A Prayer for Peace

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel
From Abraham J. Heschel, Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, ed. by Susannah Heschel (Farrar Straus & Giroux), pp. 230-2.

A Prayer for Peace

Ours is an assembly of shock, contrition, and dismay. Who would have believed that we life-loving Americans are capable of bringing death and destruction to so many innocent people? We are startled to discover how unmerciful, how beastly we ourselves can be. So we implore you, our Father in heaven, help us to banish the beast from our hearts, the beast of cruelty, the beast of callousness.

Since the beginning of history evil has been going forth from nation to nation. The lords of the flocks issue proclamations, and the sheep of all nations indulge in devastation. But who would have believed that our own nation at the height of its career as the leader of free nations, the hope for peace in the world, whose unprecedented greatness was achieved through "liberty and justice for all," should abdicate its wisdom, suppress its compassion, and permit guns to become its symbols?

America's resources, moral and material, are immense. We have the means and know the ways of dispelling prejudice and lies, of overcoming poverty and disease. We have the capacity to lead the world in seeking to overcome international hostility. Must napalm stand in the way of our power to aid and to inspire the world?

To be sure, just as we feel deeply the citizen's dilemma, we are equally sensitive to the dilemma confronting the leaders of our government. Our government seems to recognize the tragic error and futility of the escalation of our involvement but feels that we cannot extricate ourselves without public embarrassment of such dimension as to cause damage to America's prestige. But the mire in which we flounder threatens us with an even greater danger. It is the dilemma of either losing face or losing our soul.

At this hour Vietnam is our most urgent, our most disturbing religious problem, a challenge to the whole nation as well as a challenge to every one of us as an individual. When a person is sick, in danger, or in misery all religious duties recede, all rituals are suspended, except one: to save life and relieve pain.

Vietnam is a personal problem. To speak about God and remain silent on Vietnam is blasphemous.

When you spread forth your hand
I will hide my eyes from you;
Yea, when you make many prayers,
I will not hear
Your hands are not clean.

In the sight of so many thousands of civilians and soldiers slain, injured, crippled, of bodies emaciated, of forests destroyed by fire, God confronts us with this question: Where are you?

Is there no compassion in the world? No sense of discernment to realize that this is a war that refutes any conceivable justification of war? The sword is the pride of man; arsenals, military bases, nuclear weapons lend supremacy to nations. War is the climax of ingenuity, the object of supreme dedication. Men slaughtering each other, cities battered into ruins: such insanity has plunged many nations into all abyss of disgrace. Will America, the promise of peace to the world, fail to uphold its magnificent destiny?

The most basic way in which all men may be divided is between those who believe that war is unnecessary and those who believe that war is inevitable; between those to whom the sword is the symbol of honor and those to whom seeking to convert swords into plowshares is the only way to keep our civilization from disaster.

Most of us prefer to disregard the dreadful deeds we do over there. The atrocities committed in our name are too horrible to be credible. It is beyond our power to react vividly to the ongoing nightmare, day after day, night after night. So we bear graciously other people's suffering.

O Lord, we confess our sins, we are ashamed of the inadequacy of our anguish, of how faint and slight is our mercy. We are a generation that has lost the capacity for outrage. We must continue to remind ourselves that in a free society all are involved in what some are doing. Some are guilty, all are responsible.

Prayer is our greatest privilege. To pray is to stake our very existence, our right to live, all the truth and all the supreme importance of that which we pray for. Prayer, then, is radical commitment, a dangerous involvement in the life of God. In such awareness we pray . . .

We do not stand alone. Millions of Americans, millions of people all over the world are with us. At this moment, praying for peace in Vietnam we are spiritually Vietnamese. Their agony is our affliction, their hope is our commitment.

God is present wherever men are afflicted. Where is God present now? We do not know how to cry, we do not know how to pray! Our conscience is so timid our words so faint, our mercy so feeble. O Father, have mercy upon us.

Our God, add our cries uttered here to the cries of the bereaved, crippled, and dying over there. Have mercy upon all of us.

Help us to overcome the arrogance of power. Guide and inspire the President of the United States in finding a speedy, generous, and peaceful end to the war in Vietnam.

The intensity of the agony is high, the hour is late, the outrage may reach a stage where repentance will be too late, repair beyond any nation's power.

We call for a covenant of peace, for reconciliation of America and all of Vietnam. To paraphrase the words of the prophet Isaiah (62:1):

For Vietnam's sake I will not keep silent,
For America's sake I will not rest,
Until the vindication of humanity goes forth as brightness,
And peace for all men is a burning torch.

Here is the experience of a child of seven who was reading in school the chapter which tells of the sacrifice of Isaac on the way to Mt. Moriah with his father. "He lay on the altar, bound, waiting to be sacrificed. My heart began to beat even faster; it actually sobbed with pity for Isaac. Behold, Abraham now lifted the knife. And now my heart froze within rue with fright. Suddenly the voice of the angel was heard: 'Abraham, lay not your hand upon the lad, for now I know that you fear God.' And here I broke out in tears and wept aloud, 'Why are you crying?' asked the rabbi. 'You know that Isaac was not killed.' And I said to him, still weeping, 'But, Rabbi, supposing the angel had come a second too late?' The rabbi comforted me and calmed me by telling me that an angel cannot come late."

An angel cannot be late, but man, made of flesh and blood, may be.

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