Elizabeth McAlister, Professor of Religion at Wesleyan University, has spent many years studying Afro-Caribbean religiosity, and has recently turned her interest to aggressive prayer and spiritual warfare in Haiti and the United States. In a recent conversation with Onnesha Roychoudhuri, McAlister discusses what these terms mean, how they have developed in recent years, and their influence in the American Evangelical community.
Onnesha Roychoudhuri: I don’t think many people have heard of “aggressive prayer.” Can you explain what it is?
Elizabeth McAlister: I coined the term “aggressive forms of prayer” so I get to define it, for our intellectual purposes. Aggressive forms of prayer include any prayer—to the monotheistic god of the orthodox monotheistic traditions or to any other deity or spirit—that seeks to harm, debilitate, move, remove, or change another party.
I thought this would be a fruitful category because, in the popular understanding of what prayer is, most people think of a submissive activity. It’s supposed to be loving, beneficial to all, and certainly benevolent. But in the groups that I was studying, that wasn’t necessarily the case. It was often the case that people were praying for someone else to go away, for someone else to be harmed, or for someone else to be caught in a kind of a situation of the prayer subject’s making. I thought that this might be a useful angle to accompany other studies, which tend to look at prayer as a pro-social behavior, or as positive for a community. It also allows for Christianity to be examined along with non-Christian forms on a comparatively level playing field.
OR: Do you feel like this is a category of prayer that is seeing a resurgence, or has it always been present and we’re now carving out space to discuss it?
EM: That’s a great question. I think it’s been a practice all throughout history in various traditions. What is perhaps new, and the reason it really caught my eye, is that since the Obama election, American Evangelicals have been publicly praying against Obama. Once I noticed that, I also noticed that some Evangelicals were also praying against, for example, abortion providers or other social enemies of their own making. So what I think is new is that American Protestants are publicly speaking these prayers. I also think it’s new that social scientists are studying the phenomenon in the contemporary world.
OR: Aside from the contemporary political sphere, where else do we see aggressive prayer today?
EM: This has been a thread all across the charismatic, and particularly, the Pentecostal world. So a couple of our other New Directions in the Study of Prayer grantees, like Ebenezer Obadare and Ruth Marshall, are seeing it in African Pentecostalism. Negative prayer or imprecatory prayer is also famously associated with sorcery and particularly with the Afro-Haitian religion that I study. But when I investigated it further in Haiti, what I realized is that the people who would be accused of or thought of as doing imprecatory or aggressive prayer in that sphere always see themselves as part of a system of justice.
I ran into a lot of counterintuitive findings, where the people doing imprecatory prayer in Vodou actually have a very conscious way of thinking of themselves as spiritual lawyers. In Haiti, the poor have very little hope of gaining justice in the state justice system, and that’s precisely why they have to seek justice in their own forum.
OR: So it’s viewed as a kind of defense rather than offense.
EM: Exactly, it’s spiritual defense. There’s also a very elaborate principle whereby you can’t harm someone if they are not guilty. The prayer will ricochet back on the originator if it’s unjust. The ancestral spirits, who operate in what is thought of as a higher sphere of justice, will cause that to happen; they effect justice.
OR: Do you see similarities between this Haitian understanding of aggressive prayer and the more American Evangelical manifestation of it?
EM: Yes; among American Evangelicals, I discovered that spiritual warfare prayer, which is the most explicit kind of aggressive prayer in the Protestant world, is also bound up in a very complicated theory of justice. Only in their case, they see what they’re doing as carrying out God’s law. They see the world in terms of a legal system of God’s law that Satan penetrated and gained legal rights in. So this is where it gets really interesting: They see the world as having been laid down in a beautiful way, of course in the Garden of Eden. Then the devil comes in and causes the fall of humankind. But the idea is that the devil entered legally, since Eve eats the fruit willingly. They say that Satan, “gained a legal foothold in this world.” And he does that through sin, through Eve and Adam’s sin.
In John 12:31, spiritual warriors say that Satan is called the “prince of this world.” There’s this idea that Satan has legal rights to influence anyone who commits sin against God, and that accounts for one reason why, even though Jesus Christ came and redeemed the world, the world is still in a state of disgrace. Every time people sin, they give Satan a so-called “a welcome mat” to enter this world legally. They repeatedly use this word “legally,” as if to say that once they—the spiritual warriors—understand the legal logic of God’s kingdom and God’s court, then they can move to destroy Satan’s hold on people. They can bring down revival and transform the world into a Christian world.
OR: It’s so elaborate, and so rooted in what I’d think of as a more contemporary legal sensibility.
EM: I know. I love rich religious imaginaries, and the spiritual warfare folks have created a very rich one that includes these legal precepts. There’s even a strand of thought right now that argues that the United States, unbeknownst to itself, has fallen into some contracts with Satan.
They have, as part of what are known as “the gifts of the spirit,” the gift of spiritual discernment, and they claim to be able to discern Satanic activity with their spiritual senses. Right now, they’re claiming that the Statue of Liberty is an image of the Sun God (though it’s actually a depiction of Libertas, the Roman goddess of liberty). And because it’s a pagan statue erected as a national site, it let in pagan influences, which are—by definition—demonic. These Evangelicals have come to the conclusion that America has married itself to demons. They’ve actually created a divorce decree for Americans to divorce themselves from Baal, whom they view as an ancient evil spirit of corrupt governance.
I attended one of these church services where the congregation stood up and went through divorce proceedings. A lawyer who is a spiritual warrior has drawn up a divorce decree from the “Principality of Baal.” Right now, he’s going state by state conducting these ceremonies.
OR: How does this treatment of Baal as real relate to Evangelical beliefs?
EM: Mainstream or traditional Protestantism basically saw pagan religions and traditional religions as simply being ontologically false, so-called “primitive people’s” mistaken belief. The idea being that, once they accepted Christ and science, they’d be on the road to “proper” spirituality and “proper” reason. Many Evangelicals—and Pentecostals in particular—see the spiritual world of other religions as being absolutely real. It’s simply that they understand any spiritual force that isn’t Jesus Christ or the Holy Spirit to be demonic by definition.
OR: When you’re talking about these Evangelicals undertaking spiritual warfare, what are we talking about in terms of numbers? Is this a powerful contingent?
EM: That is a really good question, and it’s one that stymies me. The spiritual warfare movement really is best understood as a network of people who invest in this thought and practice. I think it’s the case that a lot of churches in America tried spiritual warfare on for size, and many of them rejected it. At one point, onlookers were saying that spiritual warfare was on the decline ,if not defunct; but it’s not totally defunct, and it’s still a vocal minority among various networks who now have representatives and prayer groups, some cell groups, and prayer warriors in every single state and in many countries.
It’s quite an extreme wave of thought, but it’s also influenced a great number of less extreme spheres of thought. You find their rhetoric in things like the International House of Prayer, the Promise Keepers movement, the Vineyard churches, the Quiverfull movement, and in lots of independent Evangelical churches. It’s extremely difficult to quantify because nobody’s checking off boxes on any surveys, and it also tends to happen in independent churches, Pentecostal, or charismatic churches, networks, and prayer groups. Someone could be a member of a church that isn’t highly invested in spiritual warfare, but within their church there might be a couple of cell groups that are. I think of it as a wide, global network of a highly invested minority.
OR: In your writing, you talk about how the militarization of prayer has evolved over time.
EM: Christian prayer has been militarized explicitly in lots of periods. Certainly there are military references in the New Testament. The Crusades is a time when the Church became an army, literally on a crusade against Islam, “heathens,” and others. And then, in more contemporary times, the Salvation Army had a very militarized instantiation of Christian prayer. So the militarization of Christian prayer has waxed and waned throughout history.
What intrigues me is the use of contemporary military images and metaphors, but also technologies in Evangelical aggressive prayer. So for example, at the Lausanne conference in 1989, people start to use geographic information system (GIS) mapping technology, developed by the military, in order to map out the world to see which unreached places could be targeted by Christian missions. They started referring to territories in very technological ways, in terms of latitude and longitude. People now will talk about going on mission strikes, doing covert operations, and being on assignment. So I argue that with the relatively new spiritual warfare movement that takes shape from the 1980s on, it’s in a context of the increased militarization of America. They’ve taken on some of that language and imaginary.
OR: How does this kind of militarized missionary mentality play out on the ground?
EM: I wondered that exactly, so I traveled with white American missionaries in Haiti, who are trying to battle so-called demonic forces. The militarization of evangelical missions plays out in Haiti in various ways. For one thing, the mission is conceived of as just that, a military mission, only the enemy is Satan’s army and the goal is to “win souls for Christ.” They talk about “taking land” for Christ; winning territory for Jesus. Missionaries speak in a military-inflected language, saying that they feel they are “on assignment from the Lord.” Many go into training for missionary work; the intensive trainings are called “bootcamps.” Those on short-term missions go to Haiti on teams with matching T-shirts and backpacks that evoke a squad and its gear.
The Haiti case is really interesting and tragic because, in the spiritual mapping and spiritual warfare imagination, God has made certain nations and certain groups of people “chosen.” We are used to that formulation even in American civil religion. But logically, this means certain others are “un-chosen.” And American Evangelicals have claimed that the Founding Fathers were Christian and meant for America to be a Christian nation. They’ve invested a lot of intellectual work in making those claims. And they’ve made Haiti God’s least favorite nation, at least in this hemisphere.
OR: What’s their justification for that claim?
EM: They managed to completely re-narrate Haitian history. They used the fact that Afro-Haitian religion was instrumental in Haitian history—that’s a long story but basically, some of the early slave meetings that led to the slave rebellions were both religious and political. They would do rituals, “feed” the ancestral forces with animal sacrifices, and invoke the spirits for protection. So the evangelicals argue that those revolutionary rituals were actually idolatrous moments that go against the Commandment to not worship idols, and therefore have made Haiti, “the only nation dedicated to Satan.”
They got this thinking out in many Evangelical Protestant circles. I’m fascinated by what this thinking means both for Americans who think that they’re doing good work in Haiti, especially after the earthquake [in 2010], and also for Haitians—some of whom take up this story and accept it. For me, it’s a question of how aggressive prayer has worked to change the historical sense of a particular kind of nationalism. And because this spiritual warfare movement is a global one, with an aggressive, missionary drive, it feeds religious conflict, national identity, and even how families understand their own lineages.