lot like blasphemy given how unapologetically opposed Donald Trump is to the way of Jesus. And remember: Paul’s call to pray for our leaders is not a call to necessarily support them and what they do.
And that’s a big distinction I think is often missed and, perhaps, one of the reasons so many American Christians feel so comfortable baptizing their faith in the waters of patriotism.
Often times when we tell someone we are going to be praying for them, it’s an offer of support. We say we’ll pray they’ll get a new job or be able to sell their house or do well in a presentation they’re giving or whatever. Our prayers are prayers of support and hope that they will be able to achieve their goals.
Which is not a bad thing in and of itself. The problem comes in when the goals involved are things like marginalizing and oppressing entire groups of people based on the color of their skin or their profession of faith or who they love. Ergo, if we’re not paying attention to where our allegiance should lie – cough…the kingdom of God…cough – it’s easy to be confused by this call to prayer and think we are in turn being called to support the agenda of the empire that rules over us.
We are not.
And that point cannot be stressed enough when talking about praying for Donald Trump (or any president for that matter).
Jesus taught us to pray “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” and as is so often the case – especially now – the kingdom of God stands at direct odds with the kingdom of man – and the kingdom of Trump.
So, when we pray for our leaders and encourage others to do likewise we can’t forget this critical point: God is not calling on us to support the agenda of the empire through our prayers.
But God is calling on us to pray for the leaders of the empire.
The question is how?
I think the answer is two-fold and it’s found in the call to prayer itself.
In Paul’s exhortation to pray for our leaders he makes two critical points that are essential to catch if we are indeed going to pray for someone like Donald Trump.
The first is this: Paul says pray “so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.” In other words, praying for our leaders is a petition for peace. It’s an act of hope that God will bring peace into our lives and the life of the empire no matter how tyrannical the leader of that might be. It’s an audacious and subversive thing to pray for, especially for Paul because in doing so he acknowledges that things are not as they should be, that the empire and its leaders are not leading us down the path to peace. We pray, therefore, so that things might get better, not to put a sacred stamp on the way things already are.
Or to put it another way, in praying for our leaders we are in part praying for ourselves, that in pursuing peace, all our lives will be made better, including the lives of our leaders.
Secondly, and perhaps most importantly is the tail-end of Paul’s call to pray for our leaders. He says we should pray because God “desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” Once again, this is an incredibly audacious and subversive act on the part of Paul because what he is really saving is “Caesar is not saved and does not know the truth.”
And what is the truth Paul is speaking about?
Jesus, who declared, “I am the way and the truth and the life.”
It’s important to catch the fact that Jesus’ claim to be the truth is bracketed between his claim to be the way and the life as well. In other words, the truth for Jesus isn’t simply a set of ideas; it’s a way of life. This is critical to remember when praying for someone like Trump because it would be easy to think we are simply being called to pray that he might be “saved;” that he might come to agree to the right set of ideas or doctrines.
But that is not what Paul is saying at all, at least not completely.
When Paul calls on us to pray for our leaders, he is not simply calling on us to pray they will agree with us; he is praying that Caesar will do the unthinkable: acknowledge Jesus as Lord (instead of himself) and (just as importantly) actually live like it.
That is to say live out “Thy will be done on earth as it is heaven,” live out Jesus’ life of radical inclusion, unlimited forgiveness, and scandalous devotion to the least of these.
Given everything Donald Trump has said and done to this point, it’s incredibly difficult to see him following such a path. But we must pray for him anyway because that is who we are as followers of Jesus.
And who knows what will happen? God has worked bigger miracles before.
So pray sincerely and pray fervently for Donald Trump and all of our leaders, but remember that doing so is fundamentally an audacious and subversive act because God’s kingdom is not of this world.
When we pray for our leaders, we’re not praying for their agenda to succeed.
When we pray for our leaders, we pray that they will come to know the Truth, acknowledge Jesus as Lord instead of themselves, and join us in bringing the kingdom of God to earth, just as it is heaven.
And then we go and live out our subversive prayers so that our Light will shine before others that they may see our good deeds and join us in bringing the kingdom of God to earth, just as it is in heaven.