I saw an image last week that I cannot shake: a Ukrainian father gripping the face of his young son’s lifeless body, which is entirely covered in a blood-stained sheet except for a halo of blond hair. This grief-stricken father presses his face against his son’s hair, clinging to him, desperate and broken. I close my eyes to pray and I see this image.
When I think of it, I am heartbroken. But I also feel angry. I brush up against something like a maternal sense of rage. An innocent child was violently killed because Russia’s leader decided that he wanted a neighboring sovereign country as his own.
The violence in Ukraine makes me, like many of us, feel powerless. I watch helplessly as tanks roll into cities, as civilian targets are shelled, as the lives of whole families are viciously snuffed out. What do I do with this anger and heartbreak?
I find myself turning again and again to the imprecatory Psalms. Each morning I’m praying Psalm 7:14–16 with Vladimir Putin in mind: “Behold, the wicked man conceives evil and is pregnant with mischief and gives birth to lies. He makes a pit, digging it out, and falls into the hole that he has made. His mischief returns upon his own head, and on his own skull his violence descends” (ESV).
An imprecation is a curse. The imprecatory Psalms are those that call down destruction, calamity, and God’s judgment on enemies. Honestly, I don’t usually know what to do with them. I pray them simply as a rote practice. But I gravitate toward more even-keeled promises of God’s presence and mercy. I am often uncomfortable with the violence and self-assured righteousness found in these kinds of Psalms.
But they were made for moments like these.
In seminary, I had a Northern Irish professor who lived through the Troubles, the 30-year ethno-nationalist violence in Northern Ireland. He saw violence against the innocent firsthand.
When he was younger and a seminarian himself, he rewrote a Psalm for a class assignment. In it, he prayed that any terrorist who made a bomb would have it blow up in his face. His American professor pulled him aside, chastised him for using such a violent image, and told him he needed to repent. My professor, reflecting on this memory, told me he realized then that his American professor had never witnessed unprovoked violence against innocents and children.
These Psalms express our outrage about injustice unleashed on others, and they call on God to do something about it.
I strongly tend toward Christian nonviolence and pacifism. But I recognize that in the past, there have been times when calls to peace have been based in a naïve understanding of human evil.
In Who Would Jesus Kill, Mark Allman recaps 20th-century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr’s view that “Christian pacifists have an overdeveloped confidence in human goodness; they believe that the gospel law of love is enough to rid the world of violence and evil.”
“For Niebuhr,” he continues, “such an approach is not only naïve, but heretical.” It’s based on a view of human nature that is fundamentally wrong: a stubborn insistence that we humans are not that bad and not capable of true evil and injustice.
The peace movement of the ’60s often embodied this naiveté. With its rejection of the idea of sin and evil and call to “make love, not war,” it often turned a blind eye to the depth of human depravity in the world. It assumed that humanity was in an upward arc of progress that ended in utopia. But if we are naive about how dark human darkness actually is, our prayers and hopes for peace end up being flimsy covers for corruption and destruction.
The imprecatory Psalms name evil. They remind us that those who have great power are able to destroy the lives of the weak with seeming impunity. This is the world we live in. We cannot simply hold hands, sing “Kumbaya,” and hope for the best. Our hearts call out for judgment against the wickedness that leaves fathers weeping alone over their silent sons. We need words to express our indignation at this evil.
Those of us who long for lasting peace cannot base that hope on an idea that people are inherently good and therefore unworthy of true judgment. Instead, we find our hope in the belief that God is at work in the world, and he is as real—more real—than evil.
We hope that God will enact true and ultimate judgment. We look to him who knows every Ukrainian and Russian by name, who loves them more than I can understand, and who will avenge wrong and make things right.
We don’t forgo vengeance because we think that human evil is not worthy of vengeance but because we believe God is the avenger. We do not hope for peace because we are not indignant over unjust violence but because we believe God is indignant and his judgment (not ours) can be trusted.
Psalm 35:6–8 asks God himself to act: “Let their way be dark and slippery: and let the angel of the Lord persecute them. For without cause have they hid for me their net in a pit. … Let destruction come upon him at unawares; and let his net that he hath hid catch himself: into that very destruction let him fall” (KJV).
Very often in the imprecatory Psalms, we are asking that people’s evil actions would ricochet back on themselves. We are not praying that violence begets more violence or that evil starts a cycle of vengeance or retaliation. But we are praying that people would be destroyed by their own schemes and, as my professor prayed, that bombs would explode in bombers’ faces.
If you’re like me and you gravitate to the seemingly more compassionate, less violent parts of Scripture, these kinds of prayers can be jarring. But we who are privileged, who live far from war and violence, risk failing to take evil and brutality seriously enough.
I still pray, daily and earnestly, for Putin’s repentance. I pray that Russian soldiers would lay down their arms and defy their leaders. But this is the moment to take up imprecatory prayers as well. This is a moment when I’m trusting in God’s mercy but also in his righteous, loving, and protective rage.
Editor’s note: Some of the author’s ideas were discussed in a recent podcast with David French.