Speaking the Language (12/7/2015)
Last Friday, I had the pleasure of attending the Chicago Sunday Evening Club’s Annual Prayer Breakfast as their guest. Sitting at the table behind me was Governor Rauner, Cook County President Preckwinkle, and the morning’s prayer leaders. Prayer leaders came from the Sikh, Jewish, Muslim, and Christian faiths. The keynote speaker was the lead pastor of the 4th Street Presbyterian Church, a beautiful and vibrant congregation in the heart of the Gold Coast. With this posting, I hope to give a quick recap, and to reflect on the keynote address.
Rauner v. Preckwinkle
Rauner approached the podium with a subdued gravitas. In quiet tones, he reiterated that prayer is an essential tool to heal a divided America. In a particularly clueless address, he repeated the oft-used trope that the biggest threat to our nation is the disintegration of the family unit. For anyone still reeling from Chicago’s spate of police involved shootings, this comment was a slap in the face. Even if not explicit, it was clear that he was assigning blame to the city and state’s poor.
In contrast, Preckwinkle walked forcefully onto the stage. I’ve seen her speak before, and she demands attention. When the hello wasn’t up to her expectations, she made the crowd repeat it again. In very direct opposition, she stated, “I have an enormous respect for the Office of Govenor” (notice, not Rauner himself). Being at the breakfast in a non-political capacity, she was free to speak her mind (and boy, did she ever). During her speech, she cited the lack of trust minority communities have for the police and (more generally) the government. She confirmed that in 2015, racism is still very much alive, and very much a problem. She told us to vote for Kim Foxx (and vote out Alvarez) on March 15. Preckwinkle reminded us, as private citizens of means (95% of the attendees), we have a number of options at our disposal to bring about accountability. After finishing up, a tepid applause followed. More common than claps were open mouthed looks of shock from the majority white, older crowd.
I am not particularly devout. I however do pray on a fairly frequent basis. Mostly, I pray for my health and the health of my family. As someone going through real health issues right now, and prone to bouts of hypochondria, it does provide some relief. Despite the frequency of my prayers, I know that prayer alone won’t fix what’s going on. Praying that I’ll stop smoking won’t actually prevent me from buying cigarettes. Praying that stomach issues get resolved is not the same actually going to a GI doctor and running tests. In all likelihood, my right eye won’t magically regain its vision without proactive dietary changes. The sleep apnea related snoring won’t fix itself without a specially designed mouth guard.
And so it is for the nation. We can’t pray away gun violence. We can’t pray that those wish to do us harm, from every background, will decide to plant a peace garden instead. There is nothing wrong with prayer, but as many have recently said, thoughts and prayers are no substitute for action. If we wish to heal our divided nation, we can’t pray that our elected leaders get the memo telepathically, we actually need to tell them.
Many Voices, a Similar Message
Chicago is a famously diverse place. In writing this blog, I’ve had the honor to learn about and experience many of the world’s faith communities. One faith, Sikhism, is still on my bucket list to visit. I am waiting for the eye to clear up so I can finally get out the suburbs and visit a Gurdwara. In any event, the first prayer leader was a gentleman from the Sikh community. Outwardly Sikh prayer seems to be very different. However, in terms of message, it is remarkably similar. The words are obviously in a different language, and use a completely unfamiliar series of notes. Once translated, the message of being good to one another, recognizing the wisdom of religious teachings, and becoming the best version of ourselves is nearly universal.
Other prayers followed in an identical vein: different faiths, similar conclusions. The purpose of a Prayer Breakfast is to bring together faith leaders from a variety of traditions and embrace their commonalities. I’ve experienced the parallel nature of religion first hand. My own faith journey has taken me to Temples, Mosques, Churches, and Synagogues. At the most basic level, the purpose of all religion is explain the unexplainable, a means to perfect our heart and minds. I hope the takeaway from the breakfast was to recognize the power of coming together and eschewing divisive language that divides Protestant from Catholic, Jew from Muslim, Hindu from Sikh, etc.
The Power of Language
The keynote address was delivered by the pastor for 4th Street Presbyterian Church. Central to her message was the need for a communication reset. Indeed, the language being used by political candidates is as divisive as I can ever remember. That language has consequences as it filters down to the average citizen, and gets reinforced via cable network news and AM radio programming. We see the lack of respect and consideration in our Facebook and Twitter feeds. We no longer know how to talk to one another. We only look for differences, not common ground.
And when candidates like Donald Trump speak, openly espousing hatred and distrust of our Muslim friends and neighbors, there are repercussions. Muslim-Americans see the shift in public opinion against them, and they grow fearful for what may indeed happen. Only during the most shameful periods in American history have entire groups been so demonized, and it reminds me of the dark days of Japanese internment or the Red Scare of McCarthyism. That leap is not as far as we’d like to believe. When BLM protesters are roughed up during political rallies, with candidates saying “they probably deserved it,” I believe our nation is in trouble. There is no compromise, and there is no attempt to see anything but the worst in our opponents (whichever side they may be on).
To quote directly, “As a faith leader who believes that the act of God’s creation was brought about by speaking, the words we use have power. They have the power to shape both perception and reality. Who gets called a thug? Who gets called a loner? The words we use certainly have the power to heal or to wound. The words we use, define our intents in particular ways. Thus, I am becoming more and more convinced that the toxicity in our political and public discourse is having profound and destructive effects on our culture. Tragically, we are becoming very good, quite proficient at othering each other.”
She brought up an example of what can happen when we allow honesty, vulnerability and compromise back into our language. In Cleveland, another city torn apart by police shootings of unarmed black youth, community and faith leaders shared a room with police (brass and officers). The idea was just to begin a dialogue, but once the walls came down, serious progress was made. Real discussion of grievances finally occurred, as both sides were forced to listen, unburdened without the media present. The meeting led to changes within the department on how to better engage poor communities, very tentatively re-establishing trust. Now, there are mechanisms in place to deescalate situations before they lead to violence. Residents say they are more likely to call the police for help, rather than act alone.
Even if my view is that thoughts and prayers without action are mere daydreams, there is enormous value in bringing together people with profoundly different beliefs and political stripes. For a very brief moment, the Prayer Breakfast reminded me what’s possible when we pray together, and stop talking long enough to listen to our shared humanity. I hope Chicago follows the example of Cleveland. I hope we as a nation reject the pettiness, fear, and divisiveness that is poisoning our political process. I hope we stop looking for enemies in any faith community different from our own, and prevent potential radicalization by affording equal participation as Americans.