I was struck by a remark by Senator Mark Warner of Virginia, as reported recently in the Wall Street Journal. “It’s about trust,” he told a group of businessmen in Richmond. “It’s about making sure that, at the end of the day, you are going to have to link arms with somebody and take a jump.”
Warner was talking about his work with a handful of Democratic and Republican senators – the “Gang of Six” – who are striving behind the scenes to develop a sensible bipartisan proposal to deal with our massive structural budget deficit. This approach must necessarily include both a reduction in spending and an increase in taxes. It’s a tough job and they are encountering strong resistance from leaders of their own parties who are in denial about what it will take to get the country back onto a sound financial footing.
Across the country, at local, state, and national level, painfully hard budget choices must be made. There are no easy options. Leaders who recognize the need to reach across the aisle face the disapproval of their peers, media attacks, and the furious opposition of special interest groups. Without the trust Warner speaks of, it will be virtually impossible for groups like the Gang of Six to sustain their work and to generate the necessary will for change.
How can people of diverse political, racial, or economic backgrounds build the trust needed to work together for the common good? In my experience, trust does not require us to agree on everything. We may not even like the people we must journey with, or at least we may encounter moments of intense irritation. It does mean that we know we can count on each other and that we are prepared to share risk equally. It means a commitment to stay the course.
I worked for many years with a visionary and outspoken African American woman. Our temperaments and backgrounds could not have been more different. We had several major rows. But we were both committed to the cause of honest conversation and racial reconciliation. We both knew that when the chips were down we could trust one another absolutely. In challenging situations, dealing with racially polarized groups, we always knew that we had each other’s back.
Mari Fitzduff, the Northern Irish peacemaker, says that the greatest need in the world today is for leaders who can transcend the needs of their own group. Such leaders, she warns, risk becoming "strangers in their own land." Our public officials need to know that there are citizens who will offer moral and spiritual support for courageous, selfless leadership.
What if each of us were to think about a risk we are prepared to take personally in order to build a more inclusive, more just, and sustainable community? Is there someone we might approach as a potential ally – perhaps someone of a very different social or cultural background, or political viewpoint?
Are we ready to link arms with somebody and take a jump?