O Lord, mercifully receive the prayers of your people who call upon you, and grant that they may know and understand what things they ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to fulfill the same … (Book of Common Prayer)
Every Sunday in the liturgical year has a Prayer for the Day, and this is the one recited in Episcopal churches annually on the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, which in 2016 happened to be July 10. After a week filled with so much troubling violence in America, it was a prayer we badly needed. How in such times can we know and understand what we ought to do? Who will supply the grace and power to find a constructive way forward?
So many words have been written and spoken in recent days as thoughtful people try to grasp where we are, how we got here, and where we must go. It’s an important and necessary conversation, and I feel the imperative, as all responsible citizens must, to add my own voice to the dialogue. I should say something, but I don’t know exactly what. I can hear T. S. Eliot whispering in my ear: “Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought.”[i]
I have been on vacation, enjoying the Olympic Track & Field Trials in Oregon, staying in a house without television. I’ve heard and read some news, but have not been steeped in constant reportage. And I’ve not seen a single image of the violence. Although columnist Leonard Pitts interrupted his own vacation in Greece to write that “America has gone mad and there’s no place to hide,” I have maintained a certain religious distance from the immersive angst of endless news, since it is only at our peril that we compromise personal Sabbaths. So I am less informed than most about the events of recent days.
But I have read some commentary, and I was particularly struck by Andrew O’Hehir’s Salon article, “Death in Dallas and America’s existential crisis: Our new ‘civil war’ over the nature of reality.”[ii] He describes an America “divided not just by race, culture and ideology, but between competing versions of reality.” While political conflict, culture wars and violent acts have always been with us, today’s “mutual incomprehension” and a “near-total inability to communicate” have not. Competing sides live in alternative universes where mutually acknowledged facts are hard to come by.
At a recent confrontation between demonstrators and counter-demonstrators, a reporter stood in the street between them, taking notes on the slogans and epithets being shouted from opposite sidewalks. A policeman told her she couldn’t stay in the middle of the street. “You have to stand on one side or the other,” he said.
But is there really no place to stand between irreconcilable polarities, no place where we can honor one another with the gift of listening? O’Hehir puts the question in vivid terms:
“Which would be more useful: For me to confront the fact that large numbers of my fellow citizens really believe that black radicals are waging a race war against white America and the police, and that Obama and Hillary Clinton hope to flood the country with Muslims and Mexicans while building socialism? And then try to figure out what the hell happened, and whether I can do anything to bridge the gap between that reality and mine? Or for me to carry on ridiculing others for their paranoid and superstitious beliefs, and congratulating myself for being a product of my class and educational background?”
Can we explore ways to listen to one another? To learn each other’s names, to hear each other’s stories, to understand one another’s language? To risk being stretched and challenged by alternate perspectives?
Such conversation ought to be be curated in churches, schools, homes and civic spaces. But what about the overheated environment of a protest situation? Even there? What would happen if there were a designated “argument-free” listening space at every demonstration, where people could speak without being judged, and the real pain and anxiety beneath the reactive and polarizing rhetorics could be received and acknowledged with respect and compassion?
Impossible? Then let the artists and saints show us how. Dostoevsky, for example, envisioned an improbable example of compassionate listening in The Brothers Karamazov. The brothers and their father are meeting with the saintly Father Zossima at his monastery in the hope of resolving a bitter family dispute. It doesn’t take long for the elder Karamazov and his son Dimitri to disgrace themselves before the holy monk as they bicker and shout and wish each other dead. But instead of intervening with words, Zossima suddenly kneels before Dimitri to kiss his feet. No one knows what to make of this unseemly action, but the monk later explains that when he realized the depth of Dimitri’s inner pain, and foresaw how much suffering it would bring him, he was impelled to make an extreme gesture of compassion. Instead of being sucked into the specific content of the argument, Father Zossima had perceived the pain and suffering behind it, and responded with unconditional love.
And so must we all. As Bobby Kennedy told a shocked and grieving black audience the night Martin Luther King was shot:
“What we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but love and wisdom and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer in our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.”[iii]
[i] “East Coker” in Four Quartets
[iii] Speech in Indianapolis, Indiana, April 4, 1968: http://www.jfklibrary.org/Research/Research-Aids/Ready-Reference/RFK-Speeches/Statement-on-the-Assassination-of-Martin-Luther-King.aspx