Making Our Lives Count
Souls are like athletes that need opponents worthy of them if they are to be tried and extended and pushed to the full use of their powers.
We're often taught to view our lives as a zero-sum game. With all the pressures we face, we barely have time for family and friends. How could we possibly take on some demanding cause?
Yet for all the frustration we expect, when we do get involved, we get a lot back: new relationships, fresh skills, a sense of empowerment, pride in accomplishment. "A rich life," writes philosopher and theologian Cornel West, is fundamentally a life of serving others, "trying to leave the world a little better than you found it ... . This is true at the personal level ... [but there's also] a political version of this. It has to do with what you see when you get up in the morning and look in the mirror and ask yourself whether you are simply wasting time on the planet or spending time in an enriching manner."
Again and again, I've heard active citizens say that what motivates them the most is the desire to respect what they see in the mirror. The exercise isn't about vanity, but about values, about taking stock of ourselves and comparing the convictions we say we hold with the lives we actually lead. It's about seeing ourselves from the viewpoint of our communities, the earth, maybe even God. If eyes are windows to the soul, and faces reflections of character, lookingin the mirror lets us step back from the flux of our lives and hold ourselves accountable.
Sound a bit daunting? It can be. As the saying goes, not one among us is without fault. But such self-examination can also be enormously rewarding. For it's equally true that not one among us lacks a heart, which is the wellspring of courage (the word is derived from coeur, French for "heart"). At the core of our being lie resources many of us never dream we possess, much less imagine we can draw on.
I NEVER KNEW I HAD IT
Virginia Ramirez, of San Antonio, Texas, could easily have lived out her days without ever discovering her hidden inner strength. She left school after eighth grade to get married. "That was what most Hispanic women in my generation did. My husband went to work after sixth grade." Although dropping out seemed normal at the time, she felt frustrated when she couldn't help her children with their homework, and she dreamed of resuming her education someday. Virginia wasn't completely detached from her community: She was active in the PTA, "not running the meetings, but making the cookies and punch, carrying out the tasks." She'd babysit for her neighbors, help in whatever ways she could, "doing basic community work without realizing it." Mostly, though, she focused on private life, raising her five children while her husband worked for a taxi company.
When Virginia was forty-five, she realized that an elderly neighbor was getting sick every winter. The neighbor was a widow who lived in a house so dilapidated that it couldn't retain heat. "She was one of those people who always paid her taxes on time, always faithfully making out her little money orders. But she couldn't afford to repair her house, and everyone around here was just as poor. So I went with her to city agencies trying to get help. They kept sending us from place to place, from department to department. Finallyshe died of pneumonia. The paramedics said she'd never have died if her house hadn't been so freezing cold.
"I was very angry," Virginia recalls. "I'd never been so angry in my life. This woman had done everything she was supposed to, and now she was dead because no one could help her fix her house. Someone said there's this community organization called COPS, and maybe they could help. I'd heard of them before, but thought they were too radical, a bunch of nuts."
At that time, in the early 1980s, the largely volunteer-based Communities Organized for Public Service (COPS) had been around for eight years. The organization grew out of a network called The Industrial Areas Foundation, established by the late Saul Alinsky, the godfather of modern community organizing (who also inspired the community organization that Barack Obama worked for in Chicago). COPS began by working through churches to organize San Antonio's desperately poor Latino population. The group successfully pushed for municipal investments in storm sewers, parks, and schools in the town's long-neglected barrios, and got major downtown businesses to hire their residents. COPS eventually secured over a billion dollars of public and private resources for their community through a combination of grassroots organizing and innovative protests. During one series of protests to get downtown businesses to hire more Latino workers, lines of COPS members endlessly exchanged pennies to tie up traffic at local banks, and sympathetic nuns tried on bridal gowns at local department stores to put pressure on their staff. But Virginia had paid the organization little heed.
So it was with some hesitation that she attended a COPS meeting at her church, where she raised her hand and said, "I have this problem. This neighbor lady of mine died because it was cold and they wouldn't fix her house. I want someone to do something about it."
"What are you going to do about it?" the COPS organizer asked. But Virginia didn't know what to do. That was why she'd come to the meeting in the first place. "I thought you people weresupposed to be able to help," she said, and walked out of the meeting in anger.
A few days later, a COPS organizer knocked on Virginia's door.
She was a nun, and that was the only reason Virginia let her in. "All I want to know is why you were so angry," asked the nun. Virginia was angry, she said, because she'd tried to help the old lady and failed. But that wasn't all. She also was upset because her kids weren't getting properly educated in school. Because she'd given up on her own education and dreams. Because she'd had to watch her father, whom she'd adored, be humiliated again and again by police and store owners when they drove from state to state to pick crops. She was upset because no one seemed to care about her community.
The nun didn't advise Virginia to do anything in particular. She just asked if they could talk again. When she returned, she suggested that Virginia hold a house meeting, to see if her neighbors had concerns, too.
Nine people came. Virginia had never conducted a meeting. Her stomach felt hollow and clenched. Her legs shook so much she almost fell over. She could barely open the door. But gradually people began to talk of their problems and experiences. Their neighborhood had been thrown together at the cheapest possible cost, built for workers at the nearby slaughterhouses, which were now closed down. It lacked sidewalks and adequate sewers. Most of the houses were crumbling. As she listened, Virginia realized that more was at stake than the needless death of her neighbor; this was about the future of her community.
Convinced that the neighborhood hadn't received its share of public funds, Virginia and other COPS members painstakingly researched documents at City Hall. And they were right: The city had built a street in a more affluent area with money actually earmarked to repair homes in their barrio. The next step--testifying before the City Council--took even more courage. When Virginia walked to the podium to protest the diversion of funds, she was so nervous she forgot what she was going to say. "I didn't remember my speech. I barely remembered my name. Then I turned around, saw the sixtypeople who'd come with me, and realized I was just telling the story of our community. So I told it, and we got our money back.
"It was hard to stand up to politicians and tell them what we wanted, because it's been imbedded in my mind to be nice to everybody. It seemed rude at first. But I began to understand the importance of holding people accountable for what they promise."
As they did with other newly energized community members, COPS trainers helped Virginia reflect on each step she took in every campaign, and acquire the skills to research, negotiate, articulate a point of view, analyze people's needs, and channel her anger. They also introduced her to a new community of people who were similarly involved. One of these new colleagues, a sixty-eight-year-old widow, became her inspiration. "Even though she didn't know English and couldn't read or write," Virginia recalls, "she spoke out and stood up for her beliefs. She talked to other families. And she kept telling me, 'Go back to school.' She always said, 'You have to represent us.'"
Even with this support and inspiration, Virginia's journey into public life wasn't easy. She often prayed over whether her newfound path was right, asking God for guidance, "like what am I doing with these crazy people and where is it going to lead?" Yet her involvement also strengthened her faith, giving new meaning to biblical lessons that had once seemed more remote and abstract. "Suddenly you read these stories about injustice from thousands of years ago," Virginia says, "and it seems like they're talking about today. You feel like you have a chance to be one of God's instruments, to do His work by helping your community. You feel closer to Him in the process."
Yet Virginia's choices still raised difficult tensions, particularly in her family. At first her husband was critical of her involvement, saying "That's not your role" and telling her she was neglecting her household. "My kids were mostly grown, but Hispanic women weren't supposed to do these things. It was hard for him to understand that I was becoming a totally different person--going out of the house, going to meetings, wanting to talk about the things I was doing. Then my mother would call every day and say, 'This is notfor you. What are you doing to your family?' It was like twenty-four-hour guilt. You're torn between your home and your desire to grow as a person."
Eventually, Virginia returned to school and acquired her GED. Then she enrolled at a community college. Studying for a college test--her first test in over forty years--Virginia was sitting with books spread across the kitchen table, and no supper ready, when her husband came home. He ran his finger over the furniture to show her the accumulated dust. "Look at this house!" he yelled. "It's going to ruin. You're not taking care of anything."
"I'm preparing my future," she responded, her voice trembling. "If you don't like it, that's too bad, because I'm going to do it."
She'd never talked to him that way, and he was shocked. "I'm sorry," Virginia said, "but this is a priority." It took her husband a long time to get used to her new attitude and concerns, "to realize," as Virginia says, "that I was going to keep on going to school and to my meetings." But he slowly accepted Virginia's transformation and even took pride in it. "I'd begun to think of myself as a person. I'm Virginia Ramirez, not just someone's wife, mother, or daughter. My husband realized I was getting involved for both of us."
College gave Virginia the credentials to secure a new job, training and supervising over 300 volunteers who do health education outreach in low-income neighborhoods. During more than twenty years with COPS, she's moved up in the organization, first training people in her parish, then working with other local churches to develop their members' leadership skills as well. She's focused particularly on women like herself--working to inspire them, as others had spurred her to action. Using her own unexpected journey as an example, she's taught them to find their own voice and speak out for their communities, despite any doubts or hesitations they might have, and even over the initial resistance of their husbands. "At first all the men in the neighborhood said they had a lot of respect for me, 'but just don't get my wife involved.' After a while they began to come around."
Virginia has also negotiated with the mayor and bank presidents on major community development projects, pressured localcorporations for decent jobs, and worked on after-school literacy projects. "We have a new business incubator and a teen center so kids have someplace to hang out besides the streets. The city gave people money to fix up the crumbling houses. Now they take so much pride in it. We're still a poor neighborhood but we finally have hope."
Virginia realized how far she'd come when she went to Washington, D.C., to testify before the U.S. Senate on an innovative jobtraining program that she and other COPS members had helped develop. The night before, she "prayed to God that I wouldn't make a complete fool of myself," but was far more afraid, she said, "talking to my neighbors the first time, and speaking at that first City Council meeting. By the time I got to the U.S. Senate I was used to it." Afterwards, she thought "about how this process had changed me, developed potential I'd never dreamed of. I tell people I learned all my talents and confidence at the University of COPS. The people there found some spark in me. I never knew I had it."
STRETCHING THE SOUL
"Heart," "spark," "spirit"--whatever word we use for the mysterious force that animates us, its full potential cannot be realized in isolation. Indeed, according to developmental psychologists, individual growth is possible only through interaction with the human and natural world, and through experiences that challenge us. "Souls are like athletes," wrote the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, "that need opponents worthy of them if they are to be tried and extended and pushed to the full use of their powers."
Many of us may already know the value of stretching our souls in personal life. We know the virtue of learning to voice our needs, fight for our choices, recover from psychological intimidation. This process may require acknowledging painful truths, withstanding conflict, standing firm on what seems like shaky ground. We may need to question familiar habits, overcome self-doubt, and begin toseparate who we really are from the roles we've been taught. Jungian analysts like James Hillman would say that by taking these steps we reconnect with what the Greeks called the daimon, the "acorn" of character at the core of our being. Psychiatrist M. Scott Peck described spiritual healing as "an ongoing process of becoming increasingly conscious."
We are slower to attempt such transformations in the public sphere. Self-assertion there requires us not only to modify our outlook and behavior but also to confront a bewildering and often disorienting maze of institutions and individuals, powers and principalities. So we stay silent in the face of common choices that we know are unwise or morally troubling. We keep our opinions to ourselves, because we doubt our voices will be heard, mistrust our right to speak, or fear the consequences if we do speak out. We feel we lack essential political skills. Like Virginia before she attended her first COPS meeting, or Rosa Parks before her first NAACP meeting, we simply do not know we have it in us.
Yet coming out of one's cocoon in the public sphere is just as necessary to self-realization as it is in the private. I once told a young Puerto Rican activist about the notion, common among many of his fellow students, that they'd lose their identity by getting involved--find themselves "swallowed up" by the movements they joined. He laughed and said the reverse was true. "You learn things you never knew about yourself. You get pushed to your limits. You meet people who make you think and push you further. You don't lose your identity. You begin to find out who you really are. I feel sad for people who will never have this experience."
You begin to find out who you really are. The implication is clear enough: We become human only in the company of other human beings. And this involves both opening our hearts and giving voice to our deepest convictions. The biblical vision of shalom describes this process with its concept of "right relationships" with our fellow humans, and with all of God's creation. The turning point for the Buddha, writes James Hillman, came only "when he left his protected palace gardens to enter the street. There the sick,the dead, the poor, and the old drew his soul down into the question of how to live life in the world." As Hillman stresses, the Buddha became who he was precisely by leaving the cloistered life. A doctor I know works in a low-income clinic because, she says, "seeing the struggles of others helps me be true to myself. It helps me find out how people in very different circumstances live out their humanity." Community involvement, in other words, is the mirror that best reflects our individual choices, our strengths and weaknesses, our accomplishments and failures. It allows our lives to count for something.
THE COSTS OF SILENCE
Twenty years after Harvard Law School hired him as its first full-time African American professor, Derrick Bell took an unpaid protest leave, refusing to teach until the school hired a minority woman to its faculty. It was not a decision made in haste. Bell had long campaigned for this. But each time a new position opened, the Law School somehow could find not a single minority female candidate in the world who was worthy enough to hire. The school's resistance continued despite Bell's stand. After three years, the school forced him to resign. His conscience had cost him a tenured job at the most prestigious law school in America.
Yet Bell didn't feel defeated. Quite the opposite. His public stance had preserved his core identity and integrity. "It is the determination to protect our sense of who we are," he writes, "that leads us to risk criticism, alienation, and serious loss while most others, similarly harmed, remain silent."
What Bell means is that silence is more costly than speaking out, because it requires the ultimate sacrifice--the erosion of our spirit. The toll we pay for stifling our emotions in personal life is fairly obvious. Swallowed words act like caustic acids, eating at our gut. If the condition persists and the sentiments are sufficiently intense, we grow numb, detached, dead to the world around us. When,however, we take steps to redress our private losses and sorrows, we often feel a renewed sense of strength and joy, of reconnecting with life.
A similar process occurs when we want to address public issues but stay silent. It takes energy to mute our voices while the environment is ravaged, greed runs rampant, and families sleep in the streets. It takes energy to distort our words and actions because we fear the consequences of speaking out. It takes energy, in other words, to sustain what the psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton calls "the broken connection," splitting our lives from our values. Like autistic children, we can blank out the voices of our fellow human beings. But if we do, we risk the decay of our humanity. When we shrink from the world, our souls shrink, too.
Social involvement reverses this process, releasing our chokedoff energy, overcoming the psychic paralysis that so many of us feel, reintegrating mind and heart, body and soul, so that we can speak in one voice--our own--and mean what we say. There's even a physical corollary to this integration. In The Healing Power of Doing Good, Allan Luks describes various studies that confirm what he calls the "helper's high": People who volunteer in their communities experience significantly greater physical pleasure and well-being in the process of their work, a general sense of increased energy, and in some cases an easing of chronic pain. A Harvard School of Public Health study found that African Americans who challenged repeated discrimination had lower blood pressure than those who did not. So taking stands for what we believe may help us save more than our souls.
Sociologist Parker Palmer describes the resulting unleashing of truth, vision, and strength in the lives of people like Rosa Parks, Vaclav Havel, Nelson Mandela, and Dorothy Day, who've acted on their deepest beliefs. "These people," he wrote, "have understood that no punishment could be worse than the one we inflict on ourselves by living a divided life." And nothing could be more powerful than the decision to heal that rift, "to stop acting differently on the outside from what they knew to be true inside."
America's predominant culture insists that little we do can matter. It teaches us not to get involved in shaping the world we'll pass on to our children. It encourages us to leave such important decisions to others--whether they be corporate and government leaders, or social activists whose lifestyles seem impossibly selfless or foreign. Sadly, and ironically, in a country born of a democratic political revolution, to be American in recent years is too often to be apolitical. For many, civic withdrawal has become the norm. The 2008 presidential campaign challenged this trend by inspiring vast numbers of previously disengaged citizens to volunteer in ways that shifted not only the presidential race, but also close races for the Senate, the House, and state governorships. But even then over a third of potentially eligible Americans ended up staying home. And despite all the passionate volunteers, far more citizens did little beyond casting their vote. Absent a highly contested election, it's easier still to sit on the sidelines and simply hope our leaders will take care of things.
Overcoming our instinctive civic withdrawal requires courage. It requires learning the skills and developing the confidence to participate--as Virginia Ramirez did in the process of finding her voice. It also requires creating a renewed definition of ourselves as citizens--something closer to the nation of active stakeholders that leaders like Thomas Jefferson had in mind.
The importance of citizens' direct participation in a democracy was expressed thousands of years ago, by the ancient Greeks. In fact, they used the word "idiot" for people incapable of involving themselves in civic life. Now, the very word "political" has become so debased in our culture that we use it to describe either trivial office power plays or leaders who serve largely personal ambitions. We've lost sight of its original roots in the Greek notion of the polis: the democratic sphere in which citizens, acting in concert, determine the character and direction of their society. "All persons alike," wrote Aristotle, should share "in the government to the utmost."
Reclaiming this political voice requires more than just identifying problems, which itself can feed our sense of overload. I think of an Arthur Miller play, Broken Glass, whose heroine obsesses while Hitler steadily consolidates his power. From her safe home in Brooklyn, she reads newspaper articles about Kristallnacht: synagogues smashed and looted; old men forced to scrub streets with toothbrushes while storm troopers laugh at them; and finally, children shipped off to the camps in cattle cars. Her concern contrasts with the approach of her family and friends, who insist, despite the mounting evidence, that such horrors are exaggerated. Yet she does nothing to address the situation publicly, except to grow more anxious. Eventually she becomes psychosomatically paralyzed.
The approach Miller's protagonist takes toward the horrors of Nazism echoes that of far too many people who spend hours following every twist and turn of the twenty-four-hour news cycle, yet never take action that might address them. It also resembles the condition of learned helplessness. People who suffer from severe depression, psychologist Martin Seligman found, do so less as a result of particular unpleasant experiences than because of their "explanatory style"--the story they tell themselves about how the world works. Depressed people have become convinced that the causes of their difficulties are permanent and pervasive, inextricably linked to their personal failings. There's nothing to be done because nothing can be done. This master narrative of their lives excuses inaction; it provides a rationale for remaining helpless. In contrast, individuals who function with high effectiveness tend to believe that the problems they face result from factors that are specific, temporary, and therefore changeable. The story they live by empowers them.
This is not to say that change is easy, nor that everyone is in an equal position to bring it about. Some individuals and groups in America possess far more material and organizational resources than others. This reflects our deep social and economic inequities. But as Tikkun magazine founder Rabbi Michael Lerner has observed, we often fail to use the resources we do have, which may be of a different kind. "Most of us," Lerner says, "have been subjected to a set of experiences in our childhood and adult lives that makes us feelthat we do not deserve to have power." Consequently, we can't imagine changing the direction of our society. We decide that things are worse than they actually are--a condition Lerner refers to as "surplus powerlessness." Think again of Virginia Ramirez's accomplishments, when she joined forces with other once-powerless people in fighting for their community.
The illusion of powerlessness can just as easily afflict the fortunate among us. I know many people who are confident and successful in their work and have loving personal relationships, yet can hardly conceive of trying to work toward a more humane society. Materially comfortable and professionally accomplished, they could make important social contributions. Instead they restrict their search for meaning and integrity to their private lives. Their sense of shared fate extends only to their immediate families and friends. Despite their many advantages, they, too, have been taught an "explanatory style" that precludes participation in public life, except to promote the most narrow self-interest.
Whatever our situations, we all face a choice. We can ignore the problems that lie just beyond our front doors; we can allow decisions to be made in our names that lead to a meaner and more desperate world. We can yell at the TV newscasters and complain about how bad things are, using our bitterness as a hedge against involvement. Or we can work, as well as we can, to shape a more generous common future.
THE RENT WE PAY FOR LIVING
Paradoxically, one effect of overcoming learned helplessness is recognizing the extent to which others have helped us, and the extent to which our lives are bound together. Despite the myth of the rugged individualist, none of our lives is entirely of our own making. Small wonder, then, that those who participate in public life talk so much about the need to repay the blessings they've received. For some, this stems from a specific sense of good fortune, of living in comfort while others are hungry and desperate. But I've heard thesame sentiment expressed by people from the poorest of surroundings, recalling key friends, relatives, or mentors who offered them inspiration, hope, or a helping hand. In fact, the poorest fifth of Americans contribute twice as high a percentage of their income to charity as do the wealthiest fifth. As Children's Defense Fund founder Marian Wright Edelman writes, social involvement may simply be "the rent we pay for living." A Seattle massage therapist, reflecting after getting involved with children's issues, echoes the sentiment: "Before, I felt I was living happily in my own small nucleus while the rest of the world decayed around me. I now feel more empowered, with less of a sense of despair about everything that's wrong."
When we work shoulder to shoulder with others for a greater common good, we gain a powerful sense of human solidarity. We see this phenomenon in other contexts all the time. People become inspired and expansive when they pull together to face a storm, flooded river, or other natural disaster. Whatever soldiers have thought about the wars they fought in, a similar feeling makes them look back to their combat experiences as a time of profound meaning and unparalleled camaraderie.
Rarely does social involvement place us in the path of destructive natural forces or armed opponents, but it does involve risk. At the very least, it requires us to make ourselves psychologically vulnerable. It impels us to overcome distracting habits and petty concerns, to challenge internal fears, and to face criticism from those who will call our efforts fruitless, foolish, or a waste of scarce time.
In return, social involvement converts us from detached spectators into active participants. We develop new competencies and strengths. We form strong bonds with coworkers of courage and vision. Our lives become charged with purpose. Yvon Chouinard, the founder of the Patagonia outdoor clothing company, once told me about the challenges he faced while mountaineering, surfing, and building a successful corporation. By the tone of his voice, he communicated the sense of accomplishment these activities had given him. But his enthusiasm grew even stronger when he described helping organize Japanese surfers to clean up their beaches and switching Patagonia's buying patterns to phase out environmentallydestructive nonorganic cottons. Chouinard's participation in environmental activism was even more deeply gratifying than his corporate success, because it produced results well beyond what he could achieve personally.
IT SHOOK MY THEOLOGY TO ITS CORE
When we do get involved, we never know where the process will lead--for ourselves, or the issues we take on. As vice president for governmental affairs of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), Rich Cizik represented 4,500 congregations serving 30 million members. Considering himself a "Reagan conservative" and a strong initial supporter of George W. Bush, Cizik had been with the organization since 1980, serving as its key advocate before Congress, the Office of the President, and the Supreme Court on issues like opposition to abortion and gay marriage. During the Clinton era, he had begun to expand the organization's agenda by tackling such issues as human trafficking and global poverty, working with groups across the political aisle. Later he'd convinced the organization to take a stand against torture. But he thought little about climate change until 2002, when he attended a conference on the subject and heard a leading British climate scientist, Sir James Houghton, who was also a prominent evangelical. "You could only call the process a conversion," Cizik said. "I reluctantly went to the conference, saying 'I'll go, but don't expect me to be signing on to any statements.' Then, for three days in Oxford, England, Houghton walked us through the science and our biblical responsibility. He talked about droughts, shrinking ice caps, increasing hurricane intensity, temperatures tracked for millennia through ice-core data. He made clear that you could believe in the science and remain a faithful biblical Christian. All I can say is that my heart was changed. For years I'd thought, 'Well, one side says this, the other side says that. There's no reason to get involved.' But the science has become too compelling. I could no longer sit on the sidelines. I didn't want to be like the evangelicals who avoided getting involved during thecivil rights movement and in the process discredited the gospel and themselves."
One day during the conference, Houghton took Cizik on a walk in the gardens of Blenheim Palace, Winston Churchill's ancestral home. It was a lovely day, sunny and bright. Houghton said, "Richard, if God has convinced you of the reality of the science and the Scriptures on the subject then you must speak out."
"Let me think about it," Cizik responded. He knew he'd meet resistance from his colleagues and board. But Houghton convinced him that the world couldn't solve the issue without serious American participation, and that the Republican Party was the major political force blocking action in the United States, in contrast to Europe, where conservative parties had helped take the lead on the issue. "As evangelicals, we're forty percent of the Republican base, so if we could convince the evangelical community to speak out, it could make the key difference," Cizik said. American evangelicals, Houghton told him, might literally hold the fate of the planet in their hands.
After leaving the conference, Cizik began reading and learning. Flying over the Sahara, he got a sense of the "tens of thousands of acres that are lost to climate-related desertification each year," which in turn leads to major refugee migrations and potential wars over water. He coordinated a retreat with key evangelical leaders, like Rick Warren, and major scientists, like Houghton and Harvard's E. O. Wilson. Then he took a similar group to Alaska to witness the melting glaciers and permafrost, the disruption of native communities, the spruce trees dying because the bark beetles now survived the warmer winters. They visited Shishmaref, a native village that is being forced to relocate because the permafrost has crumbled beneath it and the sea ice that once served as a storm buffer is gone. "Our first night there, we saw a lunar eclipse, shooting stars, and the Northern Lights." It reminded him of the phrase in the psalm, "Creation pours forth its praise to its creator ... . The heavens give witness to God's glory."
His Alaska group, said Cizik, "included those who believe life on earth was created by God, and those who believe it evolvedover three-and-a-half billion years. What became obvious to both groups is that this earth is sacred and that we ought to protect it. God isn't going to ask you how he created the earth. He already knows. He's going to ask, 'What did you do with what I created?' If we're leaving a footprint that destroys the earth, we've failed to be good stewards."
The more Cizik learned, the more it challenged him to "treat caring for God's creation as a moral principle," and to continue enlisting others. In 2004, Cizik convinced the NAE to release a paper called "For the Health of the Nation," which urged its members to live in conformity with sustainable principles, talked of "creation care," and stated, "Because clean air, pure water and adequate resources are crucial to public health and civic order, government has an obligation to protect its citizens from the effects of environmental degradation." Two years later, he helped organize the Evangelical Climate Initiative, a major statement from eighty-six key evangelical leaders, including major megachurch pastors like Warren, the presidents of thirty-nine Christian colleges, and the national commander of the Salvation Army. The statement described climate change as an urgent moral issue for Christians and called for the government to act on it.
As Cizik expected, not everyone was happy with his taking environmental stands. "I had people on my board who said, 'Don't touch the issue. If you do, we'll make your life very difficult.'" Twenty-two evangelical leaders signed a letter urging the NAE not to take a position on global climate change. James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, and major conservative activists like Heritage Foundation founder Paul Weyrich and the Family Research Council's Gary Bauer called for Cizik's firing.
Some of this Cizik attributed to "simple ignorance of the science" and some to "bad theology--people who believe the earth is going to be destroyed anyway, so why bother." But he also wondered how much came from people "afraid they'll lose their power, influence, capacity to raise money, what they perceive to be their priorities. They're afraid that they'll offend political allies."
But Cizik and the others persisted. Although they never quiteconvinced the NAE to take an official stand on climate change, the organization reaffirmed the moral importance of "creation care," a core perspective that encouraged further dialogue.
"The issue shook my theology to its core," Cizik told me. "It changed me as much as my being born again thirty years before. This threatens the whole planet, so it raises a basic issue of who we are as people. Climate change isn't just a scientific question. It's a moral, a religious, a cosmological question. It involves everything we are and what we have a right to do."
Whatever propels us beyond the merely personal--be it awe at the power and mystery of nature, religious belief, outrage at the sight of another person suffering, concern about the crises of the planet, or simply a sense that we can do better than we have--we each need to take that all-important step of bringing our private convictions into the larger public arena. Because that's where we'll find our common humanity. As my friend the fisherman Pete Knutson says, "You get a lot back when you're with a good group of people taking a stand on something that matters."
Religious traditions stress the importance of listening to the spirit within, to guide our personal choices. This same voice can guide our public action. In fact, the connection between soul and acting rightly in the world lies at the core of these traditions. The ancient Jews spoke of ruah, the spark of life or breath of God, which gave insight, understanding, and physical sustenance. The obligation to love others and love God was the essence of right living, they said, of being truly human, as opposed to pursuing false gods and living a life of estrangement. We achieve redemption through engagement, not isolation. The more we exercise compassion for our fellow human beings, the closer we get to God.
Whether we frame the world in religious or secular terms, we don't have to be passive creatures of our circumstances, condemned to watch from the sidelines. Psychologist Jean Houston urges us to overcome detachment and ineffectiveness by joining "local life to great life." Cornel West talks of redeeming "life's epic significance." And we do both when we extend caring and generosity to a larger social domain.
Mary Oliver describes the resulting gain in her poem "When Death Comes":
When it's over, I don't want to wonder if I have made of my life something particular, and real. I don't want to find myself sighing and frightened, or full of argument. I don't want to end up simply having visited this world.
Oliver's images go to the heart of the matter. Will we remain mere visitors, planetary tourists? Or will we recognize that the earth is our home, and create a common future with our fellow inhabitants? Only by choosing the latter course will we realize, in the words of a young Atlanta activist, Sonya Vetra Tinsley, "that you can shape the world as much as it shapes you."
HOLDING TO THE DIFFICULT
Social involvement isn't all sweetness and light, and successes rarely come easily or instantly. It often feels hard just to raise public issues. Unless our acquaintances, colleagues, or friends are already politically engaged, it's awkward to ask them to act or even care about climate change, homelessness, or Darfur. It feels as if we're intruding on their private liberty, their right to be left alone by the claims and afflictions of the world. Our culture makes us feel that raising our beliefs in public is like parading some disreputable personal passion. "Are you talking politics again?" our acquaintances may moan, as if the whole subject is just too strange to mention.
The more we challenge institutional power, the more heat we'll take. As Sister Helen Prejean writes in Dead Man Walking, her memoir of working with death-row inmates, "Get involved with poor people, and controversy follows you like a hungry dog." When Martin Luther King challenged the Vietnam War, he found himself attacked by The New York Times, The Washington Post, even the NAACP. "Many who have listened to him with respect will neveragain accord him the same confidence," wrote the Post. "He has diminished his usefulness to his cause, to his country, and to his people."
Participation in public life often requires us to confront blindness, shortsightedness, greed, and the will to dominion that theologians call evil. Taking on larger causes sets us up for repeated heartbreak and for anger and frustration when people we hope will respond spurn the most basic appeals to human solidarity. Like any true path of psychological or spiritual inquiry, social commitment invites us to confront issues and forces we'd just as soon leave undisturbed. It can bring us face to face with more cruelty and suffering than we ever thought possible.
Yet here as elsewhere, the most challenging experiences may teach the most valuable lessons. Someone once asked the Dalai Lama how he responded to the continued brutal occupation of his country by the Chinese. "Because of the difficult situation," he explained, "this Dalai Lama became more realistic, closer to reality. If things are good, it's easy to pretend. When things become desperate, we cannot pretend. We have to accept the reality." The poet Rainer Maria Rilke explained: "We must always hold to the difficult; then that which now still seems to us the most alien will become what we most trust and find most faithful."
I ENJOYED THAT DAY
As Rilke and the Dalai Lama suggest, satisfaction can be found even amid the most testing of situations. Legendary boxer Muhammad Ali recalls how good it felt to decide finally to resist the Vietnam-era draft. He lost his world boxing championship, was publicly reviled, and was sentenced to five years in prison (though the sentence was eventually overturned on a technicality). If he quietly submitted, Ali was assured, he'd never face combat. But he could not live with supporting a war he felt was morally wrong and "leading more boys to death."
"That day in Houston in '67 when I went to the induction center, I felt happy," he says, "because people didn't think I had the nerveto buck the draft board of the government. And I almost ran there, hurried ... . The world was watching, the blacks mainly, looking to see if I had the nerve to buck Uncle Sam, and I just couldn't wait for the man to call my name, so I wouldn't step forward. I enjoyed that day."