A couple of years ago I thought I needed a change because my life had become too insular. One of the things I thought I needed to do was re-engage my social justice sensibilities that had dulled and been slowly moved to the back of the shelf since leaving the Presbyterian Church some twenty years ago. So I have spent the last many months praying and studying with mainline Christians, many of whom can be characterized as social justice warriors.
Of course this re-engagement came just before interesting days. The U.S. has not had two major party candidates running at the same time who were as polarizing as Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump in my lifetime. Before the election the nation was sure that Hillary would be elected and there was significant concern about how the Trump supporters would react. “We’re one nation,” my liberal friends would intone, “and we have a responsibility to unite after the election.” I have become a bystander in American politics and I don’t think I’ve been emotionally engaged with an election since Ronald Reagan. What follows may or may not align with reality, it is rather how the election affected me emotionally. It’s hard for me to imagine that the Republicans could have been sorer losers or more divisive than the Democrats were in the days following the election. I was appalled and embarrassed and particularly uncomfortable to have divine worship layered over the hatred and vitriol that I was sensing. Even to this day I run into the occasional liberal who says, “He’s not my president.” And I want to shake them and say, “Actually, he is your president, unless you’ve given up your citizenship.”
Eventually, the liberal response to the situation was to form study groups, advocacy groups, organize protests, etc. I was a part of a study group and attended one advocacy group meeting. I found the vitriol toward the conservatives to be just vile enough to make me very uncomfortable. My place of work, in contrast, is a hotbed of conservative radicalism. (Two coworkers claimed they went out and purchased bump stocks the week after the Las Vegas massacre because, “That’s the sort of protection we need, given how pissed off these crazy liberals are.” Given the emotions, I have tended to isolate myself from both sides. Those who claim to hold the middle ground, seem to me to be avoiding the hard issues, preferring to stick their head in the sand, hoping it all just goes away. That is not an option either.
It is in this context of Donald and Hillary, of alt-right and antifa, of pissed off prayers of the people, and a little bit of worry that my bump stock toting cubicle mate doesn’t get too angry this winter that I have been thinking hard about social justice and prayer. My experience with social justice efforts, both back in the 80s and 90s when I was a pastor and now as a layperson, is that while they do some good in relation to the poor and oppressed, they end up being far more divisive than constructive.
Prayer of the heart, on the other hand, is a first, halting step in a completely different direction. As I descend down from head to heart I begin to make the hatred toward President Trump my own and begin to recognize that it’s fear hiding behind a mask of hatred. As I descend down from head to heart I begin to make the bellicose threats of violence that I hear at work my own and I begin to recognize that all the bellowing grows out of the way the “liberal culture” has belittled me and dismissed my concerns for years.
As my prayer moves downward from head to heart, the most difficult step is to do like Christ did so that I may become as Christ is. In order to do this, I must “become sin” just as Christ did so that I may confess that sin, repent, and thus be right with God. So a fundamental part of my prayer is to be clothed with and fully embrace the reality of those with whom I am alienated. This is very heart of the centroversion I talked about in this essay
And once this union of my neighbor and myself begins to take hold, and once I can descend into hell with Christ and fully hear and accept his proclamation of victory over my sin (the sin and hatreds I have become), I can then … and only then … be prepared to go back and do what I need to do. I can serve the poor, I can become an advocate for the oppressed, I can seek justice alongside the immigrants who live in my community who are afraid of the cops, I can encourage the people who are afraid of the immigrants and what sort of future they portend. But I do these things from a completely different direction.
This new context also helps me understand what Erich Neumann was getting on about toward the end of The Origins and History of Consciousness. Social justice by itself is my effort to create the world after my image. Of course I will claim I’m doing it after God’s image and have a dozen Bible verses to prove my point. But because of the breakdown of the collective unconscious, or to put it another way, because I have largely lost my sense of personhood and think of myself and do things as an individual, my efforts at social justice don’t serve society as much as they serve my values. The prayer of the heart is the process by which I can begin to integrate me, as individual, with others including my enemies, even as I integrate myself with God’s energies.
One might argue that this is not really any different than what I used to do as a Presbyterian seeking social justice. I disagree. My experience with social justice efforts then and now is that they is focused on helping them, fixing them, and fixing the system. But what I need to do is help me, fix me, and recognize that I am the system. Over time (and if Neumann is correct, we’re talking decades, not months), as I reintegrate with my neighbor, whether enemy or friend, that reintegration will begin to have reciprocal effects. At that point all of us will begin to move toward the collective “me.”
And with this we have come full circle but ended up at a rather different place. Social justice should still be central in my life, but in a rather different way. I can ignore mishpat because that’s God’s problem and not mine. I can focus on mercy or alms (that is tzedakah) without getting worked up about the broken system which leads to the injustices that cause me the need to give alms. I don’t even need to worry whether the person receiving charity is “worthy of my charity” or whether I am just squandering my money. (And at this point I will stop to let us ponder that sentiment which has been thrown at me on more than one occasion when I give cash to a smelly person. As if I even dare think in terms of them being “worthy of my charity!”) Rather than get caught up in that vicious circle which will inevitably lead to judgment, anger, and possibly retribution, I will use these opportunities to expand my prayer of the heart, thus creating a virtuous circle in which a new community, and eventually, a new collective conscious will begin to arise.
Return to “Prayer as Social Justice” index.