Last week was the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington and the radio waves were righteously filled with the deep sounds and dreams of Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. Like a carillon of bells, pealing off, each with their own notes, scores of wise men and women spoke about those dreams, about that march, about the still sorry state of racism and classism and sexism in this country.
On Friday, Secretary of State John Kerry spoke about dead Syrian children, wrapped in sheets and lying without a scratch or spilt drop of blood. President Obama spoke later, laying how the tentative logistics of how other innocent long and short lives could and can be prevented from similar ends.
At various times, all three of these men have been seen as The One, the Answer, the Prophet who is come to save us all, to carry us all forward into the better worlds we variously imagine. And yet, we live still in an unjust world.
It is not exclusively the failure of our leaders that the world is such a mess. I believe that we ask too much of these humans. That is all, mortal flesh and blood and fallible, that any of us can be. To expect otherwise of anyone is foolish. To come to cynical distain—barely covering a broken heart—when these heroes prove less than perfect, this is cruel. There are no giants to stand on the shoulders of, just ordinary-sized men and women who rise to their occasions, who have combinations of drive and passion and leadership and the ability to say something close to the right words at a ripe time.
The true power in these situations—racism and classism and climate change and all the rest that knit into the human right to a clean and efficacious life—lies not with the leaders of various factions and movements. It lies with each of us, within each of us. In the purported democracy of the United States, the power is with the people, with our will and ability to vote and choose and recall and replace and direct those who represent us. When we remember, we’re actually holding all the cards, as well as dealing them. We must remember this, and act on this.
But, above and beyond politics, there is the place where movements and social change actually happen. It comes from people recognizing an injustice of some sort, some aspect of life and being in this world that isn’t right. And then, coming together over that common awareness. Leaders may arise from this, but the leader, the prophet, does not replace the true, beating heart of this revolutions. The prophets and what become the big names in newspapers and history books, these are the messengers and should neither be shot nor deified.
I think that when we put all our hope and trust and faith and belief into one of these people, we take some vital quantity of those virtues out of ourselves. We also, a little, relax and abdicate our own responsibilities to these causes and movements. Without people, these fights sputter out. I think about Election Night in 2008, when spontaneous parades broke out across half the country. I feel that we—I—gave up or in, feeling that my side had won and the hard work was over and everything would be better from then until forever. This turns out to be false. Had we maintained the same level of commitment and awareness for Obama’s presidency that we gave Obama’s candidacy, I wonder where we would be, what better world we could have been building by now. Perhaps the Copenhagen Climate Summit of 2009 would have still been a bust, perhaps Syrian elders would still have been gassed with their grandchildren in their homes, perhaps drones would still be flying around the world, perhaps, perhaps, perhaps, a hundred little things I wish this man I believed in could or would prevent could or would have been prevented. But, perhaps, a little more democratic participation by big-hearted and iron-willed could have changed the course of recent history.
The maxim that what you hate about another is what you hate about yourself has this glorious flip side: whatever you love in another is something you love in yourself. And so, for those of us prone to looking for prophets and poets, for believing in their capabilities beyond our own, I believe it is time to look deeper within and recognize the common strength. And then to speak and listen to those who feel the same. If we’re working for something approaching justice, these hierarchies of power become more and more foolish.
To be sure, there are those who can give better voice to a movement. Just as there are those who are better at the actual logistics of getting a million people to march somewhere, of feeding and housing folks along the way. There are people who are good at everything that we need to do to make a better world, and no one thing is inherently better than another. That truth, I believe, we must all hold most dearly. The prophets as much as, if not more than, any of the rest of us.
We each need to believe in ourselves and our own unique capabilities as strongly as we’ve ever believed and been buoyed by the words and actions of our various prophets. These great and fallible humans are examples of what could be, what will be. They are not the ends of these movements, only a means to demonstrate what is possible. Let’s stop dreaming about this better future for our world, and start making it real.
(Illustration from www.mlive.com)