“Democracy gives us the right to disagree and is designed to use the energy of creative conflict to drive positive social change. Partisanship is not a problem. Demonizing the other side is.” Parker J. Palmer
At the moment—as we allow the tension of our differences to fragment the civic community, creating a void that undemocratic powers are eager to fill—we are squandering our political inheritance as if it did not matter.
Within us is a yearning for something better than divisiveness, toxicity, passivity, powerlessness, and selling our democratic inheritance to the highest bidder.
Democracy is as much about me—and us—as it is the elusive them on whom we like to pin our problems.
At the highest levels of institutional politics, the common good is rarely served if citizens are not speaking and acting in these local venues, gathering the collective power necessary to support the best and resist the worst of our leaders as they decide on matters that affect all of us.
The antidote, the only antidote, to the power of organized money in Washington is the power of organized people.
I have never been very politically active. However in the last few years, I have experienced injustices in the communities where Embrace is doing community development and it has sparked in me a deep longing to see democracy restored to its original vision.
One such experience was the attempt by the school board to exclude the Hillside community from the new Oak Grove elementary school. The proposal would have resulted in the children being bussed to a school miles from their home instead of walking to the new school in the adjacent neighborhood.
When the neighborhood residents began organizing around the issue, 3 out of the 4 rezoning proposals would have resulted in the children of Hillside being bussed out of the area. It took a lot of work on the part of residents to organize themselves. They got a petition with over 300 signatures. They attended multiple meetings and public forums. They made it known that they were a force to be reckoned with and in the end they experienced the power of being an organized people speaking with one voice. This victory was huge for our leaders in that community who had never won a battle against the powers that be and many doubted it could be done.
Palmer has this advice for the rest of us who are seeking to reclaim democracy from the power of money and political gridlock.
If American democracy fails, the ultimate cause will not be a foreign invasion or the power of big money or the greed and dishonesty of some elected officials or a military coup or the internal communist/socialist/fascist takeover that keeps some Americans awake at night. It will happen because we—you and I—became so fearful of each other, of our differences and of the future, that we unraveled the civic community on which democracy depends, losing our power to resist all that threatens it and call it back to its highest form.
When our ancient fear of otherness is left unacknowledged, unattended, and untreated, diversity creates dysfunctional communities. The benefits of diversity can be ours only if we hold our differences with respect, patience, openness, and hope, which means we must attend to the invisible dynamics of the heart that are part of democracy’s infrastructure.
The heart is where everything begins: that grounded place in each of us where we can overcome fear, rediscover that we are members of one another, and embrace the conflicts that threaten democracy as openings to new life for us and for our nation. The heart is where we integrate the intellect with the rest of our faculties, such as emotion, imagination, and intuition.
The civility we need will not come from watching our tongues. It will come from valuing our differences. The more you know about another person’s story, the less possible it is to see that person as your enemy. Protecting our right to disagree is one of democracy’s gifts, and converting this inevitable tension into creative energy is part of democracy’s genius.
We may not be able to agree on the details, but if we believe in our form of government, we must agree on an alternative definition that makes preserving democracy itself the focus of our concern. We must be able to say, in unison: It is in the common good to hold our political differences and the conflicts they create in a way that does not unravel the civic community on which democracy depends.
If “We the People” are to hold democracy’s tensions in ways that reweave the civic community, we must develop habits that allow our hearts to break open and embrace diversity rather than break down and further divide us. Democracy demands that we become engaged with “the other” as well as with “our own kind,” with the stranger whose viewpoint, needs, and interests are likely to be different from our own.
No habit of the heart is more crucial to making “We the People” a reality than extending hospitality to those who appear alien to us. Some of what we must learn if democracy is to flourish comes only from “crossing over” into lives unlike our own, not fleeing from them in fear but entering into them in trust that an experience of “otherness” can help our closed hearts break open.
We must generate a sense of personal voice and agency. Insight and energy give rise to new life as we speak and act, expressing our version of truth while checking and correcting it against the truths of others. But many of us lack confidence in our own voices and in our power to make a difference. We grow up in educational and religious institutions that treat us as members of an audience instead of actors in a drama, and as a result we become adults who treat politics as a spectator sport.
We must strengthen our capacity to create community. Without a community, it is nearly impossible to achieve voice.
Since 2005, Embrace has been fostering a sense of community – initially among our homeless friends, then among the residents of Hillside court and most recently in the Brookland Park corridor.
While being in community should be the most natural thing to us as communal people, it is incredibly difficult work. Disagreements among residents, resentments between organizations, differing doctrines among congregations and personal agenda’s that seek recognition and power all serve to erode community. The process is long and often feels like we are not getting anywhere. It requires strengthening the heart of a community, the reconditioning of the spirit that leads to hope, a lot of prayer and healing wounds from the past.
I am so thankful for our friends in Hillside who demonstrated that the invisible power of community is real and is worth investing in. They allowed their personal differences to become secondary to the common good.
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