It seems the New York Times has noticed the debate as to whether people of faith should pray for Christopher Hitchens. I like this; it reflects my feelings, exactly:
Jeffrey Goldberg, a colleague of Hitchens’s at The Atlantic Monthly, consulted the rabbinical authorities and decided that prayer was O.K. On his blog, Goldberg quoted the advice of David Wolpe, a Los Angeles rabbi who has publicly debated Hitchens on a number of occasions: “I would say it is appropriate and even mandatory to do what one can for another who is sick; and if you believe that praying helps, to pray. It is in any case an expression of one’s deep hopes. So yes, I will pray for him, but I will not insult him by asking or implying that he should be grateful for my prayers.”
So, to pray or not to pray? What should one do?
The New York Times story notes, "While Hitchens himself doesn’t seem to have issued any official directives, prayers have rolled in from [the Anchoress] Elizabeth Scalia (no relation to the Supreme Court justice) at First Things, Greg Kandra at The Deacon’s Bench and Pat Archbold at The National Catholic Register."
“While Hitchens himself doesn’t seem to have issued any official directives . . .”
This is the real sticking point.
There are at least three points or perspectives, all of which need to be considered, in answering this question –
(1) Us, the one potentially offering the prayer. That is, do we have a moral obligation or permission to pray (or to not pray)?We are obligated in faith to be charitable toward Hitchens, i.e. to love him, as we love ourselves and as Jesus loves us. BUT, part of love is respecting the free will of the other person. Love, even when expressed by prayer, cannot be forced upon the other against his will. The Samaritan dragging the wounded man out of the ditch when the man demands to be left alone is not “good”; what he does is an act of violence, not charity. Not even God forces His love upon people.
(2) Hitchens (or any other person for whom it is to be offered). Is the prayer welcome or unwelcome? Is he receptive or at least neutral, or is he adamately opposed?
(3) The content of the prayer. Just exactly what does one pray for? His physical health, his spiritual health, his conversion?
Hence the dillema. Does our prayer end up being a true act of love or an act of unlove against the will of the person? It depends.
Of course, the Samaritan can both love the man in the ditch and still respect his will by doing something else, call 911 perhaps, and let the EMTs come and offer their assistance. Perhaps the man will accept it then.
So, we have an obligation to love Hitchens. The question is how? For many people, we might in good faith and conscience simply assume that our prayers are welcomed. And since Hitchens has not publicly said “no,” perhaps we might assume the same for him, but we might be presuming too much. Which get us to (3) the content of the prayer.
Just exactly what do we or should we pray for in the case of Hitchens? If he welcomes prayer, then we have no problem, we can pray all out for whatever good thing we might want.
But if he does not welcome prayer, what then? We can still be charitable, and still pray, but we would seem to be limited in what we pray for, or at the very least, would need to make the petition conditional (e.g. “if he is willing to accept it Lord . . .”). We cannot go so far as to drag him out of the ditch and pour oil on him against his wishes, but we can call 911. We can stand by, ready to assist if he later wants it. We can tell him that lodging is available to him when and if he is willing to accept it.
It is not as easy a moral question as it might seem. It would be a lot easier if all we had to consider was (1) us. But (2) and (3) are factors we must consider as well.
The one thing that we CANNOT do is reflexively and arbitrarily say, “to hell with Hitchens, he’s only getting what he deserves.”