On Praying for Enemies

Catherine M Wallace

         Christians are supposed to pray for our enemies, so I've been praying for Donald Trump. I have not been praying that he gets what he wants. Nor have I been advocating with God for Trump's agenda.That's not what prayer is or how prayer functions. Neither have I been been praying that Trump will miraculously awaken one day as a new and honorable man. As I see it, all the prayers in the world won't change Donald Trump.

         Prayer does not alter the causal structure of the cosmos. Literal-minded fundamentalism may worship Causality Deified, but that's not what the rest of Christian tradition is talking about. God is not some bearded old guy sitting at a celestial keyboard, poised to enter "command-control-smite" or "command-control-cure" in response to our fervent pleading. Or as an orthodox Jewish friend of mine said once, curtly, "God is not a vending machine."

         In praying for Trump, I am trying to see him as God sees him, so to speak—which is say with compassion and mercy. As I see it, relationship with the Sacred would help to heal Trump and thus to change his behavior. As drunks can't get sober without first recognizing that they are drunks, Trump can't change without recognizing the need for change: moral judgment comes into play inescapably. But it does so through the logic of natural consequences. Nobody needs to worry about the threat of eternal torture by a pathologically vindictive and controlling God. The God of theologically sophisticated Christian tradition is not some inflated version of the brutally murderous totalitarian dictator.

         No matter what, praying for someone demands humility from the person who prays. It demands that I outgrow my tendency to focus on my own needs, fears, and assumptions about the fabric of someone else's experience. Praying for friends in crisis helps to equip me to show up at their side with my heart open and my mouth closed, ready to do whatever they need with less likelihood of projecting my own needs and fears all over them and their situation. In praying for them, I have already worked through those temptations and those anxieties. I won't show up hysterical, demanding consolation, adding to the burden they face. I am also far less likely to see them as helpless and overwhelmed and needing someone—surely ME!—to swoop in and take control.      

         In parallel fashion, praying for my enemies requires that I set aside for a moment my hostility toward them in order to make a good-faith effort to share their suffering, their fears, their needs, and so forth. To do so, I must combat my own tendency to dehumanize them, to objectify them, to over-simplify the conflict between us in ways that portray me as purely good and them as purely evil. 

         Bit by bit, over many months, my inconsistent and fleeting efforts to pray for Donald Trump have made a remarkable difference—for me, not for him. Three things have changed.

         First, I am much less afraid that Trump poses a profound threat to democracy.  I see him now as remarkably weak: as insecure, impulsive, transparently dishonest, and visibly haunted by the need for external approval. He would be a most unreliable partner in any nefarious plot to destroy democracy. Furthermore, eliciting our panic and hysterical partisanship is part of the Russian plot against America: we need to stop feeding those trolls. I'm not saying we can ignore Trump or write him off as just a buffoon. Given the power of his office, the man is genuinely dangerous. He has done a lot of irreparable damage. The threat of nuclear war with Korea remains: millions, perhaps billions of lives hang in the balance. What's happening to refugee children and their parents is obscene. The rollback of environmental regulations is catastrophic. And so forth: you know the litany as well as I do. But Trump himself is in thrall to major self-destructive impulses. Sooner or later he will in fact destroy himself.

         That process is already underway: it is slowly becoming public knowledge that his real estate empire is probably a house of cards fabulously indebted to Russian oligarchs, and furthermore a global money-laundering front for organized crime in Russia and elsewhere. His carrying-on about "no collusion" now feels to me closely akin to that scene in the Wizard of Oz where the great wizard keeps shouting, "pay no attention to the man behind that curtain." You don't have to be Shakespeare or a Greek tragedian to recognize where this story is headed. The only open question is how much devastation we will face once he is gone—and how much popular pressure now can limit that loss.

         Second, because I am less afraid of Trump, I am also feeling far less isolated. I am genuinely comforted by how quickly grass-roots democracy roused from its slumbers and roared back at him. We have a lot more work to do, granted. But the new civic engagement testifies vividly to the strength of key American traditions.

          Finally, praying for Trump has cleared my head and steadied my nerves. I am far better focused these days. I can track what I need to track about what's going on in Washington without coming away distraught. Like anyone else, I am more likely to do something useful if I can keep my wits about me: panic and planning are inversely proportional. Furthermore, prayer has stopped me from spreading the hate-mongering and hysteria-mongering that alienates potential allies.

         Hate-mongering and hysteria-mongering have strategic consequences that have been very well mapped. Research into nonviolence resistance has demonstrated over and over again that the success of resistance movements depends primarily upon drawing in allies, especially allies who are themselves reasonably safe-and-secure, which is to say in control of financial resources and cultural authority that the most threatened groups (for instance, kidnapped toddlers and their deported parents) cannot directly access. The moral issues involved in hate-mongering are no less clear. In the November 12, 2018 New Yorker, Harvard historian Jill Lapore quotes Martin Luther King Jr on that fact. King said, "We will never have peace in the world until men everywhere recognize that ends are not cut off from means, because the means represent the ideal in the making, and the end in process, and ultimately you can't reach good ends through evil means, because the means represents the seed and the end represents the tree." Hating our enemies is evil. Rousing other to hatred is evil.

     Praying for our enemies help to stop that evil from spreading. Our opposition will be wiser, more sustainable, and less likely to backfire tragically if we do not mimic Trump's strategy of stirring up dark fears and primitive hostilities. Prayer is an antidote to such hysteria, because praying for our enemies keeps them in human scale. Prayer keeps us from inhumane excess. Prayer keeps us from imitating our enemies in the effort to outdo them. Prayer keeps creating common ground between us despite the contrary pressures of our fears and our own egotism.

         It's like this. A friend of mind once had a squirrel fall down her chimney into her cold fireplace. Alas, they had just moved into the house a day or two before. She had a brand-new baby. And so the last thing on her mind had been putting away all of the wedding-gift wineglasses that the movers have left lined up on her dining room table when they unpacked. One morning she heard a crash, went down to investigate, and saw this squirrel running across the tops of her stemware. Little grey pawprints ran all across the top her white sofa.

         Because she was postpartum, she reacted with an adrenaline surge worthy of attack by a saber-toothed tiger. But really, it was just a panicky squirrel blinded by soot.

         So also, Trump has subsided in my mind from saber-toothed-tiger status to panicky-squirrel status. As anyone knows, a panicky squirrel can do a lot of expensive damage. But it's still just a squirrel. We have the wherewithal to cope with squirrels. And American democracy has the wherewithal to cope with Trump. When we inflate the danger he poses, we are buying into the illusion he tries to project. We have to stop doing that.

          In prayer, or through prayer, my understanding of Trump has gained nuance, nuance that might wisely inform our ongoing resistance. Consider this, for instance. Just consider it for a moment: At his best, and especially in the eyes of his supporters, Trump might have genuinely wanted to be the transformative leader he claimed to be, the bold outsider, disgusted by the role of money in politics, who would forge an entirely new and more economically just consensus in American politics by forcing the Republican party to serve the working classes it had so shamelessly exploited for generations. He might, in fact, have wanted to redeem a lifetime of his own sleazy dealings and exploitation. He would not have been the first rich and ruthless white guy who moved toward public service as he aged. But in the end, Trump could not escape the habits and the needs forged by a lifetime of choices. As Dante might have predicted, he was trapped by the weight of his own prior choices—by the man he had repeatedly chosen to become.

         I'm guessing, obviously. I'm not saying there's external evidence for any of this: praying for someone is an imaginative exercise, an exercise in empathy. It's not investigative journalism. Prayer also suggested another possibility, one you may have seen described elsewhere: perhaps Trump entered the campaign on a lark, because he was  bored, because he enjoyed mocking other candidates, and he thought his barbs during presidential debates would enhance his "brand" with millions of potential customers who were also disgusted by what politics had become. He wanted to play the buffoon for a while, that's all: the showman, the political equivalent of class clown. 

         But then the audiences at his rallies intoxicated him. He began playing to them, and they to him, and his campaign swirled down into the darkest recesses of totalitarianism and white supremacy. And he won the election. And then he found himself faced with briefing papers he could not begin to comprehend, and responsibilities he could not fathom, and hundreds of thousands of angry women all over the nation marching in the streets, mocking his exceedingly insecure sexuality in forthrightly vulgar, witty terms.

         Laughter is a weapon of mass disruption: there's no way to outflank thousands and thousands of women wearing handmade pink hats with cat ears, the kind of hat ordinarily worn only by toddlers—mocking the new Toddler in Chief who had bragged about grabbing women by the "pussy." It was a movement sprung up almost overnight on social media.

         Here was a very different mass audience from those at his campaign rallies. And meanwhile, his Russian connections were coming to light. His ad-hoc and amateurish campaign had not a clue how to transition into actual governance except by filling offices with other grifters and cronies, a process that began to backfire almost immediately. The walls started closing in on him. It's a tale worthy of Sophocles, tragic chorus and all.    

         This is a very different imaginative account of Trump's experience. It's no less conjectural than my first version. But in praying for him, I have come to think that some such tragic story, almost mythic in its proportions, may be the truth of the matter. Like umpteen characters in both myth and folklore, he yearned for something (attention), he got what he yearned for, and getting what he wanted is slowly destroying him—as the nation and the world watch, horrified.

         Whatever the truth about Donald Trump—one of my imagined tales, or whatever fact-checking historians will eventually assemble—praying for Donald Trump has left me reasonably confident that in the long run America will simply clean up whatever mess he leaves behind, rebuild or replace what needs replacing, and carry on. We are weary and disgusted, yes; but we have ample resources for coping with him and plenty of compatriots equally determined to engage these resources. There are plenty of new grass-roots organizations coordinating our efforts, and lots of established non-profits with deep expertise in this kind of work.

          If God said anything to me as I tried to pray—so it speak—it was something like, Really, girl, get a grip. I think that's good spiritual advice, so I'm passing it along: we need to be calm, relentless, organized and strategic in our opposition to the Trump agenda. Our efforts will be wiser, more sustainable, and less likely to backfire tragically if we do not wildly exaggerate the threat posed by Donald Trump. Praying for our enemies keeps them in human scale. It stops us from justifying atrocious behavior against them. It keeps creating common ground between us despite the contrary pressures of our own egotism and insecurity.

         Praying for Trump led me inexorably to pray for Trump's supporters too. This has been even more complicated. In prayer I have been reminded repeatedly that I voted twice for Bill Clinton despite recognizing that he was sleazy jerk. But I thought he would mostly pursue policies I liked, and appoint judges that I liked. I thought his Republican opponents would be immeasurably worse.

         This recognition was not a welcome spiritual insight. I've had to sit for a long time pondering the fact that many people who voted for Trump may have done so from the same politics of expediency that led me to vote for Bill Clinton.    

         The more I struggled against my own reluctance to pray for Trump supporters, the more I felt forced to recognize that Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders campaigned on many of the same issues. And that's not all. Extraordinarily legislative intransigence in Washington during the Obama administration did call for a bold deal-maker who can challenge some precedents—like the Hastert rule—and get things done that the vast majority of Americans want to see happen. Trump did promise affordable healthcare for everyone. He did promise to leave Social Security and Medicare alone. He did promise to keep America safe, which would not, ahem, mean starting trade wars, attacking security agencies, ignoring intelligence reports, and dismantling major alliances. Some of his supporters no doubt honestly believed that he was who he claimed to be—as if he were something like a classic mid-century Republican progressive, that otherwise extinct species of politician.

         But what about Trump's racism, his hate-mongering, his incitements to violence? I don't know. There's a lot I will probably never understand about how anyone voted for the man. Nonetheless, praying for the people who did vote for him has opened me to seeing—to feeling—that many of the issues that worry them also worry me. Common ground between us will be rapidly eroded if I focus only on how we differ—and on my own feelings of contempt and condemnation around these differences.

         Common ground is morally expensive real estate. Outrage is getting cheaper all the time. At first, praying for Trump supporters left me feeling stranded as if on a small wet rock amidst the torrents of angry partisanship flowing past me on all sides. Cripes. What would it take to delineate honest common ground in compelling and effective ways? I'm not sure. More PR acumen and policy expertise than I'll ever have, I suspect. But as I continued to pray, that one small wet rock began to feel like a much bigger place, like an island maybe, like a place where other people could land and seek shelter.

         All the PR experts and policy wonks in the world won't re-establish national unity and singleness of heart until the rest of us recognize that hating one another is politically toxic because it is morally toxic. We can't condemn Trump's white-supremacist racism, his hate-mongering, and his xenophobia while indulging in the very same sweeping hostility toward his supporters. That doesn't work. We have to learn to love the people we think of as our enemies because that's the necessary first step to transforming enemies into friends and allies—or at least into decent human beings with whom we can have truly civil and collaborative relationships toward reaching common goals. Because we have common goals. That's what praying for Trump supporters forced me to face, whether I wanted to or not. 

         Praying for enemies is not fun. It is exceedingly messy. It demands a generosity of spirit that I find very difficult to sustain for any length of time. And it comes with no guarantee that anything will change: the God who is not a vending machine offers no assurances of success or even influence over outcomes. My praying for enemies may not change anything or anyone but me, by calming me down and minimizing the toxicity flowing through my heart.

         But maybe that's okay. The friend who insisted that God is not a vending machine also told me that we are not morally required to change the world. We are required to be a healing influence in whatever small corner we occupy, one small resilient part of a vaster healing that may never be completed and whose results we may never see face-to-face.  

         That begins, that must begin, with the healing of our own souls.

          Let us pray.