Since mid-January, I have been trying to practice what Martin Luther King preached, to love my opponents. It’s rough going, and I’m not doing all that well. But as is said in \Pirke Avot\ (“Sayings of the Fathers,” a compilation of ancient wisdom that appears in many Hebrew prayerbooks), “It is not given to you to complete the task, but neither may you desist from it.” So I am not ready to give up trying.
“[I]n the struggle for human dignity,” King wrote, “the oppressed people of the world must not succumb to the temptation of becoming bitter or indulging in hate campaigns. To retaliate in kind would do nothing but intensify the existence of hate in the universe. Along the way of life, someone must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate. This can only be done by projecting the ethic of love to center of our lives.” (Read more of the text in my blogpost of 17 January.)
But how is it done? How do we love the sinner while condemning the sin? How do we know our intentions are truly helping to intensify the existence of love in the universe? How do we avoid drifting toward hate without even knowing it?
The President of Harvard has lately offered us an object lesson. Lawrence Summers is a controversial guy, fond of making provocative public pronouncements without evident regard for those he might offend. In 2001, just after Summers left his post as Secretary of the U.S. Treasury to take on the Harvard presidency, he reportedly accused high-profile public intellectual Cornel West of focusing too much on political activities and popular culture rather than traditional academic responsibilities. West was offended. Leaving Harvard, he was welcomed to Princeton as an academic superstar.
Now Summers is in the hot seat again, this time for having suggested in a speech that innate differences (a lack of “intrinsic aptitude”) may account for women’s relatively low representation in the sciences. Naturally, Cornel West was among those asked to comment.
“I’ve been praying for the brother, hoping he would change,” he said. “It’s clear he hasn’t changed, I feel bad for Harvard as an institution and as a great tradition. It was good to see the faculty wake up. The chickens have come home to roost.”
My first reaction was delight. I happen to agree with West’s position in this case, and it seemed to me he had indeed honored Dr. King’s exhortation to love by praying for Summers rather than cursing him. But then the shadow appeared: you see, I’ve been prayed for and seen others prayed for, and it hasn’t always been a pretty thing.
For example, believing Christians have prayed for me to accept Jesus, and I have found this offensive. It feels to me like an form of supernatural recruiting, one that does not respect my autonomy or difference. Of course, history comes into it too, the Inquisition and innumerable other times religious recruitment has gone beyond prayer and persuasion to entail blood and pain. Just about every prayerbook has pages that call on God to smite our enemies, sometimes in gory detail; you or I might skip over them, or use our simultaneous translators to spin and adjust the words, but there they are, and some people recite them in dead earnestness.
So how could it be done? How could I pray for George Bush with a purity of intention that honors my very real truth, the same one West expressed with respect to Summers, that I want him to change, and not necessarily along the same lines he wishes for himself?
The Torah and prophetic readings assigned by the Hebrew calendar to this week are intense: In \Ki Tissa\, Exodus 30:11-34:35, Moses goes onto Mount Sinai and receives the tablets of the law with the ten commandments, along with detailed instructions on how to care for them. When he comes down, the people are worshipping a golden calf made from their melted-down jewelry. Moses shatters the tablets. Then, moved by compassion, he negotiates with God for mercy on the people’s behalf. Charged with keeping the people from worshipping false gods, Moses is granted a second set of tablets and carries them down the mountain, his face radiant with light.
In the Haftorah, the accompanying prophetic reading (I Kings 18:1-39), Elijah faces off in contest with prophets he knows to be false. He and the prophets of Baal each prepare wood, meat and meal for a burnt-offering, then pray for divine intervention to light the fire. Even though the Baal priests cry out and slash their flesh until the blood streams, their fire remains unlit. Then it’s Elijah’s turn. He pours water three times over his wood and his offering, until it saturates the earth. Then he asks God to answer him by lighting the fire. In an instant, even the sodden earth is consumed in flames.
For me, the lesson is to test our actions empirically, by what we know from experience to be true. I find myself feeling alarmed these days as I watch our president make speeches in Europe. He gives off such an arrogant energy, such a satisfied sense of being anointed, of certainty in the rightness of his own will — plain and simple, it scares me. Worshipping ourselves seems to me another way of worshipping the golden calf. But instead of praying for him to be struck down, or even to see the light, here are the prayers I want to offer. Whether they will be answered, I cannot say. But I know from experience that these are healing intentions, and that when they are manifested in action, they can change lives.
I pray for the healing of our president’s inherited pain, and of all resulting distortions of character or relationship;
I pray for him to receive an experience of deep empathy, one that inspires him to use all his powers to help alleviate suffering;
I pray for a great awakening in his own heart and mind to the harm his past actions have caused, and an infusion of love and will that enables him to convert that legacy into one of healing; and
I pray that he is granted an experience of the holiness in all things, of the breath of life that connects us to all beings, an experience so powerful it can never be forgotten or ignored.
My reality test? I pray for the same things for myself, and if you permit me, for you as well.