Hope is important because it can make the present moment less difficult to bear. If we believe that tomorrow will be better, we can bear a hardship today.
– Thich Nhat Hanh
It was good to have had various forums commemorating the January 6, 2021, violent attack at the US Capitol building. Some would call it treason against the government in its attempt to overthrow a legitimate function of the government. That day was an important day to remember. The riotous brutality was a frightening scene that came across my television screen that day. A scene that I shall long remember.
Disappointed was I, however, with the focus of so many of the forums and the subsequent lost opportunity. The insurrection was characterized much too often as an “attack on our democracy.” You cannot attack what does not exist. Our nation is not and never has been a democracy. The Founding Fathers never envisioned it as such – a democracy for white landed people perhaps, but not for the enslaved, the women, the indigenous people, the whites who did not own property.
Tracy Chapman sings about this in her song: America
The lost opportunity was that such admission would have been an enlightening and empowering step toward democracy. It was an opportunity for us to re-commit ourselves to the ideal of a democracy since one does not currently exist. Many, though, aspire to creating a democracy. Aspiration is essential to envisioning and strategic planning to embody what is aspired. It is about creating a goal for our future. That is what we need as a nation. With an aspirational goal we can see and measure more clearly our shortcomings, how far we are from being a democracy. It is a critique of our current reality as final, a destination reached, a goal accomplished and all we need to do is preserve it. It fossilizes the present while obstructing an alive future.
Dr. Howard Thurman wrote in The Search for Common Ground:
It seems reasonable to say, then, that the “intent” of creation is that life lives by constantly seeking to realize itself in established forms, patterns, and units. Expressed in this way, it must not be thought that life is static, something that is set, fixed, determined. The key word to remember always is potential: that which has not yet come to pass but which is always coming to pass. It is only the potential, the undisclosed, the unfinished that has a future.
There is a latent, dormant quality or ability to be a democracy; but, it has not been realized. James Baldwin wrote: If we — and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on or create, the consciousness of others — do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country and change the history the world.
This nation cannot be a democracy through rhetoric alone. It comes only through awakened consciousness and concerted action. Potential nurtures capacity, the capacity to evolve. The Universe is constantly, renewing itself, unearthing previously hidden treasures. Rubem Alves, Brazilian theologian, suggests that God is the presence of the future, who pushes the present towards new possibilities of judgment and human liberation. Democracy comes when all are fully included as sisters and brothers. It comes when we have become human enough to banish barriers of exclusion and all are hosts and guests at the welcome table.
I am not alone in my thoughts Dr. Vincent Harding and Langston Hughes express similar views.
A close friend and co-worker with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Dr. Harding wrote the draft of the Beyond Vietnam- A Time to Break Silence speech as well as the book, Martin Luther King: The Inconvenient Hero.
Dr. Harding was committed to helping us understand Dr. King and King’s dedication to creating the nation that needed to be. Dr. King embodied his aspirations for the nation and refused to compromise even when he lost popularity with the liberal press and politicians, other civil rights leaders, and even some of his staff. The yearning of his soul denied complacency, forfeited his resting on social changes that he had helped create. By the fall and winter of 1967, the last fall and winter that he would experience, he announced that the movement needed a massive nonviolent civil disobedience campaign to redress the needs of the poor. It was the nation’s potential greatness for a just and compassionate future for the poor that motivated King. He envisioned a movement to place a mass of poor people and supporters in Washington, D. C. resolved to stay there until the nation dealt with its disinheritance of the poor. The agenda included jobs or income for every American, something that the nation had the resources to implement.
Dr. King stated:
We’ve got to camp in – put our tents in front of the White House. . .. We’ve got to make it known that until our problem is solved, America may have many days, but they will be full of trouble. There will be no rest, there will be no tranquility in this country until the nation comes to terms with our problem. …
The storm is rising against the privileged minority of the earth, from which there is no shelter in isolation or armament. The storm will not abate until a just distribution of the fruits of the earth enables men everywhere to live in dignity and human decency. …
The American Negro may be the vanguard of a prolonged struggle that may change the shape of the world, as billions of deprived [ people] shake and transform the earth in the quest for life, freedom, and justice.
Each of us has a stake in developing democracy. Thich Nhat Hanh, the great Buddhist leader often credited as the inspiration behind the concept of Engaged Spirituality, declared: Because you are alive, everything is possible. Beyoncé reminds us of the importance of living with such purpose that it is clear that we existed, that we were here, that our lives mattered.
Committed to this aspiration for a democratic nation, Vincent Harding, James Lawson, Phil Lawson, Dolores Huerta, and Grace Lee Boggs founded the National Council of Elders in 2011. The purpose was to share lessons learned from the 20th Century civil rights movements with young leaders of the 21st Century and to promote the theory and practice of nonviolence.
Its website states:
The founders shared a sense of urgency caused by the escalation of all forms of violence and the rise of anti-democratic forces. Their intent was to increase and deepen important story-based dialogue with younger activists who are currently on the frontlines of activism across the U.S. Still active themselves, the Elders would play their part on current frontlines, sharing what they learned from the successes and failures of 20th Century civil rights efforts. The young and the elders support each other in efforts to bring into being systems and structures that promote the ideals of democracy.
Dr. Thurman continues his reflection of potential.
I find it difficult to think of life apart from the notion of potential; indeed, they seem synonymous. To be sure, life is not finished yet; creation is still going on, not only in the spinning of new worlds, systems, nebulae, and galaxies in the infinitude of space, not only in the invisible world where chemical elements are born and nourished to support conglomerates of matter yet to appear at some far-off-moment in time, but also in the human body, which is still evolving, in the human spirit, which forever drives to know the truth of itself and of its fellows.
What shall we do with the poisons in our food, in our air, in our water, in our hearts?
We have no models for the new American society, but we know it must be.