Aggressive prayers, curses, and maledictions

Elizabeth McAlister in The Immanent Frame:

PrayerThis speech form is known as imprecatory prayer, from the Latin, imprecate, “invoking evil or divine vengeance; cursing.” The use of scripture as a form of imprecatory prayer has long been covertly practiced by both Christians and non-Christians. But the slogan to “Pray for Obama: Psalm 109.8” circulated openly on t-shirts and bumper stickers during the 2008 presidential race. Similarly, Reverend Wiley Drake, the second vice-president of the First Southern Baptist Church, issued in 2006 a statement claiming that his prayers for the death of a slain abortion provider George Tiller had been answered. These instances give us a rare display of imprecatory prayer in the US public sphere, and constitute prime examples of the use of negative prayer in American political life and beyond.

These bizarre cases caught my attention, since cursing and imprecation are usually associated in the popular imagination with my longtime area of research: the traditional Afro-Haitian religion called Vodou. The negative image of Vodou as sorcery is one that I and others have worked to dispel as part of a project of ethnographic redescription. We have worked to humanize Vodou and portray its full role in Haitian society, writing of elaborately developed prayers, liturgical rhythms, and songs, dances, and ritual that serve to mediate between life and death, to construct family, and to heal…

My research with Haitian spirit-workers reveals that instances of negative prayer are always concerned with a desire for justice or self-defense. For example, I once watched a Haitian spirit priestess in New York City offer her client a remedy for coping with sexual harassment in the workplace. “Pray Psalm 35, let destruction come upon him unawares,” she instructed, “and place a snakeskin in your shoe. You will tread soundlessly and slip away from him while he is destroyed by your guardian spirits.” In this instance, a new immigrant, vulnerable and perhaps undocumented, found in negative prayer a path of recourse against an insidious form of everyday injustice.

Read the full post here.