Sunday, September 17, 2017

The place to start

I often get ideas for blogs while working in the yard. This morning, battling some particularly stubborn wiregrass, I thought about Steve Bassett, one of Virginia’s beloved singer-songwriters. 

In 1993, as our Hope in the Cities team was preparing a national conference in Richmond, we had the idea to ask Steve to write a theme song. My colleague Rev. Paige Chargois and I drove out to his home in Cartersville. We sat on the front porch and talked about our vision that the conference would help to start “an honest conversation on race, reconciliation, and responsibility.” Steve listened carefully and after a while he said, “I think I’ve got it.” A few days later the phone rang in our campaign office and Steve was on the line singing:

I’ll start with my heart,
That’s where the future is.
I’ll start with my heart,
There’s healing when it gives.
I’ll start with my heart,
The differences end in there.
That’s what I’ll do to get right with you,
I’ll start with my heart.

In those few lines, Steve encapsulated the core of Initiatives of Change and its work of Hope in the Cities: the willingness to start with ourselves rather than point the finger of blame.

We have become known as a leading exponent of dialogue across racial, political and religious lines. Cricket White, our lead facilitator for many years, believes that the most powerful moment in any dialogue occurs when someone takes responsibility for what they or their group has done to create or perpetuate a problem and is able to claim responsibility for it in front of the other group. “It changes the whole dynamic because the other side knows already. It’s not news to them!”

We have seen this to be true in countless encounters such as with Muslims and Evangelical Christians or with grassroots leaders and business executives.
 
The refusal to be limited by a victim-perpetrator paradigm sometimes provokes a reaction. But the theologian and civil rights leader Howard Thurman put it bluntly: “The root of what I condemn in others is found at long last in the soil of my own back yard. What I seek to eradicate in society …I must first attack in my own heart and life. There is no substitute for this.”

No matter how convinced we are about our point of view, no matter how deeply we feel the wrong of injustice, we are unlikely to engender change by “continuing to glare at each other from self-righteous and isolated positions,” to borrow a phrase from columnist William Raspberry who once described America as “a nation of bad listeners.” 

There are many ways to describe the work of Hope in the Cities. We teach skills of facilitation, walking through history and creating shared community narratives, understanding white privilege, implicit bias, and the use of data. But at its core is the ability to create a space where individuals feel welcome and find the courage to make an honest inventory of their own lives, to search deeply into their motivations and to identify personal blockages – or what my early mentor John Coleman called “excess baggage.”

This honest introspection is not for the fainthearted. My 1985 documentary, The Courage to Change, illustrates how it has formed the basis for our work since the beginning.   

Cleiland Donnnan, a well-known personality among the Richmond establishment as the leader of the Junior Assembly Cotillion, was deeply affected by one honest conversation: “I saw clearly my own false pride in my ancestors and all those beautiful plantations along the James River. Standing out like a bolt of lightning was the hurt and pain and suffering of slavery. But most of all, the seemingly small slights stood out – my own arrogance, slights, my thinking that the blacks in the East End had their place and I deserved my place in the West End of town.”

For Audrey Burton, a veteran African American organizer, the challenge was “to reconstruct my model, to become free of hostility, anger, hate and frustration… It was a spiritual transformation, not an intellectual one. Rather than constant confrontation, I learned to be quiet, to reconnect. My behavior and language changed. Way down, deep inside, God called me by name.”

Such moments of transformation lead to new relationships and to inspired action. The demonstration of radically changed lives and the often unexpected partnerships that can result, have done far more to transform racial dynamics in Richmond and other communities than exhaustive analysis, exhortation, or advocacy.

The essential first step is the willingness to say with Steve Bassett, “I’ll start with my heart.”  

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Reflections on a missed opportunity and the need for respect

I have been watching the struggle for democracy in Turkey with concern and some sadness, recalling a wonderful week that my wife and I spent there while on sabbatical in 2005. It was our first and so far only visit to that fascinating country which bridges Europe and Asia. For centuries it has been a meeting place of diverse cultures and a crossroads for trade.

Our hosts were Zeki and Cigdem Leblebici. Zeki is an architect and Cigdem taught social psychology at the Ismir University of Economics. They were generous hosts to us in a small town near Izmir and introduced us to various aspects of Turkish life. Izmir is a bustling, modern city with a large busy port. In the bazaar we drank strong Turkish coffee and sampled a specialty called “and kokorech” which is grilled sheep intestines – actually quite delicious! We also sampled a dessert made from chicken called “tavukgeysu.” We took the ferry across the wide bay and rode in one of the fifteen-seater vans that are the most common form of public transportation. They go everywhere and seem to be very efficient (we could use something like that here in Richmond!). Although American troops had invaded Iraq two years earlier, the war never came up in conversation. Our interactions everywhere were marked by warmth and good humor.

Turkey is a vast and dynamic country of 70 million people with a literacy rate of more than 90 percent. The Turkish language has no relationship to Arabic and few Turks speak Arabic. Their roots are in Central Asia and have more in common with Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Although nearly all Turks are Muslims, the country had followed a secular path since Kemal Ataturk’s reforms in the early 1920s and the liberation from European colonialist influence. But since the advent of Erdogan’s Islamist-oriented government, the country has become divided over the role of Islam. In Ismir, all the young people we saw wore Western dress.

After years working internationally with Initiatives of Change, Cigdem returned to Turkey to pass on her vision for her country’s role in the world to a new generation. She asked us to speak to her class at the university about our work in Richmond of trustbuilding and honest conversation. It was a lively and talkative crowd. However, we noticed that open discussion about politically controversial topics was often guarded.

At one point we asked, “What would you most like to see different in your lifetime?” At first they were quiet. Then one said, “For Turkey to be in the European Union!” Others immediately voiced similar hopes. It was clear that they regarded themselves as part of Europe rather than Asia. In those days Turkey was negotiating membership with the EU. (About 46 percent of its exports go to EU countries and 38 percent of its imports come from Europe.) Sadly, its efforts met strong resistance and Turkey’s relationship with Europe has become more strained over the years as Erdogan pursues more authoritarian policies. At the same time, Europe now looks to Turkey to help ease the refugee crisis.

I don’t know to what extent the EU’s lack of welcome played a role in Turkey’s shift away from democracy; but I do wonder how different its current situation would be if European countries had been more farsighted and had not missed the opportunity to build a solid relationship with a country that has so much to offer the world.

Above all, the young Turks we met longed for respect. “Turks are always looked on as second class citizens,” said one. “I want to see an end to this. We want to be truly independent, not reliant on other countries.” “Better human rights” was another wish. One student asked, “Is the US really supportive of Turkey or just using it for strategic aims?”

Sadly, Cigdem died a few years after our visit. I often think of that interaction with her students and hope that their dreams will one day be fulfilled. 

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Statues and Statutes

Monuments are on the move. Hallowed statues erected to perpetuate the mythology of the Lost Cause of the Southern Confederacy which for decades seemed untouchable are suddenly under threat of eviction. Symbols of racial supremacy disguised as symbols of heritage are being called out for what they are.  

A groundswell of righteous anger – fueled by the mass shooting at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, on June 17, 2015, led to the removal of the Confederate flag from the State Capitol. On May 18, New Orleans dismantled a statue of General Robert E. Lee, the last of four contested Confederate monuments in the city. In Charlottesville, Virginia, white supremacists protested the planned removal of another statue of the general from a downtown park. My friend Mike Berry, a pastor in Annapolis, Maryland, is part of a coalition aiming to relocate a sculpture of Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney, author of the notorious 1857 Dred Scott Decision, from its prominent position in the Maryland State Capitol. Apparently there are more than 700 Confederate memorials across the US, some in unexpected places such Arizona which became a state half a century after the Civil War. Over the past two years at least 60 symbols have been removed or renamed.

In perhaps the most courageous and profound statement by an elected official, Mayor Mitch Landrieu of New Orleans comprehensively deconstructed the mythology surrounding monuments that “celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, ignoring the terror it actually stood for.” Of the generals he said, “They may have been warriors but they were not patriots.”

The US is not alone in debating how to deal with historical symbols of white supremacy and colonialism. In April 2015, South African crowds cheered as the statue of British colonialist Cecil Rhodes was removed from the campus of the University of Cape Town. (He survived a similar attempt at Oxford University.) Protesters smeared white paint on a statue of King George V at the University of Kwa Zulu Natal. Paul Kruger, the Boer military hero and president of the South African Republic (Transvaal) from 1883 to 1900, was painted green.

Why do physical memorials matter and why do they stir up such deep emotions? Why do groups cling so tenaciously to historical memories that gain almost mythical proportions? Margaret Smith writes that group identity and maintaining the group “story” provides psychological security. “Regardless of the material benefits a person derives from group membership, the person will have a strong psychological proclivity to support certain narratives to keep her own psyche intact.” Although Smith is writing about Northern Ireland, the same dynamics apply in the US.    

For minorities and groups that have been oppressed, the fact that current inequities are linked to the racial hierarchy glorified in monuments to guardians of slave states is a primary cause of rage. Such groups “live with a twofold curse,” says Smith. “First, the substantive ills that they are forced to live with are at least in part the result of their traumatic or unjust history; but second, the very account of that past that has entered the memory of the majority of people in the society erases or obfuscates their trauma.”[i] 

Reframing the narrative is an essential part of racial healing. Until now, conversations about changes to Richmond’s famed Monument Avenue with its imposing memorials to Jefferson Davis, and Generals Lee and Stonewall Jackson have been muted, but Mayor Stoney recently announced a commission to study ways of "giving context" to the statues. A greater focus for the city over the past two decades has been to uncover untold history, such as the extent of Richmond’s role in the interstate slave trade as well as African American resistance and resilience. While there are different opinions about the scale and emphasis of a memorial and heritage site at the place where up to 300,000 women, men and children were sold at auction blocks, there is broad agreement that this major part of Richmond’s history must be told fully. 

Equally important is the recognition of the contribution of the black community to American life. The addition of tennis star and humanitarian Arthur Ashe to Monument Avenue, and the upcoming unveiling of a statue of the nation’s first female bank president, Maggie Walker, in the historic Jackson Ward district are good first steps. Also powerful is the Virginia Civil Rights Memorial at the State Capitol commemorating the protests which helped to bring about school desegregation.

To what extent should we remove all visual reminders of unpleasant history? Those of us who are committed to racial healing and transformation may need to decide where best to devote our energy.  

My long-time colleague in this work, Ben Campbell, says that there “two massive artifacts of the Confederacy which need to be completely dismantled.” He highlights the Richmond Public School system which was “deliberately segregated by the state 45 years ago and has been under-resourced and mercilessly attacked ever since,” and our public transportation system, “once the envy of the world” (Richmond had the first electric streetcar system in 1888) “but now confined to just 5% of the territory of the metropolitan region.”

Statutes are as important as statues. Should priority be given to the removal of symbols or to the dismantling of policies that continue to discriminate and perpetuate inequality?

Many would point to the Dillon Rule, which, as interpreted by the Virginia General Assembly, means that local governments only have powers that are specifically conferred to them by the General Assembly. It is ironic that a state which prides its place as a birthplace of American democracy should maintain such an apparently undemocratic approach to local government.

The inability of the city to increase its property taxes through annexation, the refusal by the region’s leaders to consolidate the school districts in the early 70s, the resistance to affordable housing in county jurisdictions are all impediments to a healthy and equitable community. Some bold new thinking is needed. In 1996, Chesterfield County Supervisor Jack McHale and Richmond City Councilman Tim Kaine discussed publicly a regional wealth sharing or growth sharing proposal. Under this scheme, 40 percent of local taxes revenue on a new business coming to the region would stay in the locality in which the business was located and the remaining 60 percent would be shared equally among the other jurisdictions. The ideas did not get much traction at the time but surely this is the kind of fresh approach we should encourage.  

The profound structural changes needed in the Richmond region (the city aims to reduce poverty by 40 percent by 2030) demand the support of a broad coalition that crosses traditional barriers of race and class. Removing or changing statutes, policies and institutions would involve a massive effort involving people of vastly different backgrounds and even political beliefs. As in the Civil Rights era, we must appeal to conscience and to the highest vision. Would the time and effort required to unhorse General Lee contribute to this larger task of coalition building or would it be a distraction?  

Many years ago, the veteran Washington Post correspondent William Raspberry warned the fledgling Hope in the Cities network of the trap of failing to distinguish between problems and enemies. A focus on enemies “diverts time and energy from the search for solutions.” A good question to ask is, “If I defeat the enemy in the battle I have engaged, will my problems be nearer to a solution? People respond more favorably to being approached as potential allies."
I long for the day when Monument Avenue will reflect the true glory of Virginia: the men and women of all races who fought for liberty and justice, not those who betrayed the nation in the cause of perpetuating a system of white supremacy.  
But our main goal must be in the words of Dr. John Moeser to build “an inclusive city where every person is valued and no one is left behind; where all of our neighborhoods are neighborhoods of opportunity; where our schools are no longer segregated but filled with children from every level of income and who acquire the knowledge and skills that will prepare them for college or for living wage entry-level jobs; where our businesses are known for excellent job-training and a solid record of hiring Richmond residents; where innovative social enterprises comprised of worker-owned businesses are created and financed by our foundations and anchor institutions; and where public transportation links the interior of neighborhoods to major commercial and industrial thoroughfares in the city as well as the surrounding counties.”
Richmond is now taking a leading role in an emerging national process of Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation. Narrative change is a necessary foundation for healing and repairing our social fabric. But we must focus on statutes as well as statues.


[i] Margaret Smith, Reckoning with the Past, (Lexington Books, 2005) 

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

A John F. Kennedy Centennial Refelction

I welcome occasional guest blogs. This week’s blog comes from Mike McQuillan, former US Senate aide and Peace Corps Volunteer and founding member of the Hope in the Cities National Network. He teaches at the Expeditionary Learning School for Community Leaders in Brooklyn, New York.

Should it surprise us that John Kennedy came late to civil rights? After all, as a millionaire’s son in a society based on white privilege and racism he did well to reach the rational embrace of equality marked by his 1960 campaign phone calls comforting Coretta Scott King while assuring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s safety in jail.

Horrific brutality by Ku Klux Klan members, police officers and white citizens, sanctioned by business and civic leaders throughout the 1963 Birmingham struggles, provoked JFK’s emotional response and nationally televised speech defining “a moral issue as old as the Scriptures and as clear as the American Constitution” and producing legislation blocked by Mississippi Senators John Stennis and James Eastland, South Carolina’s Thurmond, Georgia’s Herman Talmadge and Richard  Russell, who derived outsize power from the Congressional seniority system. 

Kennedy evolved in knowledge, insight and vision throughout his thousand days in the White House. President George W. Bush, by contrast, still defends his disastrous Iraq invasion with its false rationale. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton curtly disavows her Senate vote authorizing that invasion as “a mistake pure and simple; that’s it,” without explaining how that shapes her views on the future use of force in the Middle East or elsewhere.  

The thirty-fifth President was my hero from when I at seven years old helped my dad distribute 1960 campaign leaflets on street corners of Manhattan’s Upper West Side and when I sat on his shoulders through rain awaiting the candidate’s late-night October rally appearance, JFK’s face posing on posters above the “Leadership for the 60s” slogan. We left that night before Kennedy arrived -“his plane’s leaving Boston!,” then “he’s in the air!” and “he’s landed!” breathless voices shouted - but I’ve savored the spectacle for to childish eyes it seemed the whole world was there.

The President’s death hit hard. My fellow fifth grader Fern Bartner after lunch that fateful day announced her mom said he’d been shot. Assistant Principal James Krug, gruff and intimidating to kids, stood in a stairwell softly chanting “he’s gone” as we filed past at dismissal. When classmate Vincent Van Hasselt walked with me outside and asked what we should do we saluted the sky at my suggestion.

I went to my bedroom at home, shut the door, sat on the bed and stared at the wall till my mom said dad had called from his office to speak to me. I lost my composure and burst into tears when his warm voice said “it looks like we lost a friend.” Our President was forty-five years old, my dad forty-four. That made JFK seem real.

My hero was slow to embrace civil rights but he did, as had Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, who once claimed he would preserve the Union without ending slavery if possible, to prevent border states from seceding.  

Kennedy as a Cold War candidate warned of a dangerous “missile gap” but as President negotiated a nuclear test ban treaty with the Soviet Union and at American University’s August 1963 commencement called for coexistence in “a world made safe for diversity.”

He admitted error after the 1961 tragic Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba but learned from experience. His steadfast resolve during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, overruling Air Force Commandant Curtis LeMay and other advisers’ rash insistence on “surgical bombing strikes,” and finding a way for Soviet Premier Nikita Khruschev to save face while authorizing a quarantine to halt Soviet missile launch preparation, averted nuclear war.

While Kennedy followed Truman and Eisenhower precedents in sending 16,000 military advisers to South Vietnam, public records make clear that he would have withdrawn them once reelected (virtually assured against right-wing Republican Senator Barry Goldwater). It was President Johnson who ordered 250,000 ground troops there in 1965, which author David Halberstam called “the making of a quagmire.”           

Was my hero perfect? Of course not. My children ask why I still admire Kennedy since he betrayed his marriage vows. He matured as a leader, I say. He labored through physical pain, foreign threats, Congressional resistance and crises at home and abroad, crafting his vision till death.

With corruption in Afghanistan and chaos in Iraq we need a President of Kennedy’s idealism and integrity. His spirit of service should inspire us to address the economic deprivation in urban communities of color that violence after last summer’s police shootings revealed. His frank talk could confront institutional racism among Congressional Republicans and challenge the Democrats’ timidity.  

“Our deep spiritual confidence that this nation will survive present perils - which may well be with us for decades to come – compels us to invest in our nation’s future, to consider and meet our obligations to our children and the numberless generations that will follow,” President Kennedy said in 1962.  I wonder what he would have achieved and how he would have helped us had he lived.

He’s still my hero – and yours? 


Monday, May 8, 2017

Racial healing: are we making progress?

I was at a conference in Jamaica on April 29 twenty-five years ago when news of the Los Angeles uprising broke. With an American colleague I watched TV images of burning cars and looting after a majority white jury acquitted police officers who were caught on video beating Rodney King, a black motorist. 

Twenty-four years earlier, the Kerner Commission Report, published in the aftermath of the 1960s riots, had warned that America was moving towards two societies, “one black, the other white – separate and unequal.” 

A summary glance at today’s headlines, cable news and social media might give the impression that little has changed. Police shootings of black men occur with depressing frequency. The median wealth of white households is at least 13 times greater than black households. Residential segregation by income has increased in 27 of the nation’s largest metropolitan areas. The virulent opposition to the first African American occupant of the White house demonstrated the depth of racial healing that is still needed.  

That said, there is undoubtedly a far greater awareness of race as a fundamental fault line in American society and creative approaches to addressing it are emerging in many sectors. It would be a mistake to discount them.

A month before the April 1992 events in Los Angeles, Hope in the Cities convened a twelve-member working group from Chicago, Atlanta, Portland, Washington, DC, and the Twin Cities. The group agreed to hold a conference in Richmond the following year. According to one of the organizers, Rev Ben Campbell, America was in an advanced stage of disintegration caused by a materialistic binge and “divisive urban feudalism.” He also believed that diverse, but tightly integrated groups tackling specific local issues, while maintaining an international vision, could have a significant impact. 

In June 1993, representatives from 50 cities and 25 countries came to Richmond, Virginia, for a conference with the theme, “Healing the Heart of America: An Honest Conversation on Race, Reconciliation, and Responsibility.” 

Hope in the Cities and its allies envisioned it as a “catalyst for action.” A sustained effort over the ensuing decades has validated Campbell’s vision of the power of diverse teams working with faith, courage and persistence to radically change the racial tone and tenor of the community. A film of Richmond’s first public walk through its racial history stimulated widespread dialogues and forums, encouraged a new approach to news coverage by the local media, and paved the way for museums, libraries and universities to tell the city’s story in a more honest and complete way. Diverse teams of committed and persistent citizens helped catalyze Richmond’s initiative to confront the legacy of segregation and other racist policies with a broad-based multi-sector initiative that aims to reduce the poverty level by 40 percent by 2030.    

Other communities across the country – some of them inspired by Richmond’s example – are coming together to uncover their history and create new shared narratives. Documentation and evaluation of a wide range of interracial dialogue models have added significantly to our common field of knowledge. 

Universities that owe their initial funding to profits from slavery are taking steps to rename buildings and in some cases, such as Georgetown, are offering reparations to descendants of those who were bought and sold. New Orleans and Charlottesville are removing Confederate statues. Brain science is helping us to appreciate the impact of unconscious or implicit bias on our daily responses and choices, as well as on policies and procedures. Racial discrimination and inequity and the consequent stress is becoming recognized as a determining factor in overall health outcomes. While police-community relations remain fraught in many places, cell phone and body cameras ensure that abuses are much more likely to be brought to public attention. The incarceration rate of minorities remains unacceptably high, but by 2014 the imprisonment rate of male African American had dropped to its lowest level since 1993 and the reduction among black women is even greater. 

We are also coming to appreciate that slavery was a southern institution but a national sin. As author Edward Baptist and others have documented, American capitalism was literally built on its produce and profits.The North industrialized with cotton picked by enslaved labor. Northern banks provided the finance. With much of its land given over to cotton, the southern states depended on the mid-west for wheat and corn.  

Katrina Browne’s film Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North tells the story of her ancestors’ role as America’s largest slave traders, operating out of Rhode Island. They transported more than 10,000 Africans to their sugar plantation in Cuba. Browne’s film contributed to the passage of slavery atonement resolutions at the Episcopal Church General Convention in 2006, and it has been used extensively in Episcopal churches, dioceses, and schools throughout the US. Browne’s work is important because when southerners hear white northerners acknowledge the north’s complicity in the economy of slavery they are much more likely to be open to conversations on how to atone for the centuries of harm. 

Last month Katrina was in Richmond to speak at St Paul’s Episcopal Church which my wife and I have attended since we came to Richmond. Known in earlier decades as the Cathedral of the Confederacy, the congregation has launched a five-year “History and Reconciliation Initiative” to “trace and acknowledge the racial history of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in order to repair, restore and seek reconciliation with God, each other and the broader community.”

The Christian church in particular has much to atone for. When Christopher Newport and John Smith and a small group of English settlers arrived at the falls of the James where Richmond now stands in 1609, they planted a cross, but in reality they were claiming territory for the Crown. The ensuing genocide of native Americans and the institution of slavery were condoned and in many cases supported by the church. Colonization and domination was justified by the Christian Doctrine of Discovery promoted by Papal Bulls in the 15th century and was affirmed unanimously by the Supreme Court in 1823 when Chief Justice John Marshall wrote that Christian Europeans had assumed “ultimate dominion” of the Americas and that upon “discovery” the Indians had lost their right to complete sovereignty.   

In many parts of the country the church supported segregation during Jim Crow – a century of American apartheid. After the 1954 Supreme Court decision outlawing segregated schools, Christian academies sprang up to shield white children from attending schools with black students. White churches abandoned the inner cities for the suburbs. In the recent presidential election, the overwhelming support by white evangelicals for what was widely perceived as a white nationalist platform has gravely undermined the credibility of the church at a time when its leadership is most needed. 

But liberals also need to search their own blind spots. Katrina Browne provoked nervous laughter when she challenged St Paul’s, which now has an activist and increasingly liberal congregation, to consider reaching out to more conservative white churches. She cited liberal arrogance as a stumbling block to dialogue and noted that while it is important to engage with black churches, the real work needs to be done within the white community.    

Imagine the profound changes that would occur in every American city if faith communities, both conservative and liberal, were to step up and speak out unitedly for racial healing and equity rooted in spiritual transformation. We need a call to a new direction, not just an add-on to personal spirituality but a wholehearted commitment to overcoming the belief in a human hierarchy based on race. 

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

A theology for radicals

Last week I spent two hours in conversation with five friends in Washington, DC. All are experienced in various types of interracial and interfaith dialogue and community building work. All are searching for appropriate responses to the current post-election polarization. Two run programs on university campuses where they said people are “having a difficult time talking with each other….they realize that things are a lot more complicated than they thought….There are confused liberals arguing among themselves but no conservatives at the table.” A key question expressed by these friends could be summarized as, “Do we put energy into fighting for justice and equity or into building bridges?”  

As a social activist myself, I am encouraged by the growing number of people who are making their voices heard for justice and inclusion. But while marches, demonstrations and disruption of town-hall meetings play a powerful role in gaining attention and building political pressure, we must be careful not to be so absolutist in our views that we fail to engage some of those who may come at issues differently but who could be strategic allies. 

The human condition is complex and defies easy stereotyping. Neither liberals nor conservatives can claim the whole truth. Conservatives have valid perspectives and liberals have worthy goals. Both have values that contribute to our society. Each one of us has developed our own worldview based on our lived experience. We may hold opinions that are conservative in some areas and liberal in others. Someone may feel strongly about the sanctity of life with regard to abortion issues but also be opposed to the death penalty, and supportive of racial justice and a welcoming approach to immigrants. Advocates for equal pay or clean air and water may also hold conservative views on taxes or family values. We do a great disservice by insisting on putting people in rigid social and political boxes.

Activists require humility and a readiness to examine our own motives, prejudices and behavior and a willingness to create a space of welcome for those whose participation is essential for real social change to be politically possible.

In June 2012, 150 evangelical leaders signed a statement of “moral and commonsense principles” for immigration reform. The group spanned the political spectrum from the Southern Baptist Convention to Sojourners. This action played an important role in building bi-partisan support for Obama’s decision that young people under sixteen years of age who had come to this country illegally would no longer be subject to deportation. As Jim Wallis, founder of Sojourners, writes in On God’s Side, the stand by politically diverse faith leaders created space and support for political leaders “to do the right thing.” 

We must constantly ask ourselves whether we are consciously or unconsciously shutting out some voices, whether they are people who demand justice or those who hold economic or political power. We may need to go toward those whose worldview is different from our own and who challenge our assumptions, people who irritate us, even people whose very presence threatens our sense of comfort and security. Working for effective social change requires the best of everyone: liberals and conservatives, immigrants and established populations, city dwellers and suburbanites, the young and the seasoned. 

My question to the courageous leaders of the various resistance and advocacy movements is this: Is enough attention being paid to nurturing the core values and the inner life that are essential for a broad-based and sustainable movement?  

A few days ago, Charles Marsh spoke at our church about his acclaimed biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer whose life and philosophy, he said, is particularly relevant at this point in history. I often quote from another of Marsh’s books, The Beloved Community, which highlights the spiritual roots of the civil rights movement. He claims that in its early years the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) pursued a form of discipleship that was “life affirming, socially transformative, and existentially demanding: a theology for radicals.” It made time for “reverie and solitude and for rituals that were refreshingly unproductive. A certain contemplative discipline was an important disposition in building community and trust.” Following threats to his life in 1956, Martin Luther King, Jr. confronted his deepest fears and prayed to “the power that can make a way of no way," writes Marsh. “Faced with the intransigence of the white resistance, liberal platitudes failed him; notions of essential human goodness and perfectibility were not what the moment required.” 

Wallis writes that we need to be “personally responsible and socially just.” In some circles the notion of personal responsibility is seen as a way of blaming the victim. But every great civil rights leader from Gandhi to Mandela has been crystal clear about the need for self-awareness and readiness to change. And Howard Thurman reminded us: "The root of what I condemn in others is found at long last in the soil of my own backyard. What I seek to eradicate in society . . . I must first attack in my own heart and life. There is no substitute for this."

Wallis directs equal challenges to liberals and conservatives. He highlights the importance of “choices in individual moral behavior, personal relationships like marriage and parenting, ethics, fiscal integrity, service, compassion, and security.” And he also stresses “commitment to our neighbor, economic fairness, racial and gender equality, the just nature of society, needed social safety nets, public accountability, and the importance of cooperative international relations.” 

Like Marsh he stresses the need for creating quiet space, to embrace silence, and to meditate. In this he finds a renewal of his “attentiveness.” As a Christian, he describes this attentiveness as “interaction with the Living Teacher” and applying those teachings to “the biggest and most consequential of social and political events, to the most personal of our closest relationships, and to the daily interactions we have with colleagues, coworkers, neighbors, and complete strangers.”

My guess is that if both liberals and conservatives were to focus on living up to our highest values and to paying attention to the voice of truth, the voice of conscience, in our own hearts we might find that we could reach some common ground in surprising ways.  

Thursday, January 12, 2017

With malice toward none

As a new president is sworn in, the towering figure of the Republican Party’s first occupant of the White House will watch over the inaugural proceedings from his seat at the other end of the Mall. What wisdom would he share with us? In accounts of Abraham Lincoln’s sojourn in Washington, especially Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Godwin, his exceptional leadership style contrasts starkly with much of what fills the headlines today.  

Among the qualities that stand out is Lincoln’s extraordinary generosity of spirit. He did not hold grudges and refused to let personal slights prevent him from drawing out the best in others. As a young lawyer, Lincoln was treated with contempt on one occasion by the brilliant William Seward. Yet Lincoln called on him to serve as Secretary of State, and Seward was to become his closest colleague and greatest admirer. Lincoln kept the prideful Salmon Chase at his post as Secretary of the Treasury, despite Chase’s constant criticism behind his back and maneuvers to further his own presidential ambitions, because he recognized his essential contribution to the country.

What some regarded as indecisiveness was often Lincoln’s discipline of reflecting, preparing and choosing the right time to act. He took infinite care with his choice of words. On occasion he would compose a strongly worded communication and then sleep on it (no overnight tweeting!), or think better of it and file it. Sometimes, after a more severe dressing-down of a subordinate he would quickly follow up with a letter stressing his respect for the individual.

His self-deprecating sense of humor is something from which our new leader could learn. Kearns relates the story of a congressman who had received Lincoln’s authorization for the War Department’s aid in a project:
When Stanton [the capable and outspoken Secretary of War] refused to honor the order, the disappointed petitioner returned to Lincoln, telling him that Stanton had not only countermanded the order but had called Lincoln a damned fool  for issuing it. “Did Stanton say I was a damned fool?” Lincoln asked. “He did indeed, Sir,” the congressman replied, “and repeated it.” Smiling, the president remarked, “If Stanton said I was a damned fool, then I must be one, for he is nearly always right, and generally says what he means. I will step over and see him.”
Lincoln appears as someone remarkably self-aware, with unusual insight into human nature. In one of his first major speeches on slavery, several years before he ran for the presidency, he cautioned against condemning Southerners since "they are just doing what we would do in their place." Lincoln understood that a man who is condemned tends to retreat within himself and “to close all avenue to his head and his heart.” In order to “win a man to your cause,” you must first win his heart, “the great high road to reason.”

The immortal lines from the second inaugural address, “With malice toward none, with charity for all,” reflect not just Lincoln’s vision but the core values and actual practice of the man himself. More than at any time in recent decades we need his wisdom to “bind up the nations’ wounds.” As we enter 2017, can our leaders – and all of us – take a page from Lincoln’s book?