Should We Pray for Bad People?



Shortly before the inauguration in mid-January, I was contacted by a Chicago Tribune reporter about a story he was working on related to prayer. I worked with him on a Passover-Easter story in the past. This time, he was looking for various faith perspectives on the question: Should we pray for bad people?

The idea for the story came to the reporter after hearing Fidel Castro’s name included in the list of names read during a memorial prayer at his mainline Episcopal church. He was surprised to hear Castro’s name since he was not generally thought of as a good guy. He asked his priest if anyone questioned the inclusion of Castro. The priest said no one did, but people had asked if prayers would be offered for the new president.

The reporter posed this question to me: “Should we pray for bad people or bad leaders?” My first response was that bad was subjective. Who decided who was and was not bad? Bad to one person may not be bad to another. Assuming the debate over the definition of bad was settled, I continued my answer based on my Reform Jewish beliefs and rituals.

In the Ten Commandments, we are commanded to respect or honor our mothers and fathers, which can be extended to our elders and even leaders. We are not commanded to love them or even like them. One way to respect and honor them is through prayer.

I gave the example of the prayer for our country which was read at my synagogue during Shabbat morning services. It was recited regardless of whom was in office and to which party they belonged. It prayed for our leaders to have patience and wisdom and that they would help to make our country an example of justice and compassion. The prayer was said when those in government made decisions we agreed with, but also when they enacted policies which we opposed.

I was intrigued by the question and my thoughts returned to it throughout the day. I decided to pose the same question to my 12-year-old son preparing for his bar mitzvah and my husband who was raised Episcopal, but has been questioning the concept of the divine for years, during our regular Friday Shabbat dinner. Both strongly felt that prayers should be said for bad people.

They said that offering a prayer was a rebuke and it was a way to show that goodness and righteousness triumphed over evil. Neither suggested that prayers should be offered to “save a person’s soul.”

The consensus of the respondents from across faiths in the Chicago Tribune article was also to pray for bad people or leaders. You can read the responses here.

I’m curious to hear what others in the InterfaithFamily community think. Please join the conversation. Share your thoughts in the comments section.

2 thoughts on “Should We Pray for Bad People?”

  • Emily: I’m not sure by saying a prayer for our leaders who we vehemently disagree with means that we are recognizing their humanity. I think that when saying the prayer for our leaders who I strongly disagree with that I am praying that they will FIND some humanity inside themselves, that something will trigger a more reasoned, empathetic, humane, and strong response. I want to pray that they can change.

  • Thanks for writing about this important question, Jane! It’s so tough, isn’t it. Praying for someone makes it sound like we’re supporting that person, because people often pray for those who are ill or hurting or in sorrow, with the implication that we want their lives to turn for the better. I like the approach that a prayer for our nation and for people in office takes – including nation and gov’t whether or not we agree or not. The challenge then becomes that we’re implicitly recognizing the humanity of those we (even vehemently) disagree with; we’re keeping them in the “circle of we” even if we really, really don’t want to, which challenges us to figure out what to do with that inclusion.

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