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Trumping Love

Confession: I actually somewhat agreed with an observation made by President Trump the other day. That was a first.

You will recall that at the 2020 National Prayer Breakfast (and I hope the last of its vintage), Harvard professor and author of The Conservative Heart, Arthur Brooks, quoted Matthew 5, Jesus' command to love and pray for their enemies.

This is the inconvenient center, soul and marrow of the famous Sermon on the Mount. So, yeah, important teaching of Jesus--but not a fun one, of course.

In his follow-up remarks to Prof. Brooks' keynote President Trump indicated his displeasure with Jesus' teaching. Well, he's in a snit about Mitt Romney and Nancy Pelosi at the moment. But in a broader, less specific sense, I get his emotional reaction. Because I don't like trying to love my enemies either! It's really not in my skill set!

But loving or praying for an enemy does not mean--and most manifestly does not mean--accepting, endorsing or ignoring what evil they may do.

Now--when I was a young woman working in New York, I lived on happily on East 79th Street between First and Second Avenues.

Even well into the 1980's the Upper East Side maintained its strongly Hungarian presence, with shops selling paprika, pickled cabbage, curd cheese and the fruit filling, lokvar, to be baked into the famous Purim cookie, hamantaschen. Over on Third Avenue at Mrs. Herbst's you could get--and I regularly did--thick slabs of strudel and cups of heavily creamed coffees served to you by strong, unfriendly young women in bright skirts and puffed-sleeve blouses.

All that is gone now, replaced by Whole Foods and Anthropologies and even more trendy bars than there were in my day.

But I recently learned from Stacy Horn's book, Damnation Island, that just off the Upper East Side on Blackwell's Island, the 19th-century political machine, Tammany Hall, had set up a whiz-bang conglomerate of ill-funded, unregulated and overcrowded institutions. These workhouses and asylums were to cheaply and without due process quarter undesirable elements--those suspected of criminal acts, those deemed by a random metric to be mentally ill, non-English speakers and the poor and disabled.

In the horror show of institutions on Blackwell's Island--what we know as Roosevelt Island--neglect and brutality abounded, staffed with untrained caregivers (often penitentiary inmates), the foulest of hygienic and overcrowded conditions and insufficient food, clothing, bedding and heat. Privation, starvation, abuse and death were routinized.

And these conditions were well known: Commissions, reformers and journalists repeatedly tried to create awareness and bring change. But change didn't come. So when I think of the mistreated mental patients on Blackwell Island, and about family members well aware that Tammany Hall and Boss Tweed prevented doctors and clergy and nurses who worked there to get the training and funding and resources they needed to provide therapeutic and humane care, I get not wanting to love enemies.

So I also sort of get our President not wanting to have to love--or at least pray--for the people he doesn't like.

But not liking Mitt and Nancy is a different order of magnitude than praying for Boss Tweed and the politicians of Tammany. Pray for these enemies? While deaths from suicide and starvation and neglect grew year by year and dead bodies drifted bloated in the East River?

I'm not up to the loving part of that task, honestly. But praying isn't just pious words uttered by religious milquetoasts. Praying takes many forms--promoting justice through activism, creating awareness, doing advocacy. That's prayer I can understand.

Now whether or not President Trump, who drinks his "little wine" and eats his "little cracker," also prays Mitt Romney or Nancy Pelosi concerns me not a whit.

But now I know that a hundred years ago across a short stretch of the East River from where I lived, there was a complex of hospitals, almshouses and prisons where people were kept in unspeakable conditions by the political machine of the day that controlled resources--and therefore denied mercy. I think I can learn from that something about conditions in our world today.

I 'm going to leave it to God to love those whomake the human community full of suffering. Otherwise, I'm going to figure out ways to pray the best I can.

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