“In matters of conscience, the law of the majority has no place.” Mohandas K. Gandi
Though strongly tempted, I probably should not speak to the fears we feel now at the state of politics in our nation. Well… perhaps a few words.
At the outset, let me say that I do not and will not use my blog to promote any specific political view or philosophy. Like you, I have certain beliefs as to the proper role of government in citizens’ lives and how it governs best. Moreover, I have generally supported one of the major parties–but not always. In any event, know that when it comes to comparing the competencies of the two political parties, I am pretty much an agnostic. Though not an atheist, or I wouldn’t be writing on this subject at all.
Having said that, I think there’s a lesson we can all take from the state of politics that is a powerful teaching, relevant to how we live moment to moment. We must also examine point-blank our role in the genesis of politics and our individual political behavior within the whole. Hence this note.
The artist Tom Sachs writes that “If you worship money, you’ll always feel poor.” If you think about it, the same is true for those who worship money’s pals–power and influence: enough is not enough for them. Sadly now, where we see the effects of coveting power and influence play out most vividly each day is in the halls of government. By contrast, during His time among us, our Lord never sought the company of those with social, financial, or political status.
How often His parables lead to the inescapable conclusion that the conventional use of power and influence regularly produces monstrosities. He taught that whatever bounty we are granted and/or have earned should be focused on the material and spiritual salvation of “the least of the brothers of mine.” Recently, I read that while some only see the suffering of the poor, Mother Teresa saw their dignity and value: “Indeed, it is the poorest, who are not consumed with worldly matters, who are most free to seek God’s peace,” she observed. Think about it, among the most divine forms of “power” is power of compassion like hers. So if you consistently find yourself coming up short in those incessant comparisons of your own power and influence to others’, congratulations!
Compare yourself instead to those who attend to the neediest among us, such as the leaders of nonprofits and NGOs, individuals of such compassion that they often cut their own modest salaries so that enough caregivers in their organizations can be kept on staff. Other heroes of compassion “adopt” a needy child in their free time. They are influential leaders indeed! As you read this letter, know to a certainty that within earshot of your house, men and women, boys and girls are living in their cars. When you retire to your warm bed this winter night, compare yourself to the caregivers who spend their waking hours finding shelter for the homeless.
We hear lots of talk and see vivid symbolism around the cherished concept of hope. The promise of hope has always been a darling of the political class. Perhaps we instinctively believe that if someone, anyone, says they can provide hope, then they are to be trusted. To bring up in a stump speech the emotional knowledge that citizens want, need, and thus value hope means that the candidate understands and thus is at least on the way to caring about us, right?
Well, trust under any circumstances—family, friends, work, business or political leadership–requires a leap of faith. If you think about it, a trusting relationship is by definition a safe place. Because we need emotional safety, trusting someone is a serious,key decision we make. How does the Phish song go? “Each betrayal begins with trust.” One of the problems is that we don’t hold people to their proof, their actions taken in the service of our needs. Descrying the reasons why we do that is another essay topic for another day!
But, for whatever reason, not holding politicians accountable for their assertions of fact has led to a fascinating phenomenon – claiming that what a candidate says is true because no evidence exists to prove otherwise. That’s the ultimate exercise in foolish trust. Are you familiar with the recent movie “Anonymous”? The story claims that the plays attributed to Shakespeare were actually written by Edward deVere.
The fact that deVere died before ten of Shakespeare’s plays were written doesn’t slow these scholars down for a moment. Nope, they argue next that a conspiracy to suppress the truth of deVere’s authorship has been perpetrated: and the fact that not one shred of evidence exists to prove deVere’s authorship demonstrates how effective that conspiracy was! You can’t make this stuff up.
But in political matters, too, as long as we give our leaders a pass on factually sustaining their positions and actions, we have to accept our complicity in cultivating the political quagmire.
Noted author and commentator John Kay has observed that “When we elect a government in a democratic society, we simply cast a ballot. We do not have to tell the government we reject why it has failed or the government we elect what we expect.” [Emphasis added] There may be historical precedent for Dr. Kay’s hands-off reading of citizens’ proper response to government leaders’ actions and statements, but I think it no longer will do. Instead, we need to stand up to failure to govern with more focus, confidence, and firm expectation of their accountability.
Because in the last twenty years, it appears to me that citizens have simply and sadly concluded that our elected officials suffer from the behavioral panic and cowardice we witness daily outside the Washington bubble. We think, “Hmm. What a mess that is. I expected more of them, and I didn’t think that government needed a primer on governance. Oh, well . . . . Perhaps I was wrong. . . .” It is, in my estimation, entirely too late for that kind of complacent response to what we see each day in Washington and in many state capitals.
My friends, shed your impotent, generalized anger and face the fact that placid cynicism, sophistication in the face of general societal anguish, and separatism of any kind is not going to help us through this period of rapid and turbulent change. It is all about change now, as never before. The changes in our work lives and in our political lives are here. They are among us, they are us, and there’s no place to hide.
As Mother Teresa gave her energies and care to the destitute, as employees of nonprofits and NGOs dedicate their energies and care to the poor and homeless around them in towns, cities, and countryside, we must each in this coming year (and beyond) devote our energy to studying the facts of our candidates’ and leaders’ current statements and actions, holding them accountable for each one. Then we must take action to get on track, as we see it.
Once we know what we’re talking about—doing our homework, reading for facts , then we can take responsible action to lessen the gaping distances between perceptions and facts. Because unless we know the truth—the hard truth, in many cases, we are not living free and democratically; we cannot “promote the general Welfare,” or, reliably in a time of inexorable change, “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”
It is not too late to get a grip and be a truth-leader who requires accountability, just as the Church asks each of us to be a minister to our fellows. But soon, perhaps, it will be so: too late.
To conclude, I include an excerpt of a letter the great American mind Abigail Adams wrote from London to her son, later President, John Quincy Adams, on September 6, 1785, two years after the close of the Revolutionary War:
“I know . . . [America] capable of whatever she undertakes. I hope you will never lose sight of her interests; but make her welfare your study, and spend those hours, which others devote to cards and folly, in investigating the great principles by which nations have risen to glory and eminence; for your country will one day call for your services. . . . Qualify yourself to do honor to her.”