“Do I pray for my elected officials, or do I just criticize them?”
For our readers in the United States, this weekend will be full of fireworks and grilling. In the midst of this, let us not forget to pray for our elected officials. There will probably be petitions in the Prayers of the Faithful, and perhaps you will sing a patriotic song at Mass. But this is a good opportunity to really ask ourselves: do I pray for my elected officials, or do I just criticize them?
In his first letter to Timothy, St. Paul writes to the young bishop of Ephesus, “First of all, then, I ask that supplications, prayers, petitions, and thanksgivings be offered for everyone, for kings and for all in authority, that we may lead a quiet and tranquil life in all devotion and dignity” (1 Tim 2:1-2).
Some Scripture scholars note that Paul’s command to pray for everyone might indicate that there was a refusal at Ephesus to pray for pagans. How often do I adopt the same practice, even unknowingly? I pray for the needs of my family, friends, and fellow parishioners. But what about the needs of those with whom I vehemently disagree or those who work against what I believe?
Perhaps I pray for people’s conversions, but what about their well-being? After all, when Jesus told us to pray for our enemies, was the intention only that we should pray that they repent of being our enemies? That seems a bit self-righteous, doesn’t it?
The Jewish community faced a similar dilemma when taken into exile. They had long prayed and sacrificed for their kings and those in authority. But after being taken into exile, that meant praying for the people who had made them slaves! Jeremiah answers their dilemma: “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I exiled from Jerusalem to Babylon…Seek the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you; pray for it to the Lord, for upon its welfare your own depends” (Jeremiah 29:4,7).
Jeremiah’s words would have been shocking and hard to accept. After all, the Hebrew word he uses connotes peace, security, and prosperity. It is not just a matter of praying for deliverance. Yes, they could do that. But Jeremiah is referring to prayer for the prosperity of their enemies. In fact, he says their own welfare depended on it! God’s ways are not our ways. We are to pray for our enemies.
We see something similar here in Paul’s command. When he asks for prayers for “kings” and “all in authority,” that would first and foremost include the Roman emperor. Therefore, Paul is insisting they pray for Nero, the depraved emperor who would eventually kill him.
How often do I pray for those in authority over me? Do I reject their authority when I disagree with them? Or do I recognize that I must respect even those with whom I disagree? As St. Peter reminds us, “Give honor to all, love the community, fear God, honor the emperor” (1 Peter 2:17). Again, he is referring to Nero, the one who will kill him and hundreds of other Christians.
It is easy to get angry at those in authority; it is easy to criticize them and judge them. Perhaps we should spent twice the time we waste talking about them and twice the energy we spend getting angry about them… praying for them.
In his commentary on 1 Timothy 2, St. John Chrysostom points out, “Two benefits derive from [this prayer]. Hatred toward those who are outside is cleared away, for no one can feel hatred toward those for whom he prays. And those from who we pray are made better and lose their ferocious disposition by the prayers that are offered for them.” When I struggle with feelings of hatred toward someone, I need to pray for them more often.
We are not living in captivity in Babylon. Nor are we living under an emperor who lights his garden by burning Christians on stakes. At the same time, most of us are living in countries and communities where a Christian worldview has all but disappeared. Legislation is being passed that directly attacks our beliefs. We cannot be blind to the uphill battles we face in the arenas of religious freedom, life, and human anthropology. It is easy to feel alone and defeated.
All around us, Christians have resorted to hate, anger, and accusatory and self-righteous comments towards the “other side.” Rather than opposing sin and fighting error, we make people into manifestations of their beliefs; thus we hate the sinner and the sin, the person and their belief, the leader and the legislation.
Praying for our leaders does not mean we condone their decisions or their behavior. Nor is it a sign that we have given up or given in. It is a sign that we are Christian. This weekend, let us remember the words of Paul and Peter. Honor those in authority and pray for them.
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