(On this day, 49 years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, TN. He died working a just and equitable society, This reflection is dedicated to his memory)
For several weeks now, I have been wondering how progressive activists like myself can be more proactive and responsive in the age of Trump, rather than just reacting to the latest tweet or horrific executive order or outrageous statement of the moment. A couple weeks ago I attended a gathering, and a woman said: “Ever since November 8 of last year, I have been waking up with a pit in my stomach.” Hearing her confession, I realized that every time I go to read the mornings news, I have a similar feeling. I am wondering: what has Trump said or done today, what have the mean-spirited elitists around him said or done? I was once a news junkie, but since November 8 there have been some days I would rather not know.
Even so, I don’t like feeling like the life I am trying to live and the causes I am trying to advocate for are at the mercy of Washington. So I have been wondering: How can I, how can we, who care about justice for the poor, welcome to the immigrant and just basic fairness in the way government runs – how can we be more proactive and non-reactive, while pushing forward before we get push back.
One thing is clear: the answer is not coming from Washington. The Republicans either are blind ideologues who agree with Trump’s madness, or they are spineless sycophants who have no sense of decency or respect for the truth. The Democrats are acting like children, simply becoming the party of “no,” rather than working to craft a vision and strategy for the future. The way of doing democracy will come from folks in the streets, workplaces, schools, churches and the like. It will come from folks who realize the future is theirs to shape regardless of and in the face of the cruel meanness and empty jargon coming from our elected leaders.
In the introduction to his book Healing the Heart of Democracy, Parker Palmer writes: I will say little about “them,” the people in Washington, DC on whom we like to blame our ills. My focus is on “We the people,” whose will is the key to democracy.” I share Palmer’s sentiment: democracy has not and will not come from “them.” In Alexander Hamilton, the book that inspired the musical “Hamilton,” author Ron Chernow makes clear that the founders of the United States, especially Hamilton, did not believe in democracy and did not trust the people to make decisions. That is why the founders only authorized wealthy men with property to vote in the Constitution. They did not trust the people to know what was needed and what was right for them. To this day there is a built-in antagonism of the ruling elites, what sociologist C. Wright Mills called the “power elite,” toward the everyday person. They try to manipulate and deceive us, play to our fears and fantasies, but rarely stick to commitments or tell the truth. Earlier presidents were more subtle, Donald Trump is blatant in his disregard for these things – but he is just carrying on a tradition that has been there since the nation’s founding.
So it falls to us, people with the commitment to build a society with true liberty and justice for all. At this point I don’t exactly know what that proactive way of responding to Trump is, but New York Times Frank Bruni columnist offers some guidance in a thought provoking op-ed piece called “The Wrong Way to Take On Trump.” Bruni contends that responding to every tweet, ridiculing every ridiculous statement, and following up on every outrageous lie, plays into Trump’s tendency to distract us from the dangerous fundamental values that drive his decision-making. Instead Bruni says we must respond in a way that is “tactically prudent and not just most emotionally satisfying.” To take it further, it is to build a case around fundamental principles like the valuing of differences, the building of social (rather than financial) capital, and of looking into our communities for the creative and workable solutions to the challenges us that face us.
One small example comes to mind. A few months ago, I attended a workshop for Community School Ambassadors, a group of dedicated organizers seeking to organize parents, teachers, and interested community members. Building on John McKnight’s philosophy of Asset Based Community Development (ABCD), these folks are seeking to mine the gems of talent and commitment that exist in every neighborhood throughout the city, without waiting for the next state or federal grant (which is not coming). These folks are committed to struggle, but also to developing quality schools throughout the city of Philadelphia. Now that doesn’t mean we don’t continue the fight for full and fair funding from the city and state for our public schools, but it also means we are waiting around for help that may be a long time coming.
Recently, at a gathering of the interfaith group POWER, Rev. Maria McCabe of the Unitarian Church of the Restoration in Mt. Airy, PA was reflecting on the words of of Habakkuk . The prophet is bemoaning the suffering and injustice all around him and turns to God and says;
“How long, O Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen?
Or cry “Violence” but your do not save?
Why do you make me look at injustice?
Why do you tolerate wrong? (Habakkuk 1.2-3)
Rev. McCabe then reflected on all the pain, all the suffering, all the injustice, we see all around us in our city, nation and world, repeating Habakkuk’s question all along the way. But then she paused and said: Maybe we are asking the wrong question. Maybe instead of asking “How long?” we should be asking God, “ Where do you want me to serve?” She pressed us saying: Perhaps the challenge is not what will God do for us, but what will we do in our commitment to God, justice and righteousness?
We wil find that proactive stance to build a society, not in the vision of a narcissistic president or a sycophantic Congress, but in the vision of a people who see a God-vision of a society where the poor, the oppressed, the immigrant, the school child, the single mom, the unemployed dad, and the masses of regular folks matter as much, if not more, than folks in suits downtown. How do we work toward what Donald Kraybill called the “upside down kingdom” and Dr. King called the “beloved community?” I don’t know the full answer, but perhaps with others we together can craft a vision of a society, a city, a nation that works for and values all.
Parker Palmer, quotes Bill Moyers (who I am sure got this quote from someone else) that sums our challenge:” Just because something is impossible doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it.” That’s our call and challenge.