I’ve made a habit of taking fairly long solitary walks recently. It’s been a seasonal practice in my life which I’m trying to reestablish. It gives me time to think, to reflect, to pause. That’s becoming more and more necessary as the news around the American political process has continued to gather more mass of earth and snow cascading down the mountain of our public discourse toward our basest elements. It’s felt so different this time: so much longer, so much uglier.
I’m tempted to believe it’s never been this bad. That’s at least partially the immediacy coming to dominate any historical perspective, but there’s an unmasking occurring. The uglier side of our public life is becoming harder to deny.
I always enjoyed history class in school – mostly because so much of it was story. Narrative captures the imagination spurring true learning and engagement. Many of those stories were packaged in a palatable manner showing my culture as the good guys and hiding the ugly truth of the violent heritage of humanity. The truth is there’s blood on our hands too: slavery, Jim Crow, genocide of Native Americans, nuclear weapons, more than I can list.
Of course there have been many events worth celebrating. Our national conscience has grown over the last two and a half centuries as we’ve confronted parts of that past and sought to make a more just world and a more perfect union. By nearly any objective measure, recent decades have been the least violent and most equitable time in the history of civilization. Yet it’s so plain that we remain a long way off – there are so many globally whom that truth has not yet touched and many in our own borders who remain unwelcome outsiders. We cannot complacently congratulate ourselves on how far we’ve come when we turn and still see the most vulnerable in our human family caught in the perilous wake.
Dr. King said “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” His life said “not unless we make it so.” I don’t know if we will continue to progress toward greater justice and human flourishing. I hope so, but that will require us to engage not just in big cultural moments but in our everyday lives as we seek to learn from one another just what it means to love our neighbors. Indeed, the big cultural moments – those landmarks like the Civil Rights Movement in the 60s – would never have arrived but for the long, thankless, confrontational, prophetic work of insistence done by those who were oppressed and a few advocates.
On my walks, I can’t help but notice the trees in the earth beside my path. That concrete slab underneath my feet was likely laid in a day and at that time it was perfectly level. Though their work is unnoticed in the moment, over years the roots of the trees in the earth lift and even crack the concrete.
That’s an apt metaphor for our public life. During these moments of public engagement like an election year, our focus tends to rest on what slabs we plan to lay. It’s true that the clear, noticeable work which we execute has repercussions. That concrete slab laid one day years ago remains present. But over time, those trees with access to light and water will shape the ground beneath our feet. And those trees we cut off or cut down will not.
What are we watering and allowing the sunlight to touch? How do we align our vote – from the top of the ticket down to the local level – with the flourishing of those trees that produce a more just future?
More important than who you’re voting for is how you got there. What voices are you privileging? What voices are you dismissing? What is it that resonates with you in your chosen candidate or platform and why? Are you sure that what you’re telling yourself about your political convictions is the truth, or is there a more uncomfortable truth you don’t want to admit?
I’m examining myself with a lot of these questions too. If you’ve ever talked politics with me, it’s probably no surprise to you that I’m planning to vote for Hillary Clinton; and while that hasn’t changed, an honest reflection showed me some uncomfortable truths:
- I want to feel morally superior to the Trump voter.
- I don’t want to think about the lives of people in other parts of the world who have been crushed by policies advocated by both parties.
- I’m comfortable with supporting a candidate who has made a pragmatic calculation to leave oppressed people out until it’s politically expedient to change rhetoric because I’ve made that calculation too – more than a few times.
I could go on. Ultimately, while my vote matters, confronting the above matters more.