Short essays written for the La Jolla Veteran's Hospital newsletter in La Jolla, California
A news-media organization recently reported that a man labeling himself as a Christian said that praying for Osama bin Laden, after his death, was "unconscionable" and "sacrilegious." The account goes on to quote him as saying: “Let’s pray for our soldiers that are over there, not for somebody that caused our soldiers to go over there.” Actually, according to Christian teaching, our soldiers should be prayed for. But what is actually unconscionable and sacrilegious is not praying for such as Osama bin Laden. It is easy to pray for those we love; it is so much harder to pray for those who have done us wrong.
St. Matthew (5:44) records the words of Jesus: "But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. . . ." While on the cross and looking down on those who crucified Him, Jesus said: "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do." (Lk 23: 34). Thus , not praying for our enemy - yes, this includes Osama bin Laden - clearly contravenes Christ's words. While Christianity certainly emphasizes prayer for enemies, such prayer is not unknown in other traditions, for example, in Hebrew teaching. One Jewish scholar commenting on halachah (Torah law) says "one should not pray for others to be punished, rather we should pray that they repent and do teshuvah."
Our contemporary Eastern Church Father Elder Paisios of the Holy Mountain (Mt. Athos, Greece), who just died in 1994, tells us of a very important distinction understood by the Spiritual Fathers of the Eastern Church, which explains why some people call for vengeance and/or retribution and refuse to pray for their enemies. They are following Human Justice rather than Divine Justice. The Elder states: "that is why, many times, we go to court to find human justice."
He then uses a simple example, two people dividing ten peaches. Human Justice would divide the peaches equally five and five to each. The Elder goes on: "However, if he understands that his friend likes peaches very much [he can pretend that he is not very fond of them and eat only one, and] says to him: 'Please eat the rest of the peaches, . . . this person has divine justice; he prefers to be unfair to himself by human standards and be rewarded for his sacrifice by God's grace, which he will abundantly receive . . . Human justice is zero compared to divine justice'" (Ageloglou,  Elder Paisios of the Holy Mountain, Mt. Athos, Greece, Holy Mountain Press).
Sometimes the title of a chapter or a book can be a nutshell of its entire theme. Such is the title of Chapter VI in St. Dorotheos of Gaza's Discourses and Sayings (Wheeler, 1977, Cistercian Publications.): On Refusal to Judge Our Neighbor. St. Dorotheos considers judging our neighbor the 'gravest' of wrongs. We can judge his actions or works but must pray for God's mercy for him as an individual created in God's image.
One of the most powerful understandings of this difficult teaching comes from the spiritual insight of St. Silouan the Athonite. ( St. Silouan the Athonite. Sophrony 1999, Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press). St. Silouan tells us: "God is love, absolute love embracing every living thing in abundance. God is present in hell, too, as love." A hermit once visited the saint and "declared with evident satisfaction that 'God will punish all atheists. They will burn in everlasting fire.'" Obviously upset, the Saint said, "Tell me, supposing you went to paradise, and there you looked down and saw someone burning in hell-fire - would you feel happy?" "It can't be helped. It would be their own fault," said the hermit. The holy staretz answered him with a sorrowful countenance. "Love could not bear that," he said. "We must pray for all."