Last week Ana and I had the opportunity to attend the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C.
If Philadelphia is the City of Brotherly Love, its neighbor to the south is often seen as the city where brother gets along with brother … well, like Cain and Abel. Yet for sixty-three years, politicians of all stripes (that is, of both stripes) have met together quietly once a week, and in larger numbers once a year, for an event of concerted cameraderie.
Yes, we live in a time of rampant partisanship. Yes, Congressional paralysis seems to be at an all-time high. (Or is that “low”?) Still, the prayer breakfasts go on, and the mere fact that this is so inspires me and reminds me how amazing an experiment is the country in which I live.
Last month, a circuit court judge in South Carolina overturned the 1961 conviction of nine African American students who were arrested for refusing to vacate an all-white lunch counter or to pay a fine for their affront. Their protest and incarceration became a signal moment in the growing civil rights movement.
The lawyer who represented the defendants this January was, incredibly, the same man who first represented them fifty-four years ago. The judge who presided over the reversal was the nephew of the judge who presided over the original conviction.
As he signed the order the judge said, “We cannot change history, but we can right history.”
The local prosecutor, who had helped initiate the motion, then formally apologized to the men.
This is why I love this country. We can be stubborn, pig-headed, righteously indignant, holier-than-thou windbags (and often are) — but then we turn around and do something like this!
I have no doubt that among the four or five thousand people sitting in that vast D.C. breakfast room last week, plenty of grudges and arguments and resentments quietly simmered. But there was no mistaking the sincerity of the two senators, one a Republican from Mississippi, the other a Democrat from Pennsylvania, who chaired the event, and the many others who spoke in this nonsectarian, nonpartisan, nonadversarial pow-wow.
A rabbi, Gregory S. Marx, gave the opening prayer. King Abdullah II of Jordan was scheduled to do a scripture reading (though an erupting crisis in Jordan had forced him to return home). The Dalai Lama was in attendance. Julián Castro did a reading. Sister Mary Scullion, the wonderful saintly woman who runs Project HOME, offered a stunning prayer for the poor. Dr. Kent Brantly, the doctor who contracted Ebola while engaged in treating others for the disease in Africa and who, after recovering, donated his plasma to help isolate a cure, shared with us a remarkably beautiful interpretation of the Lord’s Prayer, expanding its language and imagery to make it a powerful prayer of support for all world leaders. (That last one left Ana in tears.)
It was, all in all, a moving display of us-ness — not one of us-and-them-ness.
The president was there, and whaddya know, someone filmed his remarks (despite strict rules against doing so), and whaddya know, something he said was yanked out of context and set on fire to inflame a whole media cycle or two’s worth of sputtering outrage.
But I was there. I heard what he actually said, not just the sound bites but the whole message. Which was, in essence, this:
In this world of turmoil and trouble, our dealings with others need to come first from a place of doubt and humility — not the assumption that we know best, that we have all the answers, that our way is the right way, but out of the effort to contribute to solutions to the best of our ability; and second, with a vigilant suspicion of governments (and, by implication, of anyone) who would promote one singular religious viewpoint above all others as being the correct and superior set of beliefs; and third, that in any event our every action should be animated by the Golden Rule, that is, by the impulse of genuine brotherly love.
You may be an Obama fan or an Obama detester; either way, that really wasn’t the issue, not at this event. After all, most of the other speakers said pretty much the same thing, or things cut from the same cloth.
Still, politicians come and go. Writers endure.
What kept resonating for me throughout the morning was a passage by Neil Gaiman, one of my very favorite writers, which I loved so much I had read it out loud to Ana just the day before.
I bumped into it while reading Gaiman’s introduction to his new short story collection, Trigger Warnings, and highlighted it:
I am not scared of bad people, of wicked evildoers, of monsters and creatures of the night.
The people who scare me are the ones who are certain of their own rightness. The ones who know how to behave, and what their neighbors need to do to be on the side of good.
When I was a young man, being right was very important to me. I’m not sure I was aware of this at the time; it is only in retrospect that I see how strongly this was so.
In the earnest pursuit of being right, I’m afraid I trampled over a good number of flowerbeds, at times squashing flat such things as others’ feelings, common sense, and at times even the gentle perspective of humor.
These days, being right has less appeal.
Getting things right is as much a thrill as ever, which is why I love being an editor and savor nothing quite so much as going through a finished manuscript (or blog post, as I’m doing right now) for final tweaks and corrections.
Doing the right thing, or at least striving to (like the South Carolina judge last month), absolutely. I relish acting as a righter, as well as a writer.
But being right? Here I’m a good deal more cautious. In the rush to rightness, too many flowerbeds get trampled.
“Answers,” I once heard a wonderful radio broadcaster observe, “are for people who aren’t comfortable living with questions.”
The Apostle Paul wrote about this to his friends in Corinth: “Prophecies will fail,” he said, “knowledge will wear away in time. Not love, though. What’s more, love never parades itself around, or puffs itself up, or behaves rudely.”
(“…or constantly tries to prove that it’s right,” I imagine him adding under his breath as he writes.)
“Love is patient and kind; love endures.
“In fact,” he goes on to say, “there are three things that last: faith, hope, and love. And the greatest of these three — no contest — is love.”
“The obsessive need to be right,” observes Eckart Tolle, “is an expression of the fear of death.”
Perhaps love is its opposite: the relinquishing of that need, the acceptance of impermanence, and a fuller embracing of life.
(Photo: Members of the Friendship Nine, back at the lunch counter at McCrory’s Five and Dime in 2015. Black Westchester)