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This is how to pray for President Trump

First things first: remember that ‘the kingdom of God does not come by the sword or by the ballot box’

It wasn’t the first time it had happened. The person leading the prayers at our morning service had, as usual, prepared thoughtfully and thoroughly about how they were going to lead us. And along with praying about the concerns of our church community, there were prayers that addressed the political issues of the day.

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This particular week, the person had prayed about our government’s refugee policy. He’d prayed that God would lead the government to change its policy of detaining illegal immigrants, since the policy was unjust, which, you might think, was uncontroversial. But if you think that, it is probably because you don’t talk to people with a different opinion. At the door, someone said to me (not in so many words): “I couldn’t agree with that prayer. I have a different view on refugee policy. I think the government is doing a reasonable job.”

This conversation made me think. It’s been a Christian practice since the very beginning to offer prayers for those who govern – even when that governor was a psychopathic Roman emperor given to persecuting Christians, like the Emperor Nero. The martyrs, as they died, frequently protested that they prayed for the emperor, though they would not sacrifice to him.

What’s more, the Christian faith is deeply political. It is about who rules, after all. And it speaks to us of justice, truth, mercy and peace, among other things – all deeply political concepts. We ought to be thinking about politics from a Christian perspective, and about contemporary politics in particular.

If you want a more Christian nation, give your money to evangelists, church planters and missionaries not political parties.

But in an increasingly divided political landscape, what shall we pray? It is not only the wider community that seems divided as never before in my lifetime. It seems that that division runs straight through the Christian community too.

In an unprecedented way, the 2016 US election has reshaped political conversation in Australia. Trump and Clinton are two extremely polarising figures. There are thoughtful and intelligent Christians who are convinced Trump’s presidency is, at very least, not a bad thing at all, and he is preventing the advance of a militantly anti-Christian liberal agenda. There are also those who are adamant that no true Christian could countenance voting for him, and that the Christians who did bear an awful responsibility.

I can see the pronouncements on my social media feed getting more and more dogmatic and shouty. And yet, we Christians gather together week by week in the same building and try to pray meaningfully together about the situation of our world.

…the gospel is not preached by Christianising the state. Getting a Christian into power is not our mission.

One way forward would be to say “church and politics don’t mix,” and to try to keep the political out of the public prayers of the church. I don’t think that’s really possible given the nature of the Christian message, “Jesus is Lord.” A Christian faith that doesn’t speak to the politics of the day refrains from naming evil as evil, and neglects the plight of widows and orphans.

So, we are political. But while Christianity is political, it isn’t theocratic. That is to say: the gospel is not preached by Christianising the state. Getting a Christian into power is not our mission.

A Christian approach to politics names Christ as Lord. Every time we gather together in church and name him as Lord – praying to him as the powerful ruler, singing to him our praises, seeking to obey his word – we are taking a radical political stand. We are saying that human political power is not ultimate and cannot save us. Salvation belongs to Jesus Christ, and him alone. The kingdom of God does not come by the sword or by the ballot box. I think I need to say this again, because Christians on the left and on the right don’t seem to get this: the kingdom of God does not come by the sword or by the ballot box.

If you want a more Christian nation, give your money to evangelists, church planters and missionaries not political parties.

Those who rule us have a specific role which relates to rewarding the good and punishing the evildoer, as far as human strength allows, while we wait for the judgment of God.

The role of human rulers, according to the New Testament, is not to be like the kings of the Old Testament who were God’s agents to bring about the kingdom of God. That role is now given to Jesus Christ. As Paul explains in Romans chapter 13, human rulers and authorities are appointed by God: “They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.”

Those who rule us have a specific role which relates to rewarding the good and punishing the evildoer, as far as human strength allows, while we wait for the judgment of God. They are not evangelists. They can do nothing to change people’s hearts. Neither do they have a permanent hold on power. They hold it at God’s pleasure, and will answer to him.

Now, of course, what it means to enact justice in any given society at any given period of time will be a matter of great debate. It will be complicated. And since it will be enacted by limited and sinful human beings, it will be never final or perfect.

Professor Oliver O’Donovan calls this “the imperfectability of human judgment.” It’s a really important principle for Christians to understand at this point in time. Human justice carried out by human rulers is always imperfect and incomplete. While the Bible’s concepts of right and wrong give us a fixed point of reference, putting these into practice in the world will always be, for human beings, a process of trial and error. All we can do is read the Scriptures, try to understand our world, pray for faithfulness, and make our judgments as best we can, given our limitations.

There’s nothing wrong with a passionately held view, but it seems to me that a Christian … will hesitate at this point and allow for the possibility that Christian principles may also support another reading of the political landscape.

This principle should make us more humble about the way we debate political issues, especially with other Christians, and should guide our prayers. Now, I am not saying that we should be relativistic or agnostic about politics because it is too hard. Far from it! We are called upon – we must – name evil and injustice when we see it, and fight against it.

But we should also be cautious about being too politically dogmatic. There’s nothing wrong with a passionately held view, but it seems to me that a Christian, knowing that human judgment is always imperfect, will hesitate at this point and allow for the possibility that Christian principles may also support another reading of the political landscape. For example, both the major political parties in Australia, Liberal and Labor, can speak of the way in which Christianity and Christians have shaped their political outlooks. Yet neither party could be said to be the party Christians ought to vote for.

We should not pray that he would make America great again, or that he will build a wall. But neither should we pray for his overthrow.

This is a vital plea, because we Christians are going to be tempted to fragment more and more over the political in the next few years.

How then should we pray together in the era of American President Trump? We must pray for the president. We should not pray that he would make America great again, or that he will build a wall. But neither should we pray for his overthrow. But all Christians should agree that we should pray that through President Trump God would restrain wickedness and promote the flourishing of human communities. We should also pray that under him the gospel of Jesus Christ would be preached unhindered by any disgrace or law.

This kind of prayer is what we find in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, where we pray for the Queen: “We beseech thee also to save and defend all Christian Kings, Princes, and Governors; and specially thy servant Elizabeth our Queen; that under her we may be godly and quietly governed: And grant unto her whole Council, and to all that are put in authority under her, that they may truly and indifferently minister justice, to the punishment of wickedness and vice, and to the maintenance of thy true religion, and virtue.”

It’s a prayer that even a republican could pray! I think we should of course include prayer for all kings of whatever religion or none (not just “Christian” ones), since the point is to pray for good and orderly government, and the administration of true justice, and the space to preach the gospel. But, nevertheless, this prayer recognises the proper role that human rulers are called to in the world. It doesn’t say that one form of government is inherently more Christian than another, and it allows those who may have profound disagreements over politics to pray together.

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