When Politics Is Prayer

By Waskow, Arthur | Tikkun, September/October 1998 | Go to article overview

When Politics Is Prayer


Waskow, Arthur, Tikkun


Some ask: Is it more important to "serve God" and heal the self through religious devotion and individual psychotherapy, or to "do God's will" and heal the world through public action to achieve social change?

Some ask: Is it possible in honesty to separate the two? To me it seems that there is not a conflict but rather a crucial confluence between meditative mysticism and a religious commitment to heal the outer world. Just a generation ago:

The neo-Hasidic new-form Rebbe Abraham Joshua Heschel said "My legs were praying!" as he brought his body into the streets to oppose racism and the Vietnam war.

The monk Thomas Merton kept a Trappist silence through which his voice against that war echoed continents away.

The engaged Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh led Vietnamese into a way of life that affirmed life, against both the tyrannies of Washington/Saigon and those of Hanoi. The "Catholic Worker" Dorothy Day prayed with deep devotion, with her own hands fed the poor in soup kitchens, and was often arrested as she protested war and militarism.

Yet in many religious traditions-even in Judaism, which is often said to be a religion of action-there is an ongoing debate, often carried on in whispers, over these questions. This debate becomes even sharper when there is a strong resurgence of mystical meditation as an avenue toward GodWithin, as there now is in the movement for Jewish renewal.

There are some activists who say that prayer and the impassioned learning of religious texts and tales are a waste of time, and there are some meditators who say that only inner quiet can bring peace into the world.

These two groups tend to confirm each other's argument. A politics carried on in the name of "Ego," curdled by rage, bereft of love, may invent almost as much injustice as it abolishes. So the meditators point their fingers (with more than a hint of their own ego) and say: "I told you so! " And a meditation carried on solely in the Name of "God Within" may often leave others, "outsiders" who also are bearers of the Holy Name, vulnerable to starvation, torture, mass murder. So the activists can also say: "I told you so!" How do we bring our legs to pray, our hearts to act? I want to suggest a theory of "social meditation" or "soulful action."

My basic premise is that what is true in macro, is true in micro, and vice versa. A whole social system is in its way a MacroPerson, just as a single human being is a MicroSociety. A single person enslaved to ego is analogous to a whole society held prisoner by those in power.

And the paths to healing are similar too, but they must take part in their different system-scales and therefore each healing may look quite different on the surface.

The fact that a large number of human beings become bearers of personal equanimity does not in itself create a society of justice and equality, so long as the institutions of that society are structured for domination. And making a just society does not automatically create mentschlich human beings, though Marxist theory ardently hoped for the emergence of a "New Man" from social transformation. Neither change follows automatically from the other, but each can help bring the other closer. A society more just, more peaceful, makes it easier for individuals to do the prayer and meditation that makes them whole. People who have faced their shadow sides and cleaned out much of the rage they have inherited from past mistreatment are more likely to heal society. But the two kinds of work, while analogous, are distinct and different.

When we call a person "spiritual," what do we mean? That s/he sees her/his self as part of a larger Whole; that s/he is not driven by work, but is able to rest and reflect in a holy rhythm; that s/he elevates no partial truth into an allconsuming Idol; that s/he knows when and how to relinquish control over others and over her/ his own future; that s/he listens with the heart to the pain and joy of others; that s/he can meet others deeply in I-Thou relationships, as well as make things happen in the I-It world. …

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