Prayers are, of course, sometimes petitions. They may be calls to a supernatural being for healing, guidance, or even a bit of rain to drench a drought-ridden field. Some prayers of petition are meant to kill. In the Shellac song above, the singer Steve Albini calls on God to kill two people, a woman and a man. As listeners, we suspect that it may have something to do with infidelity, or perhaps a selfish emotional desire for revenge over a relationship that went sour. This sentiment isn’t relegated to the fictions within post-punk songs. An acquaintance who suffered abuse from an alcoholic father once told me that, as a child, he prayed for God to kill his dad. And in some religious narratives about prayer—specifically those found among certain kinds of evangelicals who practice spiritual warfare—God may respond by choosing to kill someone, regardless of whether the human who made the prayer wished such an outcome.
I first became acquainted with spiritual warfare several years ago, when a student came into my office, sat down, and told me that he was very tired from being out late the previous night. The university at which I was a visiting professor was known as a Great Lakes region party school, so I wasn’t surprised to hear him say this. But then he told me that he had been out all night on a “prayer walk.” He was part of a small group of evangelical students who had walked the campus and town, using prayer to discover “demonic strongholds,” and then praying and reading Bible verses at those spots in an attempt to banish the pesky resident demons. I asked him where he learned to do this. The question awakened him from his lack of sleep and he told me that he and his group had recently attended a spiritual warfare conference featuring the pastor and “Third Wave” evangelicalism founder Peter Wagner. With excited gestures and animated voice, he related what I would later come to identify as Third Wave theology about the existence of demons on earth and the need for Christians, particularly those gifted as “intercessors,” to act on God’s behalf to battle Satan and his demonic minions through spiritual warfare prayers and activities.
The “Third Wave” is a term coined by former Fuller Theological Seminary Professor Peter Wagner in 1988. The name described what he and some of his colleagues viewed as a new Evangelical movement of the Holy Spirit—the latest in an historical succession with two previous “waves,” the birth of Pentecostalism at the turn of the twentieth century and the charismatic movement of the 1960s and early 1970s. Though the Third Wave (and now the related Apostolic Reformation movement) is a minority group within American Evangelicalism that has received little attention from religious studies scholars, its influence can be seen in as variant examples as televangelist Pat Robertson’s 2010 comment that the Haitian earthquake was caused by a pact the country’s founders made with Satan, former Alaskan Governor Sarah Palin’s videotaped deliverance prayer by an African exorcist, and Evangelical missionary strategies in Asia, the Caribbean, Africa, and Latin America.
One tale that the student shared from the spiritual warfare conference described how a “witch” died when she was persistent in protesting an Alaskan school board’s use of Christian prayer in their meetings. Spiritual warfare groups there had been praying hard for God to resolve the issue in favor of continuing the prayers. These “prayer warriors,” the story went, did not pray for any violence to come to the witch, but apparently the woman’s attempt to stop the violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution resulted in God’s wrath, leading her to die of a heart attack.
Third Wave spiritual warfare stories are filled with images of demons and idioms of warfare. While practitioners are careful to say that they never pray harm on anyone, stories about God deciding to kill Satan’s earthly representatives occasionally appear. In one story, Peter Wagner suggests that the saint San La Muerte was one of several demonic “territorial spirits” who had control over the Argentinian city of Resistencia. Wagner took a spiritual warfare team to battle the demons with prayer and revival services. His story concludes gruesomely—and in Wagner’s telling victoriously—when God apparently kills a leading San La Muerte devotee. Two weeks after the warfare had commenced, Wagner reports, the “high priestess” of San La Muerte in Resistencia died in a fire in which the flames selectively burned up the woman, her mattress, and her statue of San La Muerte.
For Third Wave spiritual warfare writers and practitioners, the opponent is always Satan. But his visage appears in other peoples’ religions, cultures, and politics. Spiritual warfare enthusiastically marks boundaries, divides pure from impure, distinguishes orthodox from heretical, and separates godly from satanic. And, sometimes, within this religious imaginary, prayers can kill.