In a recent book of devotional prayers composed and compiled by progressive Christian voices, psychologist and “public theologian,” Chanequa Walker-Barnes, has penned a prayer that calls out to god1 I refrain from capitalization of god here, as I am not convinced that Dr. Walker-Barnes’ prayer is to the God of the Bible, i.e. to YHWH, the Triune God, etc. for help in becoming more hateful toward white people. Walker-Barnes’ prayer, like many post-modern expressions of personal sentiment, has stirred controversy. But, what makes Walker-Barnes’ prayer different from other controversial, expressive acts, e.g., Lil Nas X‘s song “Montero,” is the apparent directing of her petition to the god of the Bible, as well as her asking “him” that a desire for hatred be placed inside of her. Walker-Barnes prays,
Please help me to hate White people. Or at least to want to hate them. At least, I want to stop caring about them, individually and collectively. I want to stop caring about their misguided, racist souls, to stop believing that they can be better, that they can stop being racist.Chanequa Walker-Barnes, “Prayer of a Weary Black Woman”
It is important to note that Walker-Barnes also seems to be praying against her desire to show mercy and forgiveness. It is not just that she needs help actualizing an already present hatred, she is asking for the very desire of hatred. She wants her desires for mercy, love and forgiveness to lessen so that her desires for hate can increase. She goes on,
My prayer is that you would help me to hate the other White people — you know, the nice ones. The Fox News–loving, Trump-supporting voters who “don’t see color” but who make thinly veiled racist comments about “those people.” The people who are happy to have me over for dinner but alert the neighborhood watch anytime an unrecognized person of color passes their house. The people who welcome Black people in their churches and small groups but brand us as heretics if we suggest that Christianity is concerned with the poor and the oppressed. The people who politely tell us that we can leave when we call out the racial microaggressions we experience in their ministries.Walker-Barnes, “Prayer of a Weary Black Woman”
While some might claim that this prayer is akin to an imprecatory Psalm, i.e. Psalms that ask God for the destruction of one’s enemies, I would argue that there is no part of any Psalm, imprecatory or otherwise, that asks for God to “harden one’s own heart” or to make one more hateful of their enemies. There is a call for God to “pay back” evil doers, this is certain, but not to become like them! So, in spite of some truth about actual racism in the above passage, Walker-Barnes prayer seems to go far beyond that of an imprecatory Psalm, as well as fall quite short of the New Testament witness to love one’s enemies.
Further, it is ironic that the very sentiment of imprecation is one many liberal Christians have found too distasteful over the years for them to remain under the authority of Scripture. The idea of asking a supposedly “all-loving” and merciful God to smite one’s enemies has not sat well in the hearts and minds of modern men and women. Indeed, it used to be the case that it was this desire for vengeance, this “harsh” biblical language that turned off so many progressive Christians of the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s. However, with Dr. Walker-Barnes’ prayer, I think we can definitely say this is hardly the case any longer. No longer do progressive Christians seem to be calling for the non-judgemental, non-wrathful, therapeutic god of love, who forgives everyone, always, for anything. No, indeed! Now it seems that not only is vengeance on the table, but that the desire to become God’s tool for vengeance is being actively petitioned. Truly, we are very far removed from the days of “kumbaya, my Lord.”
After all, what is the end goal of a hateful heart if not to positively do damage to one’s enemy? The staggering nature and language of this prayer compels comparison with one of history’s greatest tyrants.
Walker-Barnes and Himmler: Strange Bedfellows?
It is in this desire for hatred, perhaps we might call it a hope for a seared conscience, that Dr. Walker-Barnes seems to mirror the sentiments of another racist, Heinrich Himmler. In his book, From Cruelty to Goodness, philosopher Philip Haille references a speech given to SS soldiers in 1943 by Himmler in the Polish town of Posen. Haille points out how in the speech, acts of “harmdoing” by Nazi storm troopers are obscured by the institutional cruelty that had already been cultivated in German society by Nazi ideologues. Individual acts of evil were justified because of the socialization that had already taken place and the telos of the institutional agenda. Himmler, however, realizing that SS soldiers would nevertheless experience feelings of compassion for their victims, found a way to turn even the empathy for one’s fellow human being into a mechanism to further the overall project of extermination. This is cruelty in its most refined form, for to overcome compassion was itself part of the “glory” of the German race and the Nazi story:
the words come so easily. “The Jewish people will be extermi- nated,” says every party member, “of course. It’s in our program … extermination. We’ll take care of it.” And then they come, these nice 80 million Germans, and every one of them has his decent Jew. Sure the others are swine, but his one is a fine Jew … Most of you will know what it means to have seen 100 corpses together, or 500 to 1000. T o have made one’s way through that, and . . . to have remained a decent person throughout, that is what has made us hard. That is a page of glory in our historyHaille, From Cruelty to Goodness, 90.
Here Himmler makes the point that every SS soldier will at some point find a “fine Jew,” i.e. one they feel empathy or compassion for.2 In Steven Spielberg’s modern classic, Schindler’s List, this dynamic is masterfully dramatized by Ralph Feinnes, who plays the commandant of the Paszow camp, Amon Goeth. Goeth has a “love” affair with his Jewish house servant Helen, and wrestles with his obligation to hate her as a Jew, while having genuine affections for her as a woman. But, to overcome any love for the enemy is “a page of glory” in what he supposes will be a Nazi history. If you can suppress sympathy, then the institutional goal can be attained.
In her prayer, Dr. Walker-Barnes takes a similar position as Himmler. She seems to have found a “fine white person” when she exempts those whites who are “white antiracist allies” and who “have taken up this struggle against racism.” Of course, here one is reminded of the many Jewish “Kapos,” who sided with the enemy of their people, participating in Nazi cruelty mainly for the sake of saving their own skin (literally). These whites, Walker-Barnes wants to separate from the others that are swine, mainly because they are in accord with her own racism and hatred. For these white Kapos, their agreeableness may even be a kind of self-hatred, a self-hatred that gives Walker-Barnes power over them. But, self-hatred is the hallmark of cruelty. It is what gave the white slave masters of the 18th and 19th century and the Nazi commandants their power over the black and Jewish bodies they dominated. It was when black slaves and Jewish prisoners began to see themselves as inferior that their overlords knew they had broken them.
The key to victory for Himmler and the Nazis, therefore, would be to overcome any momentary afflictions of compassion, empathy, and sensitivity for one’s fellow human being, so that the program of total de-judification could be realized. He [Himmler] goes on,
In sum, we can say that we fulfilled the heaviest of tasks [destroy- ing the Jews] in love to our people. And we suffered no harm in our essence, in our soul, in our character.Haille, From Cruelty to Goodness, 91
In other words, the final and ultimate goal is not just the total extermination of a people group, but the carrying out of that extermination without having suffered any harm to one’s own soul or character. Haille summarizes this sacrificing of human sentiment for the sake of a grand narrative in this way,
Commitment that overrides all sentimentality transforms cruelty and destruction into moral nobility, and commitment is the lifeblood of an institution.Haille, From Cruelty to Goodness, 91
Dr. Walker-Barnes’ commitment to social justice and anti-racism seems to overwhelm any desire to be loving, caring, or kind to the individual. The program of anti-racism supersedes any sentiment for the individual white person, or even non-white person who perhaps chooses to defend white people. Antiracism and social justice override all sentimentality. Is this not simply what Barnes’ prayer says, in no uncertain terms?
For Barnes it seems that, at best, those white people who have gotten on board with the program, like the Jewish Kapos did with National Socialism, can be begrudgingly accepted. They are useful to the institution and the agenda. But, in asking god for a spirit of hatred, and imploring him for a blindness to the humanity and sanctity of “the other,” we should recognize that Dr. Walker-Barnes is very much in line with Heinrich Himmler’s own thinking. And so while it might be shocking to some to hear such sentiments coming from an African-American woman and not a shrill, table pounding Germanic man, we should not be too surprised that the same evil, the same sinfulness, can be found in anyone, and that regardless of ethnicity, gender, or social location.
Pray Against Racism and Pray for Racists; Don’t Pray to Become One
Imprecatory Psalms were a means for the hearts of the covenant people to be relieved of their hatred because of the injustice Israel had endured at the hands of brutal enemies. Unfortunately, Dr. Walker-Barnes is saying something more here than just “Lord, bash those white folks’ heads against rocks” and “Lord, cut out the tongues of those lying bastards who did this to us.” Rather, instead of wishing destruction upon one’s enemies, which can often be righteously indignant, even if misguided and ultimately wrong, Barnes is literally praying that God would make her hateful! This is akin to praying that God would make her like her enemies, if indeed it is her “enemies” that are and have been so wicked. She prays that she will stay hateful:
Lord, if it be your will, harden my heart. Stop me from striving to see the best in people. Stop me from being hopeful that white people can do and be better. Let me imagine them instead as white-hooded robes standing in front of burning crosses.
As follower of Christ, I must strongly exhort Dr. Walker-Barnes, and all of us, not to pray to become like our enemies. Instead let us pray like Jesus prayed, forgiving our enemies, praying for them and on their behalf; and, as Peter said, even blessing them. This is the only way to truth, to justice, and to life.
Disclaimer: *Many who read this will likely accuse me of three things: 1) of attacking Dr. Walker-Barnes personally, 2) of using an “overwrought” comparison to Nazi Germany, and 3) of being a racist myself. I reject all of these accusations. First, I am not making an ad hominem against Dr. Walker-Barnes. I do not know her personally and perhaps she has written and done many wonderful things for people and for her church. But, I am attacking her views as presented in this prayer she has written. They, the sentiments and ideas, are ungodly. Second, this is not an overwrought comparison to the Holocaust, as I am making a very precise comparison between the thoughts presented in Dr. Walker-Barnes’ prayer and Himmler’s speech. Finally, to be called a “racist” in our society today means almost nothing, so anyone who feels compelled to do so I will take them to mean simply “I disagree with you, but cannot really argue as to why.”