Learning to Pray for Those Who Need It Most: A Theory of Radical Kindness

Reconsidering prayer could imbue us with a different kind of politics.

Should I pray for the Devil?

I first heard a form of this question posed almost two years ago in the early morning hours of an introductory philosophy course captained by the esteemed George Yancy. Dr. Yancy is a philosopher who delves seriously into many a subject, from the critical nature of race in our everyday being to the ponderance of whether “we” are even here at all.

And yet, of all the questions he posed in that class, it is this one which floats back to me time and again: should I pray for the Devil?

It’s a perplexing query when taken literally. Dr. Yancy (who first posed the question to himself in childhood) was brought to the conclusion that it was certainly alright to do so, though “should” one do so might be a different matter. Mark Twain also seemed to think that such a prayer might be a positive thing.

The Christian help sites that I perused for this article, in contrast, attempted to dissuade me from the idea. They said that, while yes God states that we should pray for our enemies, the Devil is forever and always irredeemable and should be subsequently shunned. When God makes reference to our enemies He means earthly powers, other humans. He did not mean the ruddy, horned fiend of Miltonian legend.

“But who prays for Satan? Who in eighteen centuries, has had the common humanity to pray for the one sinner who needed it most, our one fellow and brother who most needed a friend yet had not a single one…” — Mark Twain

Which is a dissatisfying answer, not in the least of which thanks to the abundant lack of creativity that such help sites expressed in their insistent open-and-shut elucidation. That Satan rests in some space “beyond” is an explanation that lacks the imagination that I see as inherent in the personage of God. This is a God that can move mountains and throw up the sea. A God that can give life, that can sustain life, that can in terrible rage take life away. This is a God that has taken away His own life and the life of His Son to absolve the rest of His children of their wrongdoing. A willing victim who had committed no treachery, killed in a traitor’s stead.

So, am I really to believe that such a God cannot find it within Himself to grant even the smallest kindness to His polar opposite, or that He might displeased if I were to do the same?

It is my curiosity at the posing of this question and my dissatisfaction with the canonical answers that have, somewhat oddly, revealed a hopeful path forward in the days receding from our most recent presidential election.

For many of the secularly minded, and even for those who profess faith but have frequently found themselves appalled these last four years, the question entered at the beginning may just as recently read “Donald Trump” in place of “the Devil.”

Because for four years Donald Trump has been the supervillain of American politics. A real, honest-to-goodness manic billionaire content to peddle lies and racism and sexism and cronyism, Donald Trump has been about the most evil thing that many on the left (and those in the political middle) could’ve conjured up.

But now, he has lost. He has lost fairly by the rules set down in the Constitution, just as he once won by them. In January he will leave.

The question I’ve seen most asked by the punditry in these receding moments has nothing to do with the personal trajectory of Donald Trump. Well, “nothing” is a strong word. Questions do abound about the state of his finances and various degrees of criminality. Rather, should I say, the majority of questions can be boiled down to one larger, overarching interrogative: what becomes now of Trumpism?

There is a sense that Donald Trump has changed us, or at the very least changed our politics. Even as Joe Biden has promised a return to normalcy a la Harding a century before him, there is quiet recognition from Washington to Wall Street to Main Street that we’re not going back. Not fully, anyways.

I contend, however, that we’ve come to ask the wrong question. Not to query what becomes of Trumpism, but to wonder how we might live together again.

And I think the answer to that question might lie in answering the first: should I pray for Donald Trump?

“America’s present need is not heroics, but healing; not nostrums, but normalcy; not revolution, but restoration; not agitation, but adjustment; not surgery, but serenity; not the dramatic, but the dispassionate; not experiment, but equipoise…” — Warren G. Harding, 1920

My church, a member body of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, has always made it a point to pray for the success and wisdom of our world leaders. This has been true of my congregation under any presidential administration. I know other Christians too, liberally minded, who had once hoped for Trump’s success because such would have meant American success…at least in theory.

But now that Trump has lost, now that in the next two months he’ll be a private citizen once more, I think the question stands newly oriented. Should I pray for Donald Trump?

Should I pray for the man who has torn families apart? Should I pray for the man who has torn this nation apart? A nation he claims to love, even as he does not show it any meaningful way, even as his own family is ripped asunder by his terrible ego and ambition.

Should I pray for this man?

The loud answer is of course, “No.” That may even be the easy answer. Of course not. We should gnash our teeth, tear our hair, and scream at the top of our lungs, “No!”

And yet, there is a tiny voice inside of me that grows every day. A tiny voice that says, “Well, yes.”

Let me be frank: prayer in the form I speak of is not absolute forgiveness. It is not acquiescence. Many of the furthest left domains have insisted that any kind of outreach, including Joe Biden’s bipartisan platitudes, amount to an unspeakable betrayal and a complete absolution of the wrongdoing of the Trump Era.

That is not what this is. I’m not sure I could ever forgive Donald Trump for the things he’s done to my country, even if I wanted to. A crucial element in the process of forgiveness is atonement, after all, and I sincerely doubt Donald Trump will ever attempt to atone for the pain he has wrought.

Still, that does not mean our only other option is to let hate proliferate. Hate should be granted no quarter in camps of either elephants or donkeys.

The way I see it, prayer is the antithesis of hate: it is a kindness.

As I’ve tried to write this article for the past week and a half I’ve considered the expressive similarities in many of these words, as well as their unique differences: love, kindness, nicety, pleasantry, forgiveness, etc. English is notorious for its catch-all use of the word “love,” for example. You may love your wife and you may love ice cream, but you do not love them both in the same way.

After such deliberation, I’ve come to cope with the idea of kindness as the thing that ought to begin to heal the broken back of this nation. For those inclined as I have been to follow the question of prayer this far, that action therein may be an excellent place to begin.

Let me explain: kindness, in its most ardent form, is a radical notion. Kindness subverts the transactional (dare I say capitalistic) idea of hate. Hate operates at a deficit. It has to. Kindness is freely given. You don’t need to glean anything but the power of the moment when you commit an act of kindness. Kindness is also a power that instills agency in its distributor; while true forgiveness requires an exchange of two parties (an apology offered and an apology accepted) kindness can operate by its lonesome. I do not need direction or permission from anyone else to be kind. I can simply rise and act.

Kindness also breaches the social expectations we have of a given moment. The phrase “killing them with kindness” can certainly mean to be kind in a snide manner, but the most potent form of that act is not based in mockery but rather found when it is wholly and earnestly distributed against the grain. When you are kind to those who have wronged you or who suspect may yet wrong you, you gain a capacity you may not otherwise have had. That doesn’t necessitate a forfeiture of ideals either. That is the beauty of the nonviolence of Gandhi and King, after all; from a presumed place of weakness they summoned incredible strength.

Kindness may also be easy. Have you ever picked up litter from the sidewalk? Dusted the hard to reach bookshelves of an elderly relative? Dusted the hard to reach bookshelves of an elderly person you did not know? It is not necessary to know a person, in truth, or even to love a person in totality in order to feed them, to clothe them. That is the soothing touch of kindness.

Most importantly, kindness can operate as a kind of gateway. A laying of the groundwork that may yet open the floodgates of honesty and empathy and justice and mercy. It is much easier to come to a table to speak, to atone, and to reconcile in a world populated by kindness. It is much easier to do the difficult work of the world when that world is populated by kindness.

For the self too, kindness is a good place to start. Over the past months, trapped in quarantine with but my own thoughts for constant company, I have often experienced a deluge of anxiety and self-criticism. Criticism for indiscretions of my past and specifically for my past ambivalence concerning the initial election of Donald Trump. And yet, that criticism is not what ultimately moved me to a place of realization, of atonement, of healing and reconciliation. Kindness granted to myself by myself bridged that gap first and foremost.

None of us should be blind to the challenges that face America in the coming months and years. Joe Biden is not yet president. The coronavirus pandemic, contrary to popular disinformation, has not disappeared but rages now more than ever before. Injustice still abounds in a law enforcement system that is more concerned with how to warehouse people than it is with how to restore them. Our economy reels from these tremors like it never has before. All around, this remains an incredibly unsure moment.

And yet, the hope that blooms amongst that chaos is a flower of kindness, not hate. A flower grown up, struggled between the cracks, called by a solemn prayer for “the one sinner who needed it most.”

A hopeful path indeed.

Script Analyst with Coverfly LLC. Proud Cheeshead, D&D enthusiast, and movie buff. A writer by day and actually still a writer at night (for what it’s worth).

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