Peace prayer 4.3

I struggle with how to respond to American politics today.

I grew up at a time when protest against government policies could be verbally shrill, even when still nominally “non-violent.” People who could argue their political viewpoints peacefully — especially if I agreed with them — always impressed me. But they were few and far between.

There was a certain sense of entitlement to be harsh. We were, after all, protesting unjust wars and unjust social conditions. We were protesting for an end to human suffering of all sorts. Anyone who thought differently was, of course, in favor of maintaining an unjust status quo. They were therefore unworthy of respect or politeness. In fact, it was a moral statement to disrespect, perhaps hate them.

At this time in my life, I look on God as being in charge of all things — even the most disturbing ones. I try to accept God’s Will in all things.

I’ve also tried to internalize Patanjali’s statement in his Yoga Sutras (I:2) — “Yoga is the restraint of modifications of ‘mind-stuff’.” Yoga is maintaining peace of mind. True peace of mind cannot be maintained without faith. “Faith” does not mean denying that suffering exists, but by affirming that all that happens is Divinely ordained for an ultimate Good, and that we nevertheless have responsibility to ease suffering wherever we come upon it. 

I’ve heard the sharp criticism of this by those who are more strictly “political” — “How can you care about your own peace when there is so much suffering around you?”

Although the Baal Shem Tov is reported to have said, “For before one prays for general redemption one must pray for the personal salvation of one’s own soul,” (from: Toldot Ya’akov Yosef), Rav Kook — Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Kook — himself clearly stated that our spiritual goals cannot be complete without concern for perfecting society and world (although societal goals do not replace spiritual goals):

“Every philosophy which renounces the perfection of the physical world and the proper order of society, and floats in the spiritual realm alone, priding itself only in the perfection of souls and their success, is based on a falsehood that has no link with reality.
And every philosophy which is unconcerned with the elevation to eternal ideals, and places its attention only on the mending of material existence, even if it includes ethical programs and efforts toward justice and equity — will, in the end, be corrupted because …it is detached from the basis of eternal life and the aspiration for it.” [1]

The answer to the critique is that I can be of more help when I’m peaceful, than when I’m feeling inner fury and turmoil. 

How we use speech is part of how we maintain our own inner peace.

Sri Swami Satchidananda says: “Speech should bring tranquility and be truthful, pleasant and beneficial. As the Vedic teaching goes, ‘Satyam bruyat priyam bruyat‘ — ‘Speak what is true, speak what is pleasant.’ And one should not speak what is true if it is not pleasant…if something is true and unpleasant, we should make it more pleasant by presenting it in a proper way.” [2]

Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan, known as “The Chafetz Chaim” (after the title of his book), similarly taught on right speech:

1) Do not spread a negative image of someone, even if that image is true.
2) Do not share information that can cause physical, financial, emotional, or spiritual harm.
3) Do not embarrass people, even in jest.
4) Do not pretend that writing or body language or innuendo is not “speech.”
5) Do not speak against a community, race, ethnic group, gender, or age group.
6) Do not gossip, even to your spouse, relatives, or close friends.
7) Do not repeat gossip, even when it is generally known.
8) Do not tell people negative things said about them, for this can lead to needless conflict.
9) Do not listen to gossip. Give everyone the benefit of the doubt. [3]

I endorse opposition to laws that will harm people — the proposed changes in health care, for example. I can’t and don’t endorse fury-driven insults at those who are trying to put such laws in place. I don’t deny that feelings of repugnance for them arise in me. But I don’t justify my right to those feelings, either. Whatever I do — even in the service of what I believe is right — I must be aware of my continuing interaction with God. God is the Ultimate Peace in and around me. I am always responsible to harmonize myself with that — just as Avraham did when binding Yitzhak. 

I also can’t endorse reviling “religion” in general, in the interests of social justice. I understand its source: rejection of the right-wing political or economic positions offered in the name of “scripture” or “religion.” “Religion” — especially the Christianity and Judaism with which I’m familiar (I’m less familiar with Islam and other religions, but would assume it’s true of them, too) — always asserts the priority of the care of the weak and helpless over almost every other consideration:

“…this is the fast I [God] desire:
To unlock the fetters of wickedness,
And untie the cords of the yoke
To let the oppressed go free;
To break off every yoke.

It is to share your bread with the hungry,
And to take the wretched poor into your home;
When you see the naked, to clothe him,
And not to ignore your own kin.” (Isaiah 58:6-7)

We even declare it clearly on Yom Kippur, of which this selection from Isaiah forms part of the scriptural reading.

James, too, wrote:

“Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?” (James 2:15-16)

I would even go as far as to say that the entire emphasis on compassion that exists in Western culture — however imperfectly — has its source in the Christian teachings that themselves have their source in the commands of Torah and prophets to do so.

It would be more appropriate, then, to respect “religion” and refute interpretations that misuse it to endorse any law or behavior that hurts others.

The issues these days are also beyond the limits of individual compassion, although they include it. The fight — the war — is about the use of governmental funds. Still, I would say: A society has the same responsibility as an individual, to care and provide for the weak and poor, and otherwise not to hurt its own citizens. One person objects to government funds paying for abortions; I object to government funds paying (excessively) for wars I don’t endorse. Yet, our whole democratic process was meant to allow for negotiations in which each side gives something and gets something, in order to maintain any society — any government — at all.

I oppose what I find harmful and unjust.

But I oppose it with consistent attention to my relationship with the Divine in and around me.   

I oppose it with respect even for those I oppose, whom God is creating no less than God is creating me.

I pray to God. I affirm that God is filling the world with peace, happiness, justice and abundance for every person, while I seek and do my part in bringing that about. 



[1] Kook, Rabbi Abraham Isaac; The Essential Writings of Abraham Isaac Kook; Rabbi Ben Zion Bokser, trans.; Amity House, Inc., © 1988; p. 195-6
[2] Swami Satchidananda; Integral Yoga: The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali; © 1984 by Satchidananda Ashram — Yogaville; p. 95-6