Whistling in the Dark: Praying for Your Enemies

Whistling in the Dark: Praying for Your Enemies

by The Rev. Canon Elizabeth M. Kaeton EMKaeton@aol.com
Church of the Redeemer, Morristown, NJ -- October 7, 2001

Please pray with me (sung): Anyone can whistle, that's what they say.  Easy.  + I speak to you this morning in the name of God who is our Light, our Guide, and our Whistle in the dark. Amen.

Evil.  We've been hearing a great deal of that word since September 11th.  "The Islamic Evil."  "The Evil Muslim Terrorists."  As I've considered this word these past few weeks, I've made a startling discovery: Evil, like beauty it would seem, is in the eye of the beholder.   

In response to the events of September 11th, we seem to have had a little evil of our own to demonstrate. Within hours of the attack, anger woke itself from shock and disbelief and began to be made manifest in the natural impulse to "get the bad guys."Ý  That the "bad guys" had killed themselves in the attack, robbing anyone from whatever satisfaction there is in retaliation, only served to fan the flames of anger and hatred, which sparked the impulse for retribution.   

Anger boiled into blind rage and by nightfall Mosques were pelted with rocks, women with head scarves and veils were attacked, and any man with Middle-Eastern features or name was immediately suspected of complicity in -- or at least the capability of -- terrorism. Even intelligent people began to speak in conspiratorial tones about "closing the borders" or "tightening the immigration laws."  A friend said, barely containing his anger, "Well, there's your sacred 'diversity' for you!"

Within hours, our nightly TV News Anchors began to sound like secular theologians, providing us with 5-minute "sound bite" lectures on "World Religions 101" -- with specific emphasis on the religion of Islam.  We learned that the spiritual expression and application of the faith of the Muslims has the same diversity as Christianity or Judaism. There are liberal, progressive, conservative, fundamental, orthodox and extremist expressions in every world religion.  

Within 24 hours, we were given a timely demonstration of our own generic expression of Christian fundamentalism.  Pointing the finger at "abortionists, the ACLU, feminists" and, of course, "homosexuals," Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson explained it all for us.  WE had brought the attack on ourselves, he told us.  God was punishing us for all of these sins.  The country seemed to stand with our collective jaws dropped in disbelief.  Imagine! The 700 Club proving the hijacker's thesis!  And, just when we thought we had seen the face of Evil!  

Slowly, the realization came that terrorism is not the sole propriety of Muslims.  Islam may have the Taliban, but Judaism has Hazzballah and Hamass.  And, Christianity has . .. no, not Falwell and Robertson.  No, not even David Virtue! The hot air of their hateful rhetoric may fan the flames of violence but mostly, they are just your garden variety religious buffoons who have gotten way more than their allotted 15 minutes of fame.   

The Taliban in this country is not the religious zealots who call themselves Fundamentalists. Rather, we have groups like Operation Rescue that believes that the murder of physicians who perform abortions is a righteous cause of God's justice.  Let us not forget that, also in this country, the KKK is still alive and well and, like the Nazis after them, believe that Jews and people of color and homosexuals are not only inferior, but need to be eradicated like vermin.

Suddenly, what we once thought as obvious isn't quite as clear. Evil doesn't have a face.  Like Darth Vader behind a mask, it has no distinct features. While it does a very impressive and convincing impersonation, it is completely devoid of humanness.  

Evil is not the sole resident of a particular country or nation on which we can declare war -- it has its home in an ideology.  There is no one religion, but rather, a strict religious expression with very similar patterns in its many manifestations.  While it seems to have a singular spirituality, it does not find its expression in a particular house of prayer but rather, in an "international network."  

It hides in the hills and caves of Afghanistan and in the Blue Hills of Kentucky.  It lives in the suburbs of Ft. Lee and Wayne, NJ, and plays in the surf at Boca Raton, FLA.  It runs the amusement park rides at Seaside Hights, NJ, learns how to fly commercial planes in Boulder, Colorado, and, (amazingly!) is issued special permits to transport hazardous material in the very Heartland of this country.

What are we to do with this Evil? How are we to recognize and identify the enemy in our midst?  Christians have always considered the question: Who is my neighbor? After September 11th, it would seem that we are now to be challenged with the theological question: Who is my enemy?

The teachings of Hebrew and Christian scripture are very clear about how to treat one's neighbor, about hospitality to the stranger.  The Hebrew prophets are also very clear about calling for the Peace of God which "passes all human understanding," offering images where lions lie down with lambs, swords are beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. And, God could not have had greater clarity in teaching us how to treat one's enemies, no matter how evil they are perceived to be.  In a sentence of four, one-syllable words, God said to Moses on Mt. Sinai, "You shall not kill." Period.

This same God, incarnate in Jesus, demands an even higher standard of behavior.  "Love your enemies," -- Love them, do not hate them. "Pray for your persecutors."  It all sounds so easy, doesn't it? Praying for your enemies sounds like the old advice to whistle in the dark so you won't be afraid. Anyone can whistle. Easy! But, how? How do you pray when you are so scared, your lips won't pucker?  When anger has consumed every note?  How do you pray for someone who has been the vehicle of such hatred and violence and the slaughter of innocent lives that it can only be named, "evil?"

Praying for you enemies seems to me very much like whistling in the dark. Perhaps this is why that Sondheim song has continued to visit me as I walk the streets of NYC, struggling with this teaching to pray for my enemies:  

Anyone can whistle, that's what they say. Easy. Anyone can whistle any old day. Easy. It's all so simple. Relax. Let go. Let fly. Would someone tell me why can't I?

In my earnest prayers and meditations, I have asked God for an answer to these prayer requests. My prayers have been pretty demanding, of late, which may be why I've been given the answer, I believe, in the form of a memory of my first night at Ground Zero.

Now, I need to say I've been a RN since 1970. I have been ordained 15 years and I've been in many, many difficult pastoral situations. I have been on the front lines of the battle against the Evil of AIDS since 1983. I've seen a lot. Nothing prepared me for that first night at Ground Zero.

There was one rescue worker -- a middle-aged man, a firefighter who looked as if he were carrying the weight of the entire sadness of the world in his body.  He had come into the Emergency Relief Canteen that Seamen's Church Institute had set up for his two-hour break.

I was immediately drawn to him -- probably because he had the map of Ireland stamped indelibly across his face, and you may have noticed that I am a sucker for Irish eyes.  While I was able to work my way past his obvious exhaustion and grief with a charming banter all my own, I was also aware of feeling utterly and completely incompetent to be of any assistance to this man.

So, we "chatted." We had that kind of polite, superficial conversation that we highly socialized Americans have so carefully learned. Even so, we both seemed to cling to that conversation -- as dissatisfying and superficial as it was.  Neither of us seemed to want it to end.  I found myself following him out onto the street, offering to walk him back to Ground Zero, to which he eagerly agreed.  

As we approached the massive site of destruction, our conversation slowed to a dead stop.  As it did, I found myself overwhelmed with waves of feelings of incompetence.  I should say something.  Do something.  PRAY something.  Words failed me. What can be said in the midst of the evidence that a Great Evil had visited us?

Finally, a question found its way to my lips.  "You must have seen unspeakable horrors here.  What has been the most disturbing to your soul?" He didn't hesitate more than a heartbeat in his response.

"Every so often, we'll move the debris and an air pocket will open up.  Then, you'll see 5 or 6 guys make a mad dash over to it -- even before they get the 'all clear' that it's safe to go in there. These are mostly guys who are looking for their sons.  Firemen whose fathers were firemen and their grandfathers before them.  They run in there, not just because it's their sons, but because they know that their sons would not be in there if they hadn't followed in their fathers footsteps.  It's like they led their own sons into this hell. The guilt is worse than grief."

A mighty sob welled up from his chest that cut him off mid-sentence, and his body began to shake with the force of it.  A deep, guttural, primal cry made its way past his lips, and he sobbed and sobbed and sobbed.  All I could do was reach over and hold his hand, and cry helplessly along with him.  

I cried for him and for the frustration and hopelessness and desperation of the other rescue workers.  I cried for the loss of life that could not even be numerically accounted in an accurate death toll, but was spoken only in the desperate hope of "the missing."  And, I cried as I realized that my own feelings of incompetence and inability to do anything significant was unmatched by what this firefighter and rescue worker must be feeling.

The wave of grief and sorrow finally finished having its way with us, and we stood together, holding hands, and taking those deep, deep breaths that always follow "a good cry."

My friend turned to me and said: "Mayor Guilliani says that crying is good, that it makes you strong."  "He's right," I said, suddenly remembering the words of an old CPE supervisor who said that tears are a form of prayer and that it is always a great honor when someone shares their tears with you.  My friend then turned to me, and an unmistakable Irish gleam appeared in the corner his eyes, "Well, when this is all over," he said, "I'm going to be a Bleeping guerrilla!"

And, I laughed.  Out loud.  Some of you know my laugh.  I roared.  He roared.  And, we laughed and laughed and laughed until we cried, and then, we laughed some more.  As I remembered that night, I realized that the experience taught me a great deal about loving your enemies and praying for those who persecute you.  It's the very beginning of an understanding of the elements that must be in place, the basic fundamentals that are required for earnest, faithful prayer.

There is no method, no traditional Anglican prayer from the BCP with its rich, majestic and poetic language. Rather, it is this image -- this picture of two strangers holding hands at the very edge of the abyss, feeling inadequate and incompetent and overwhelmed by the task we've been called to do, but doing it anyway.  

It is standing, fully human and finite and vulnerable, in the midst of the evidence of an evil that had been perpetrated by humans who could not see the humanity of others.  Their blindness seems to have been aided, at least in part, by their strict adherence to the particulars of their religion which only served to obscure the pathway to the humanity of their own souls and thus, blinded them to the humanity of others.

To love one's enemies and to pray for those who persecute you is to stand in solidarity with another whose grief is almost too much to bear, and to walk with him to help him carry it a bit of the way.  

But mostly, the best act of love and prayer for one's enemies is not to lose sight of your own humanity -- to let your tears flow into the bottomless pit of the abyss and to let your laughter soar right into the very face of Evil.  To stay rooted in your humanness -- with its jumble of imperfect thoughts and conflicting emotions and incompetent abilities. To stay centered in your own soul -- with all of its abilities to achieve great good and beauty, as well as its potential to bring about great evil and destruction. For, if we loose sight of our own humanity, we risk missing the humanity of even those who hate us and persecute us, and then, we become no better than they.

This is the best prayer I know for one's enemies -- the best way I know how to love those who hate you: To be fully human.  To be all that God made you to be -- uniquely and with every ounce of integrity and authenticity you can bring to the task.  To whistle in the dark -- even though your mouth is dry and you can't even produce a decent pucker.

And, to laugh.  I have relearned what I had once discovered on the front lines of the battle against AIDS.  Laughter in the face of Evil is the greatest statement of faith.  Laughter in the face of Evil is impossible without belief in God.  Or, at the very least, it's pretty foolish.  If you don't believe in a power to do good that is stronger than yourself, why would you risk laughter in the face of a power that can do greater evil than you could even begin to imagine?

I have come to believe that, in being fully human, in being centered in our own human soul, we will eventually discover the pathway to forgiveness, and though it, to reconciliation. It is a long road, to be sure, but I do believe that forgiveness is not only a viable destination, it is fully attainable.

Trust me: I'm not there yet -- not by a long shot.  As Alice Walker says, "It is the triumphant heart, not the conquered heart, that forgives." Reconciliation is the final destination on the rocky road to forgiveness -- a long and difficult journey that can only be attained by traveling the pilgrim's path of prayer.

And, these are the elements of authentic human prayer: Humanness, laughter, tears, acts of kindness, companionship, vulnerability, authenticity, integrity, honesty, and, oh yes, love. These have become for me the first decade on a 'living rosary bead of prayer' for my enemies. Those of you who know the spiritual discipline of saying the rosary may remember that the Lord's Prayer always follows the Ten Marian beads (or decade). This symbolic Lord's Prayer has become for me, of course! "Song!"  

I've discovered several which have become my prayer companions along the way.  I'll leave you with this Stephen Sondheim ditty -- a tribute to NYC's Theater District that has also been decimated in the aftermath of the WTC attack -- as one way that you, too, may begin to pray for your enemies:  

I can dance the tango. I can read Greek. Easy. I could slay a dragon any old week. Easy. What's hard is simple. What's natural comes hard. Maybe you could show me how to let go. Lower my gum. Learn to be free. Maybe if you whistle, whistle for me.

In the Name of God, whom some call Jehovah, others call Allah, others know as Buddha, and we know in the life of one called Jesus.  Amen.


Elizabeth Kaeton
28 Midland Blvd.
Maplewood, NJ 07040
973 275 1022

"It is a broken world of broken men and women who live by mending, and the grace of God is the glue."  Eugene O'Neill


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