"There is a pressing urgency to the work of justice and compassion. As long as there is a shred of hatred in a human heart, as long as there is a vacuum without compassion anywhere in the world, there is an emergency."
Heschel writes with poetic exaggeration, sees the world with uncompromising eyes, is impatient with political realism, thinks with determined trustfulness in the human capacity, helped by God, to change the world. But that doesn't make him wrong, or justify dismissing his words as rhetoric without practice. Few have seen with such piercing precision, as Heschel saw, the emergency situation of a world where compassion was discounted to shore up an unjust status quo, and where justice was not an option at our convenience but an urgent moral imperative.
I guess I'm troubled by the way urgency and emergency seem to be monopolised by the economic crises of recent years. No one needs to underestimate the scale of consequence and cost when an entire economic meta-narrative suffers near fatal internal critique and collapse.
But there are other recessions. Already pressure is building for the UK to reduce its foreign aid budget. That suggests a humanitarian recession, which cuts into our sense of global responsibility for those whose need is of a different order. When Heschel speaks of justice and compassion he speaks as an echo of Micah, Amos and Isaiah. Selling the poor, grinding the needy in the dust, exploiting the vulnerable, protecting the interests of the powerful and rich - and by contrast rivers rolling with righteousness, communities acting justly and loving mercy, - these were the two poles of prophetic protest and visionary hopefulness that glinted like lightning on the horizons of the Prophets. And the same concerns illumine with uncomfortable critique of our own time, the words of Jesus at Nazareth and his own stated purpose in coming as Messiah, as both message and messenger from God to the poor, those incarcerated by economic systems locked from the outside.
Whatever else the situation in Syria is, it is a humanitarian emergency given urgency by hatred. And non intervention is itself a political act open to the critique of justice, mercy and righteousness, three further recessional casualties in a world of economic stringency, moral insolvency and political expediency.
And what can we do? The Lord's Prayer grows out of the rich loam of Jewish faith and hope, and on Judaeo-Christian lips is a protest against the status quo, and a promised contradiction and reversal of those "principalities and powers" content with injustice as a static status quo. The Kingdom of God subverts stasis, confronts culpable complacency, levers against the stuckness of despair, resists self-serving inaction, opposes with an astringent holiness the worship of markets, money and the entire pantheon of economic idols.
So we can pray. And not muttered petitions vague in their content, or vapid in their emotional engagement, or as occasional as our personal convenience and preoccupied minds permit. To pray the Lord's Prayer is to yearn for a different kingdom, a world transformed by the will of the Father of mercies. It is to call in question the way things are, to recognise the emergency of hatred and the vacuum of compassion and to cry to heaven - to make our passion and compassion for God's children the world over, a gift on the altar of God. Christian prayer at times takes the form of passionate protest, persistent hopefulness and patient, resilient attentiveness to injustice. Such faithful prayer is one small part of what it means to act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with our God.