Most people associate prayer with moral good: benevolence, forgiveness, healing, and reconciliation. Yet in some cases, people deliberately pray against others in forms of what are called in these parts, "dangerous prayers,” that aim to harm or remove another party. These cases raise interesting questions about the shadow side of prayer.
Attention to dangerous prayers and to the unspoken, negative aspects of prayer reveals interesting insights into how we might more fully understand prayer as a part of lived religion. Take a blatant and public example of dangerous prayers. In January of 2012, the speaker of the Kansas House of Representatives, Mike O’Neal, forwarded an email message urging his Republican colleagues to “Pray for Obama: Psalm 109.8.”
That scripture reads, “May his days be few; may another take his office.” This is hardly a prayer offered for Obama’s flourishing, and the next line is even more malicious: “May his children be fatherless, and his wife a widow.” What? Are you kidding me! No, sir! I kid you not. That indeed happened. And, Psalm 109 is real. You may want to crack open your Bible and have a read. But, be warned.
Reader discretion advised for strong and graphic language that might upset the sensitive. This 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. Here in Africa, there are numerous of such accounts.
Testimony times in many Churches are filled with rejoicing believers testifying about how their enemies have died after messing with them. These instances give us a rare display of imprecatory prayer not only in the public sphere, but also constitute prime examples of the use of negative prayer in political circles and beyond. These bizarre cases caught my attention, since cursing and imprecation are usually associated in the popular imagination with my longtime area of fascination: the traditional Afro-Haitian religion called Voodoo.
The negative image of Voodoo as sorcery is one that many have worked to dispel as part of a project of ethnographic re-description. They have worked to humanize Voodoo 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.
In this non-dualistic Afro-Caribbean philosophical system, good and evil are not understood to be essential absolutes. When one develops the ability to heal, one automatically learns the way to harm. While priests in the Voodoo tradition focus on healing, there is a branch of disreputable specialists – disavowed by Voodoo priests – who practice a set of prayer rituals and wanga (material “working” objects) that purport to impose the will of the religious or shamanistic actor onto another person.
The Haitian ritual expert who performs this is called a malfaiteur, (literally: “evil-doer”) and the term for this form of prayer is “malediction” (lit: “speaking evil”). One form such prayer can take – as in the Kansas case – is the reciting of Old Testament psalms for a specific malediction against a person or group. Here are two very different religious formations – evangelicalism and Afro-Haitian religion – both using Psalms to pray against others.
They force us to consider dangerous prayers as a part of lived religion. I have employed the term “dangerous prayer” as a conceptual, second-order category that encompasses both spoken addresses to the Christian God (or other deities and spirits), and ritual actions that aim to harm, debilitate, stop, remove, or weaken another party or to impose the speaker’s will onto another party or series of events.
This umbrella term allows us to compare groups that are ordinarily kept quite distinct, such as Christians and self-identified sorcerers. Just as sorcerers are famous for their deployment of malediction, evangelical Christians are well known for a branch of thought and practice known as “spiritual warfare,” which is also a form of aggressive prayer. Here in Africa, especially with the strong Nigerian influence on the Pentecostal-Charismatic Movement, this warfare has been taken to wild excesses. It is not uncommon to see an entire hour of prayer dedicated to "killing enemies" through prayer.
The catchphrase is, "Back To Sender!" This is similar to how witches and warlocks engage in exchanges of spell casting, often resulting in the demise of one or both parties under strange circumstances. Well, the Church has joined in! We have also entered into the ring and if witches can make incantations and hexes, we too shall fight fire with fire! Except that sometimes these "enemies" are imaginary. Consequently, there are bound to be casualties of "friendly fire." Prayer was never intended to settle personal scores or even as a defense mechanism against enemies, whether real or perceived.
Sadly, it is not uncommon in our day to receive chilling warnings of, "I'll pray!" Traditionally, such a statement has been a positive one. It's good that someone should pray.
However, in these interesting times, it carries both overtones and undertones of, "Watch your back! I'll kill you through praying for evil to befall you." How is this threat from a Christian different from the warning of a warlock? Shouldn't the Police now consider "I'll pray for you!" as a case of threat to kill? That would be interesting. It's not uncommon in our Churches today, as earlier stated, to see teary-eyed devotees testifying about how God killed their enemies after they prayed! What? Yes, sir! Licensed to kill and with no evidence to warrant an arrest on a criminal charge.
Talk about the perfect crime! Spiritual warfare is a precise term in the evangelical and neo-Pentecostal networks known as the Third Wave Evangelical Movement, or the Revival Movement, whose best-known theologian is C. Peter Wagner of Fuller Theological Seminary. Spiritual warfare is the aggressive prayer needed to fight evil directly in the invisible realm. This can take the form of “casting out evil” through “deliverance prayer,” in which the Christian casts out evil or actual demons from another person under the authority of Jesus (as depicted in Matthew 10:1, for instance).
More ambitiously, warfare prayer also enables Christian “prayer warriors” to “pray down” more powerful demons – those who have taken over entire areas of geographical territory such as the Islamic world, or propagate widespread sinful activity such as alcoholism – and allow for revival and Christian flourishing to surge in a given area or place.
A group of divinely “anointed prayer warriors” understand themselves to be doing battle in the “spiritual realm” with Satan’s high ranking demons, and take their understanding of this war from Ephesians 6:12: “We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.”
Prayer warriors believe we are in a new age in which God is calling prophets and apostles to become intercessors and to usher in the Kingdom of God through warfare prayer.
Spiritual warfare evangelicals have elaborated a complex theology and prayer practice with a highly militarized discourse and set of rituals for doing “spiritual battle” and conducting “prayer strikes” on the “prayer battlefield.” Warfare prayer may take place in Church, in large revival events, at semi-public conferences in hotels, or in private spaces such as homes.
Prayer warriors may pray openly in “prayer walks” through public spaces, often in cities where poverty and crime are rife. Warriors may also do covert actions in public spaces when they are “on assignment” from the Holy Spirit, in which case they might pray in small groups at key “demonic strongholds,” such as massacre sites, neopagan temples, or abortion clinics.
Is warfare prayer a form of negative prayer? Well, it does seek to impose “God’s will” on others, in specific detail. Muslims are meant to convert to Christianity, Masonic lodges (seen as long standing demonic institutions) are meant to close down, and bars and strip clubs to go bankrupt. In some evangelicals’ narratives, warfare prayer ends with God killing people who are working for demonic causes, such as an Alaskan woman who protested the use of prayer in school board meetings and then died of a heart attack. In such cases, violence or death are God’s judgment, and are part of the overarching cosmic system of perfect justice that evangelicals long to help bring about.
Evangelical prayer warriors the world over teach vehemently against taking a course of physical violence in the material world and becoming actual vigilantes. But in a tragic trend, witchcraft killings and related incidents are on the rise worldwide. United Nations reports show that in locations as diverse as New York City, London, Congo, and Papua New Guinea, people are accusing others of being witches and attacking or murdering them, including Christians! Often the violence is gendered, with male witch-hunters attacking female “witches.”
Sometimes people are brutalized or killed during exorcism ceremonies, in which the demons are beaten out of the accused witch. Studying prayer as it is actually lived in the world means paying attention to such aggressive forms of prayer, and exploring how ideas about dangerous and aggressive prayers change over time in a given society.
We must also open up questions about the negative implications of prayer. Logically, even if one prays for positive results in a certain area, it is possible that if it came to pass it would be harmful for someone else.
For instance, praying for victory for one side – in war, or in sports – is necessarily to pray for defeat of another side. A prayer for one person to be chosen for a job is a prayer for the other applicants to be rejected. Researchers might ask whether the people praying in any given tradition take into account any possible negative effects of their prayers.
Studying aggressive forms of prayer may mean asking how religious actors engage with supernatural forces they perceive to be destructive, such as in exorcisms, or magic, and how they control the ritual so they are not themselves harmed. It means figuring out how explicitly negative prayer is rationalized or even justified by the person praying.
Does someone praying negatively imagine themselves to be partnering with destructive or evil forces for their own gain, or do they imagine themselves to be neutral, or even righteous? Perhaps they imagine themselves to be in alliance with forces of ultimate good, which demands an aggressive form of prayer. How is negative prayer tied to conceptions of justice? More and more studies are considering the positive effects of intercessory prayer and healing, and some argue for tangible results that positive prayer can facilitate medical recovery.
It bears considering whether negative prayer has similar negative effects. While it is tempting to imagine that the religious people of the world are all praying beneficently for peace and love, the fact is that all are not. As you read this, someone may be praying against you, wishing you to fail, hoping to be hired in your place, that you convert to their religion, or that “your days be few, and another take your office.” As things stand, you either learn how to fight back or risk dying young. Interesting times!
“One of the saddest lessons of history is this: If we’ve been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We’re no longer interested in finding out the truth. The bamboozle has captured us. It’s simply too painful to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that we’ve been taken. Once you give a charlatan power over you, you almost never get it back.” Carl Sagan
Corruption is a heavy price to pay. The clean ones pay and suffer at the mercy of people who cannot have enough. They always want to eat and eat so selfishly like a bunch of ugly masked shrews. I hope God forgives me for ridiculing his creatures, but that mammal is so greedy. But corruption is not the new kid on the block, because it has always been everywhere.
This of course begs the question, why that is so? The common answer was and still is – abuse and misuse of power by those in power and weak institutions, disempowered to control the leaders. In 1996, the then President of The World Bank, James D. Wolfensohn named the ‘C-Word’ for the first time during an annual meeting of the Bretton Woods Institutions. A global fight against corruption started. Transparency International began its work. Internal and external audits mushroomed; commissions of inquiry followed and ever convoluted public tender procedures have become a bureaucratic nightmare to the private sector, trying to fight red tape.
The result is sobering corruption today is worse than it was 25 years ago. There is no denying that strong institutions help, but how does it come that in the annual Transparency International Ranking the same group of countries tend to be on the top while another group of countries, many African among them, tend to be on the bottom? Before one jumps to simple and seductive conclusions let us step back a moment.
Wolfensohn called corruption a cancer that destroys economies like a cancer destroys a body. A cancer is, simplified, good cells in a body gone bad, taking control of more and more good cells until the entire body is contaminated and eventually dies. So, let us look at the good cells of society first: they are family ties, clan and tribe affiliation, group cohesion, loyalty, empathy, reciprocity.
Most ordinary people like the reader of these lines or myself would claim to share such values. Once we ordinary people must make decisions, these good cells kick in: why should I hire a Mrs. Unknown, if I can hire my niece whose strengths and weaknesses I know? If I hire the niece, she will owe me and support my objectives.
Why should I purchase office furniture from that unknown company if I know that my friend’s business has good quality stuff? If I buy from him, he will make an extra effort to deliver his best and provide quality after sales service? So, why go through a convoluted tender process with uncertain outcome? In the unlikely case my friend does not perform as expected, I have many informal means to make him deliver, rather than going through a lengthy legal proceeding?
This sounds like common sense and natural and our private lives do work mostly that way and mostly quite well.
The problem is scale. Scale of power, scale of potential gains, scale of temptations, scale of risk. And who among us could throw the first stone were we in positions of power and claim not to succumb to the temptations of scale? Like in a body, cancer cells start growing out of proportion.
So, before we call out for new leaders – experience shows they are rarely better than the old ones – we need to look at ourselves first. But how easy is that? If I were the niece who gets the job through nepotism, why should I be overly critical? If I got a big furniture contract from a friend, why should I spill the beans? What right do I have to assume that, if I were a president or a minister or a corporate chief procurement officer I would not be tempted?
This is where we need to learn. What is useful, quick, efficient, and effective within a family or within a clan or a small community can become counterproductive and costly and destructive at larger corporate or national scale. Our empathy with small scale reciprocity easily permeates into complacency and complicity with large scale corruption and into an acquiescence with weak institutions to control it.
Our institutions can only be as strong as we wish them to be.
I was probably around ten years old and have always been that keen enthusiastic child that also liked to sing the favourite line of, ‘the world will become a better place.’ I would literally stand in front of a mirror and use my mom’s torch as a mic and sing along Michael Jackson’s hit song, ‘We are the world.’
Despite my horrible voice, I still believed in the message. Few years later, my annoyance towards the world’s corrupt system wonders whether I was just too naïve. Few years later and I am still in doubt so as to whether I should go on blabbing that same old boring line. ‘The world is going to be a better place.’ The question is, when?
The answer is – as always: now.
This is pessimistic if not fatalistic – I challenge Sagan’s outlook with a paraphrased adage of unknown origin: Some people can be bamboozled all of the time, all people can be bamboozled some of the time, but never will all people be bamboozled all of the time.
We, the people are the only ones who can heal society from the cancer of corruption. We need to understand the temptation of scale and address it. We need to stop seeing ourselves just a victim of a disease that sleeps in all of us. We need to give power to the institutions that we have put in place to control corruption: parliaments, separation of power, the press, the ballot box. And sometimes we need to say as a niece – no, I do not want that job as a favour, I want it because I have proven to be better than other contenders.
It is going to be a struggle, because it will mean sacrifices, but sacrifices that we have chosen, not those imposed on us.
Let us start today.
*Bokani Lisa Motsu is a student at University of Botswana
Parliament, the second arm of State through its parliamentary committees are one of Botswana’s most powerful mechanisms to ensure that government is held accountable at all times. The Accounting Officers are mostly Permanent Secretaries across government Ministries and Chief Executive Officers, Director Generals, Managing Directors of parastatals, state owned enterprises and Civil Society.
So parliament plays its oversight authority via the legislators sitting on a parliamentary committee and Accounting Officers sitting in the hot chair. When left with no proper checks and balances, the Executive is prone to abuse the arrangement and so systematic oversight of the executive is usually carried out by parliamentary committees. They track the work of various government departments and ministries, and conduct scrutiny into important aspects of their policy, direction and administration.
It is not rocket science that effective oversight requires that committees be totally independent and able to set their own agendas and have the power to summon ministers and top civil servants to appear and answer questions. Naturally, Accounting Officers are the highest ranking officials in the government hierarchy apart from cabinet Ministers and as such wield much power and influence in the performance of government. To illustrate further, government performance is largely owed to the strategic and policy direction of top technocrats in various Ministries.
It is disheartening to point out that the recent parliament committees — as has been the case all over the years — has laid bare the incompetency, inadequacy and ineptitude of people bestowed with great responsibilities in public offices. To say that they are ineffective and inefficient sounds as an understatement. Some appear useless and hopeless when it comes to running the government despite the huge responsibility they possess.
If we were uncertain about the degree at which the Accounting Officers are incompetent, the ongoing parliament committees provide a glaring answer. It is not an exaggeration to say that ordinary people on the streets have been held ransom by these technocrats who enjoy their air conditioned offices and relish being chauffeured around in luxurious BX SUV’s while the rest of the citizenry continue to suffer. Because of such high life the Accounting Officers seem to have, with time, they have gotten out of touch with the people they are supposed to serve.
An example; when appearing before the recent Public Accounts Committee (PAC), Office of the President Permanent Secretary, Thuso Ramodimoosi, looked reluctant to admit misuse of public funds. Although it is clear funds were misused, he looked unbothered when committee members grilled him over the P80 million Orapa House building that has since morphed into a white elephant for close to 10 successive years. To him, it seems it did not matter much and PAC members were worried for nothing.
On a separate day, another Accounting officer, Director of Public Service Management (DPSM), Naledi Mosalakatane, was not shy to reveal to PAC upon cross-examination that there exist more than 6 000 vacancies in government. Whatever reasons she gave as an excuse, they were not convincing and the committee looked sceptical too. She was faltering and seemed not to have a sense of urgency over the matter no matter how critical it is to the populace.
Botswana’s unemployment rate hoovers around 18 percent in a country where majority of the population is the youth, and the most affected by unemployment. It is still unclear why DPSM could underplay such a critical matter that may threaten the peace and stability of the country. Accounting Officers clearly appear out of touch with the reality out there – if the PAC examinations are anything to go by.
Ideally the DPSM Director could be dropping the vacancy post digits while sourcing funds and setting timelines for the spaces to be filled as a matter of urgency so that the citizens get employed to feed their families and get out of unemployment and poverty ravaging the country. The country should thank parliamentary committees such as PAC to expose these abnormalities and the behaviour of our leaders when in public office. How can a full Accounting Officer downplay the magnitude of the landless problem in Botswana and fail to come with direct solutions tailor made to provide Batswana with the land they desperately need?
Land is a life and death matter for some citizens, as we would know.
When Bonolo Khumotaka, the Accounting Officer in the Ministry of Land Management, Water and Sanitation Services, whom as a top official probably with a lucrative pay too appears to be lacking sense of urgency as she is failing on her key mandate of working around the clock to award the citizens with land especially those who need it most like the marginalised. If government purports they need P94 billion to service land to address the land crisis what is plan B for government? Are we going to accept it the way it is?
Government should wake up from its slumber and intervene to avoid the 30 years unnecessary waiting period in State land and 13 years in Tribal land. Accounting Officers are custodians of government policy, they should ensure it is effective and serve its purpose. What we have been doing over the years, has proved that it is not effective, and clearly there is a need for change of direction.
His Excellency Dr Mokgweetsi EK Masisi, the President of the Republic of Botswana found it appropriate to invoke Section 17 (1) of the Constitution of the Republic of Botswana, using the powers vested in him to declare a State of Public Emergency starting from the 2nd April 2020 at midnight.
The constitutional provision under Section 17 (2b) only provided that such a declaration could be up to a maximum of 21 days. His Excellency further invoked Section 93 (1) to convene an extra- ordinary meeting of Parliament to have the opportunity to consult members of parliament on measures that have been put in place to address the spread and transmission of the virus. At this meeting Members of Parliament passed a resolution on the legal instruments and regulations governing the period of the state of emergency, and extended its duration by six (6) months.
The passing of the State of Emergency is considered as a very crucial step in fighting the near apocalyptic potential of the Novel COVID-19 virus. One of the interesting initiatives that was developed and extended to the business community was a 3-month wage subsidy that came with a condition that no businesses would retrench for the duration of the State of Public Emergency. This has potentially saved many people’s jobs as most companies would have been extremely quick to reduce expenses by downsizing. Self-preservation as some would call it.
Most organisations would have tried to reduce costs by letting go of people, retreated and tried their best to live long enough to fight another day. In my view there is silver lining that we need to look at and consider. The fact that organisations are not allowed to retrench has forced certain companies to look at the people with a long-term view.
Most leaders have probably had to wonder how they are going to ensure that their people are resilient. Do they have team members who innovate and add value to the organisation during these testing times? Do they even have resilient people or are they just waiting for the inevitable end? Can they really train people and make them resilient? How can your team members be part of your recovery plan? What can they do to avoid losing the capabilities they need to operate meaningfully for the duration of the State of Public Emergency and beyond?
The above questions have forced companies to reimagine the future of work. The truth is that no organisation can operate to its full potential without resilient people. In the normal business cycle, new teams come on board; new business streams open, operations or production sites launch or close; new markets develop, and technology is introduced. All of this provides fresh opportunities – and risks.
The best analogy I have seen of people-focused resilience planning reframes employees as your organisation’s immune system, ready and prepared to anticipate risks and ensure they can tackle challenges, fend off illness and bounce back more quickly. So, how do you supercharge your organizational immune system to become resilient?
COVID-19 has helped many organisations realize they were not as prepared as they believed themselves to be. Now is the time to take stock and reset for the future. All the strategies and plans prior to COVID-19 arriving in Botswana need to be thrown out of the window and you need to develop a new plan today. There is no room for tweaking or reframing. Botswana has been disrupted and we need to accept and embrace the change. What we initially anticipated as a disease that would take a short term is turning out to be something we are going to have to live with for a much longer time. It is going to be a marathon and therefore businesses need to have a plan to complete this marathon.
Start planning. Planning for change can help reduce employee stress, anxiety, and overall fear, boosting the confidence of staff and stakeholders. Think about conducting and then regularly refreshing a strategic business impact analysis, look at your employee engagement scores, dig into your customer metrics and explore the way people work alongside your behaviours and culture. This research will help to identify what you really want to protect, the risks that you need to plan for and what you need to survive during disruption. Don’t forget to ask your team members for their input. In many cases they are closest to critical business areas and already have ideas to make processes and systems more robust.
Revisit your organisational purpose. Purpose, values and principles are powerful tools. By putting your organisation’s purpose and values front and center, you provide clear decision-making guidelines for yourself and your organisation. There are very tough and interesting decisions to make which have to be made fast; so having guiding principles on which the business believes in will help and assist all decision makers with sanity checking the choices that are in front of them. One noticeable characteristic of companies that adapt well during change is that they have a strong sense of identity. Leaders and employees have a shared sense of purpose and a common performance culture; they know what the company stands for beyond shareholder value and how to get things done right.
Revisit your purpose and values. Understand if they have been internalised and are proving useful. If so, find ways to increase their use. If not, adapt them as necessities, to help inspire and guide people while immunizing yourself against future disruption. Design your employee experience. The most resilient, adaptive and high performing companies are made up of people who know each other, like each other, and support each other.
Adaptability requires us to teach other, speak up and discuss problems, and have a collective sense of belonging. Listening to your team members is a powerful and disruptive thing to do. It has the potential to transform the way you manage your organisation. Enlisting employees to help shape employee experience, motivates better performance, increases employee retention and helps you spot issues and risks sooner. More importantly, it gives employees a voice so you can get active and constructive suggestions to make your business more robust by adopting an inclusive approach.
Leaders need to show they care. If you want to build resilience, you must build on a basis of trust. And this means leaders should listen, care, and respond. It’s time to build the entire business model around trust and empathy. Many of the employees will be working under extreme pressure due to the looming question around what will happen when companies have to retrench. As a leader of a company transparency and open communication are the most critical aspects that need to be illustrated.
Take your team member into confidence because if you do have to go through the dreaded excise of retrenchment you have to remember that those people the company retains will judge you based on the process you follow. If you illustrate that the business or organization has no regard for loyalty and commitment, they will never commit to the long-term plans of the organisation which will leave you worse off in the end. Its an absolutely delicate balance but it must all be done in good faith. Hopefully, your organization will avoid this!
This is the best time to revisit your identify and train your people to encourage qualities that build strong, empathetic leadership; self-awareness and control, communication, kindness and psychological safety. Resilience is the glue that binds functional silos and integrates partners, improves communications, helps you prepare, listen and understand. Most importantly, people-focused resilience helps individuals and teams to think collectively and with empathy – helping you respond and recover faster.
Article written by Thabo Majola, a brand communications expert with a wealth of experience in the field and is Managing Director of Incepta Communications.