A time to acknowledge our oneness

Even in the hypercompetitive, win-at-all-costs world of congressional politics, there's a safe space where members of both parties can unite.

ANDREW HARNIK/AP/FILE
HOUSE SPEAKER PAUL RYAN, SENATE MAJORITY LEADER MITCH MCCONNELL, AND SENATE MINORITY LEADER HARRY REID PRAY DURING A CEREMONY MARKING THE ABOLITION OF SLAVERY.

Aid workers, civil servants, journalists, and, most of all, noncombatants know this secret about living in a war zone: Even the most dangerous neighborhood is usually safe between 4 a.m. and 7 a.m. 

That was my experience in Beirut in the 1980s. All the fury and firepower of day and night must die down at some point. Fighters exhaust themselves. By the wee hours, they’re usually done.

Early morning is when the world of hope awakens. Birds chitter, grandmas sweep the front step, the scent of bread and jasmine and coffee wafts through the air, and real people go out to stretch their legs, check on neighbors, water their gardens, and say a prayer or two for better days to come. “Weeping may endure a night, but joy comes with the morning.”

That same beneficence works in the knock-down, drag-out world of politics. Long ago, hypercompetitive, win-at-all-costs partisans understood breakfast is a time when the gloves can come off – in a good way. A morning meal is a natural time for easygoing camaraderie. The day is young. Last night’s issues have been argued and litigated. Points were scored. There’s time enough for battles to come. But not just yet.

In Washington, D.C., and many other capitals around the world, breakfast meetings allow friends and foes to start the day fresh, to talk about ideas. Granted, there’s likely to be some lobbying and selling. Somebody is paying for the bacon and eggs, after all. But the edge is softened in the early hours. It’s too early for agendas, talking points, putdowns, and accusations.

In the US Congress, the six-decade-old prayer breakfast, as Francine Kiefer notes in her cover story (click here), has become a safe space from polarization. Prayer – whatever form of it an individual might practice, whatever faith tradition one might come from – seeks to elevate thought, to open the mind to possibilities, to see foes and friends as equally blessed, worthy, and dignified.

More prayer and less war has to be a good thing. Sure, prayer and croissants are a little less traditional than prayer and fasting. And it is true that prayer breakfasts and other spiritually oriented meetings during the day can be ways of merely name-checking reverence and brotherly love, of impressing constituents and critics with reverential words.

Maybe, too, finding common ground with a political opponent isn’t always justified. After all, the celebrated compromisers of the early United States – Daniel Webster of the North, John Calhoun of the South, and Henry Clay of the West – held the union together but did so by allowing slavery to persist. Was that achievement worth the perpetuation of injustice?

Still, there is something hopeful about opponents standing or sitting or sometimes kneeling together to acknowledge their unity on earth as it is in heaven. As Francine’s cover story shows, prayer has a way of softening ideological edges, of helping politicians think outside the partisan box. Prayer makes every hour a morning hour.

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