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. (1 Timothy 2:1-4 NRSV)
Christian believers who desire also to be citizens live in the tension between Romans 13 and Revelation 13. In that Romans passage, Paul, using stark and unequivocal language, directs his readers to live in subjection to governing authorities, instituted as they are by God and guarantors of the good. Paul’s counsel, taken on its own and with no larger scriptural context, has had drastic consequences for believers, whenever subjection to authority has devolved into rank subjugation, unquestioning, nonnegotiable. Christians have thus at critical times rolled over for all the wrong rulers. Enters then the dreamscape of the New Testament, the Book of Revelation, a worthy caveat, or even complete counter-argument, to Paul’s testimony. The governing authority whom Revelation 13 describes is no blessing; it is The Beast. As such its authority stands under God’s judgment, and all that it can claim from the faithful is resistance.
Paul probably wrote the Epistle to the Romans at the moment when Nero was the Roman emperor, and Nero’s bad behavior in office drew no praise from his friends, let alone from his enemies. Paul, however, refuses to identify Nero as the enemy, bad as this emperor was for the Roman city and empire, and for his newfound scapegoats, the Christians. Paul opts instead for honor and respect toward the emperor, not vitriol and disgust. Nero may regard us as the enemy, but we do not return the favor. Or alternatively, to put it in Jesus’ words, enemies are the people for whom we pray. The next generation of Paul’s influence, given expression in the Pastoral Epistles, exhorts believers to offer “supplications, prayers, petitions, and thanksgivings” for those in authority, as cited from 1 Timothy at the head of this post.
I have heard about a fad taking root in some parts our Church, a decision not to pray for Donald Trump by name when he becomes president. What an odd, un-Anglican, ahistorical, and impersonal decision. Since 1559, the Prayer Book office prayer “For the King’s Majesty” (or the Queen’s) has always included the monarch’s name. There are tales of old Prayer Books in choir stalls throughout England that have mark-outs and erasures and pencil insertions galore to ensure that the monarch’s name is current. From the time that I started worshiping in the Episcopal Church in the 1970s, I recall hearing the prayer for “James our President” and thinking how good and specific this prayer was, if a little quaint (James, not Jimmy), especially in a community where most people had little use for the president by this name. Have little use for someone seemed not to matter at all. In God’s world, truth be told, it does not matter.
Luke’s gospel and the book of Acts mark history by a sometimes obsessive reference to the ruling powers of the times: Augustus, Tiberius, and Claudius, Roman emperors, Quirinius the governor of Syria, various Herods, the Great, Antipas, Philip, and Agrippa (whose wife and sister was Bernice), Lysanias ruler of Abilene (my personal favorite, since I was born in another Abilene), Annas and Caiaphas high priests in Jerusalem. In the gospel and in Acts, Luke keeps time in personages like Pontius Pilate governor of Judea, Felix (whose wife was Drusilla) another governor, Festus his successor, and Gallio the senator, who was also governor of Achaia. Luke roots the Jesus story and its consequences firmly in real history, not in some mythical or idealized past, and the history that he tells has real people with real names. The oppositional and personal forces associated with most of these names is noteworthy. Luke does not name them because they were friends to this movement, this “Way” (the word in Acts) made manifest in Jesus and powered by the Spirit. He names them partly because everyone would have known about them, their power as well as their infamy. But he also names these people closely associated with empire to make sure that no one confuses the political reality that Jesus preaches and inhabits, the Kingdom of God, for the grotesque imperial rule so familiar to everyone in that world and time.
Not to name the powers and authorities by name is to come unstuck from history and from the real and broken world. The refusal to name them is to seek refuge in the gnostic realm, where the cognoscenti know about unspeakable names, including those not worthy to be spoken in God’s presence. Whoever speaks the wrong names is counted among the unschooled. So say the gnostic elites.
I happen to think that by his own statements, Donald Trump represents some of the same perils represented by empire, as told by Luke the evangelist and by others in the Christian scriptures. He thus deserves our ongoing scrutiny. What I think, however, or what anybody else thinks, is beside the point, when it comes to the matter at hand. Support of or opposition to Donald Trump is not pertinent to my argument for praying for him by name. To the extent that he represents “empire” in our time, then all the more reason to storm heaven’s throne on his behalf, and, more to the point, on our behalf, the nation’s and the world’s. Prayer is not the same as endorsement. Prayer is a plea for change, for transformation, and either it gets into the weeds, or it gets nowhere. Prayer is about specific persons and their communities, or else it is just vague pietism. For example, whenever I am ill and in need of healing, or in trouble and in need of refuge and change, I am likely to ask you to pray for me. And if I ask you to pray for me, I reasonably expect that you will pray for me by name, not for some generic person in need, or for the proverbial minor league player to be named later. Prayer gets personal.
So beginning a week from today, the day of his inauguration, and on every day thenceforth and at the Eucharist on Sundays, I will pray for Donald our President. I will do so because these are the times and this is the world in which we live—and this is the president with whose authority we will live. Ours is a real and broken world and nation, not some other and ideal place, and ours will be a president with a name. God acts in history and not in the ephemera. God changes people who have names.