What do we do today? Do we pray for our country today? How do we begin to resist this catastrophe? Perhaps we should start with acknowledging who we have been and where we are today.
I’ll start with an admission. I’m not the praying type. But it’s not like I haven’t tried. Prayer, in common usage in English and in our western monotheisms, implies begging for supernatural intervention. I have no such faith in a force beyond our human energies to direct our destiny. For me, the beauty of our humanity comes with our limitations and so with the possibilities we create to face the facts of mortal existence while we pursue what justice and civilization might offer as consolation. I am content to leave the rest to those who believe there is more than our humanity shared on the other side of their prayers. I’m resolved to stay in this world with all of our human foibles and our so too with our gifts. Humans can be far more than our selfish genes would prefer.
Now say what you will to soften that landing, but we beg, we pray because we are at wits end, because our recourse to reason, however it may also be at work, does not suffice. We’re asking for help, for intervention, for somethingto act with us or for us that can change the course of events. It’s just true. We don’t want all that life offers, so we formulate responses. We’re certainly going to need our passions engaging the hope for change. In vision and idealism we create purpose, the motivation to action, the process of engagement that brings progress. But that process invites reflection first on what we have done. Pray, listen to that voice too.
To “pray” can simply mean to ask, though we know it usually means far more than that. That’s one of the ironies of hope too. What we want may be beyond our control to manifest and the consequences are all too real. But unless we ask for what we want, how are we to know?
Now for a bit of genuine prosaic distraction, the kind that provides the cerebral consolation fitting to those who can’t fathom supernatural interventions, think it all a mere illusion (you know who you are), or whose sanguinity is more earnest than mine. For the inveterately hopeful, all true things are consolations. For those who failed Prayer 101 (and 201, 301, and the graduate courses too), we too need our consolation. (Nota bene: I managed not to fail some other classes.)
I would include President Obama in the category of the genuinely prayerful. His farewell admonition to continue in the hard word of citizenship resonates with his natural buoyancy, which I have always admired and taken as a virtue I lack. To put the matter in terms more realpolitik, I would regard the principal failure of the Obama years to be an underestimation of the malignant determination and odious jobbery of his opposition. Nothing about the real work of citizenship will change the hearts and minds of those for whom that work involves changes they despise. The change we want is precisely the change they oppose. Do you think prayer is going to change that? Their workis also to oppose ours and by any and every means. Our sane recourse will be to use their tactics. And at what cost to our ideals?
What we face today is America’s shadow entering onto the global stage of power with nothing between ourselves and that darkness but…us. So let’s go back to prayer for a moment, just in case we believe hope or prayer will deliver more. I will all of the intellectual beguilement I can get just to make it through today.
Who knows how long people have been praying. I suspect the correct answer is since there have been humans, the kind that realize we as individuals do not control our fate. We’re always looking for that edge that might just spare us the awful consequences. Turning wishes into actions only partially suffices, which is another reason we pray. Turning to ourselves may be enough. That would be my prayer. You will likely arrive at your own too. Who among us does not want more than what is? So a few more words about “prayer” no matter what kind of prayer you are. (Skip this next part unless also you think it might be the only interesting piece of this essay.)
We arrive at “prayer” in English well after the Norman’s change the language post-1066. I’m sure we were praying before that. The Old French “preier” transmutes to a recognizable modern form “prier” around 900CE. Most words in French —certainly to the chagrin and likely rejection of today’s native speakers— are re-pronunciations (one might say more honestly mispronunciations) of earlier Latin. Isolated after the fall of Rome, the language of the Franks took its own turn towards the exquisitely beautiful form we hear today. But back to roots: the Latin root “precari” means to beg, to make an earnest entreaty. The noun in Vulgar Latin is *precare, like the Italian *pregare, and the origin is *prex, meaning “prayer, request.” The Proto-Indo-European root is *prek meaning “to ask, to request, to entreat.” The PIE mother source here leads another way to the Sanskrit praśna, meaning to question– think of the famous Praśna Upanisad, which warranted commentary from the great Śankarācārya. There is also the Avestan frashna-“question;” Old Church Slavonic prositi, Lithuanian prasyti “to ask, beg;” Old High German frahen, German fragen, Old English fricgan “to ask” a question. Just in case you were asking. Some of us pray, others of us do etymology.
In addition to prayer, most religions also have canons. Canons are a form of the category “list”: we make lists and call them “sacred” when we think they things on those lists are somehow more valuable, more inviolate or meaningful than others that don’t make the list. Genesis is apparently more important than Maccabees. Your call. Americans too need lists, canons to remind us who we think we are. We prefer document lists like the ones that begin, “We the People” or “When in the course of human events.” Our documents outline our ideals, fraught as they are with ironies if not with outright fraud. After all, the demand for self-government promising human rights and participation for all deliberately excluded all but certain white men. We might instead look to a list of dates for some other form of canonical reference, for a way of gaining focus on our ideals with a more honest recognition of our failures included.
How about this one:
December 7, 1941;
September 11, 2001;
April 14, 1865;
November 22, 1963.
April 4, 1968.
June 6, 1968.
January 20, 2017.
This list is likely familiar to any American but given the current state of our civics education, you will forgive me if I doubt that too. On each of these dates we grieve the catastrophe represented, recognize the infamy of the event, and acknowledge that a “next” America evolved from an historic moment. We might like to say that Pearl Harbor’s infamy brought with it the defeat of fascism lest we also be compelled to remember the treatment of Japanese Americans. We’re not innocents to any of our ideals, no matter how noble the cause. Today we add one more to this list.
Today “America” inaugurates a President set upon abandoning the ideals of decency, reflection, fairness, wisdom, and inclusive government for venality, indifference, chaos, and incompetence. Welcome to our next America.
If I were the praying type this is what I would say:
Today I pray that the new President and his coterie are merely incompetent rather than as malevolent as I believe them to be.
Today I pray that the American people will do what they have not done on each of these days of infamy: rise to a new occasion of greatness to live up to the ideals of our experiment in freedom.
Today I pray we are not witnessing the death of what might have been: a great nation descending into ignorance and the incapacity to distinguish between great leaders and cartoon dictators.
But the truth is, today I will not pray. Prayer, in our common usage in English and our historical religions, is far too close to begging for supernatural intervention. I prefer the Sanskrit related term, praśna, or questioning. Like Congressman John Lewis, I question the legitimacy of this Presidency, not only for it legality but more directly for its moral indecency. The affront to our collective ideals could not be more explicit.
From January 20, 2017 “America” will indeed carry on. But that “America” —captured in quotation marks— is all but virtual, a fictive ideal that has given way to a reality that now brings joy to our adversaries and would make Orwell spin in his grave. That is, if dead could spin. Our principles of resistance are no different than they were in the original canon, so long as we recognize the canon of infamous dates as well. What we need is a more honest confrontation with our sordid past and a citizenry mature and serious enough to look at who we have been and what we want to become. Lord, hear our prayer.
The President of Hope and Change leaves us with all the dignity and decency we recognized from the outset and that is cause enough to grieve, as the day also a kind of death. Much like the day the country lost Lincoln, King, and both Kennedys, what we once had is now beyond our power to retrieve. The noteworthy claim is not the achievement of Obama but the future that could have been and will not be. We do not start all over. There are no do-overs when the loss is real, only consequences. That is what the future portends. And dealing with those consequences will be Obama’s work of citizenship with his leadership only amidst the citizenry. Do I need remind you We the People are not of the same work?
I mean to stand against this new government of venality because our work of citizenship must acknowledge first that we, America, have lost our way and may indeed not find the path we once imagined as our idealistic beginning. We will need to return to those noble and immortal words that meant to guide us to “a more perfect union.” But unless we do it next time with greater honesty and acknowledgement of the canon of dates, we should expect no better result than the one we suffer today, January 20th, 2017. Another day of American infamy.