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Political Activism as a Form of Prayer

Reflecting on the rituals and higher purpose of protest.

In the Fall of 1984, when the international movement to end apartheid in South Africa was in full swing, I happened to be in Washington, D.C. for a day. Knowing that opponents of apartheid were holding vigils in front of the South African Embassy every evening during rush hour, I stopped there before heading home to Philadelphia. In front of a large building set back from the street, I joined some hundred strangers who were marching back and forth in a loop, chanting to the sound of a drumbeat as cars honked and night fell. There on a narrow strip of sidewalk, I simultaneously lost myself and gained the strength to challenge one of the most brutal and oppressive regimes of the day.

The profound connection that I experienced with the divine that evening changed the way I’ve understood religion ever since. Rather than seeing religion and political activism as two distinct phenomena, I view activism as a powerful form of prayer. Speeding away from Washington on the train that night, I thought: “So this is what Abraham Joshua Heschel meant when he said of his participation in the 1965 Voting Rights March, ‘I felt as though my legs were praying.’” Thirty-five years later, we remember Heschel as an outstanding Jewish participant in an iconic pilgrimage to Selma, Alabama — a recollection that obscures the extent to which he acted as part of a mass movement and, in the process, placed himself and his family at risk. In fact, that was not the first time Heschel took a political risk, nor would it be the last. Between 1943 and his death in 1972, he opposed Hitler’s fascism, America’s racism, and the Vietnam War. Arthur Waskow writes that for Heschel, “commitments to the spiritual and the political … were simply one commitment.”

In what ways might Reconstructionist Jews see prayer and activism as one?

Like prayer, activism is a shared experience that relies on language, art, and other folk traditions. Attending meetings, reproducing leaf-lets, stuffing envelopes, canvassing a neighborhood, making signs and banners, arriving at demonstrations and greeting acquaintances — all of these are rituals that prepare participants for the big event of taking collective action to confront power wielded unjustly by one group over another. The “big event” is often a vigil, rally, demonstration, “zap action,” or other form of direct action. These rituals of challenge to injustice require an escalating level of commitment and risk from participants — whether it’s the risk of publicly expressing unpopular views, signing a petition, canvassing door to door, attending a vigil, or being arrested for civil disobedience.

Repetition often deepens the experience, strengthening participants’ focus and collective resolve. In each case, activism connects us to something larger than ourselves, whether it’s other members of our community (our next- door neighbor, the homeless woman across town, the child maimed in a war halfway across the world) or the values that motivate us (tzedek, justice, shalom, peace).  

Activism requires us to make a profound statement of faith. It reflects both our highest ideals and our belief that transformation is, in fact, possible. By acting on this belief, we make it more so.  

Participation in activist movements connects us to the long sweep of history, to Jews who have struggled for peace and justice from the Exodus through the late 20th century. Recently, when Jews in my community urged the GAP clothing chain to adopt fair labor practices for sweatshop workers around the world, they distributed leaflets citing their Biblical and historical ancestors. Standing in front of a GAP store with their children, they showed how political movements are an important locus of cultural transmission. (I suspect more than a few RT readers participated in their first political action with their parents, and have, in turn, done the same with their children.)  

Participation in social movements also puts us in touch with the vastness of the universe. Through the sort of “click” moment I had in front of the South African Embassy, or through small actions undertaken on a daily basis, activism requires us to submerge our egos while acknowledging that massive human effort is required to bring about the changes we seek.  

While traditional Jews understand divine authority as infallible and endeavor to submit to it, Reconstructionism embodies a more democratic ethos. Here again, Reconstructionists and political activists share something in common: a critique of traditional power relationships and a commitment to challenging these, whether perceived as originating in the divine or embedded in the policies of corporations and the state.

In fact, Reconstructionists and political activists share much in common: an appreciation of ritual, beliefs in the importance of community, a commitment to ultimate values and to democracy, and a sense of connection to the past and the future. What, then, keeps us from integrating prayer and activism more fully?

One quality that distinguishes political activism from other forms of prayer is the degree of risk involved. Although it’s no longer dangerous for Jews in North America or Israel to engage in conventional forms of prayer, it’s risky to act on unpopular political beliefs. Doing so may heighten real or perceived dangers to us as individuals and as a community. It’s one thing to maintain that the U.S. shouldn’t harm innocents in Afghanistan, and quite another to act publicly on this belief. It’s one thing to lament the growing gap between rich and poor, and another to protest the exorbitantly high salaries of corporate CEOs. In both cases, activism raises the specter of disloyalty, of being perceived as not-quite-American enough, which reinforces old anti-Semitic stereotypes.

Most importantly, I suspect that the failure to integrate prayer and activism stems from our understanding of prayer more as a source of comfort than of mobilization within our congregations. Yet the greatest risk, it seems to me, is to accept the status quo while treating prayer as a pacifier. As American Jews, after all, we are standing on the precipice. Violence in the Middle East has spiraled out of control. The U.S. is engaged in an ill-defined war on terrorism that provides cover for a massive transfer of resources from domestic programs to the military and the revival of Cold War nuclear doctrines. Recent and likely Presidential appointments threaten reproductive rights, racial and economic justice, and the separation of church and state. At such a time, we should consider Heschel’s teaching that “Prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive, unless it seeks to overthrow and to ruin the pyramids of callousness, hatred, opportunism, falsehoods.”

Even more, we should consider his actions, in Selma and elsewhere, as a model for the integration of prayer and activism within our congregations. 

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