How Shall We Live Together (6)
It’s been an exciting week in Danville. On Monday, our town board passed an ordinance that allows people to drive golf carts on the town streets and announced it on Facebook, anticipating, wrongly as it turns out, that Danvillians would welcome this development. A clear case of government providing a service no one had asked for. There had been no public outcries for golf carts, no marches with people carrying signs demanding the right to drive a golf cart in town. People are weighing in on Facebook saying it’s a ridiculous idea, that traffic is bad enough, and now we’re adding golf carts to the mix and what in the world was the town board thinking?
People posted pictures of golf cart wrecks on the town’s Facebook page, and someone added a story about a girl over in Greencastle who almost killed her grandfather while driving a golf cart and now the seniors are agitated, and rightly so. Several people noted our town already had an obesity problem and the town board had no business encouraging the use of golf carts, which will only make it worse. What we need are walking trails and sidewalks, one person wrote, and suggested the town board members could use a little exercise themselves. It got kind of personal. I kept out of it. I’m trying to rise above it all, but I don’t know how much longer I’ll be able to stay on the sidelines. It’s one of those pressing moral issues that often require people to take a side.
If I were serving on the town board, golf carts would not have been the hill on which I died. I would have applied my political capital elsewhere, toward something a bit more noble, like passing an ordinance that would have given every Quaker pastor in town a free motorcycle.
It made me think about what we’ve been discussing—the qualities of a healthy nation. We’ve been dwelling on that subject for several weeks now and have thus far said that in healthy nations, those who can help those can’t, while holding accountable those who won’t. We’ve also said healthy, responsible nations give careful thought to their alliances, to their commitments, to their promises, and once made, honor them. They give their word, then keep their word. Last week, we said healthy nations are not defined by their borders, but by their character.
Today, I would like to add to our list this principle. Healthy nations, like healthy people, devote their energy to uniting people around noble ideals. It is never simply enough to unite people. Hitler united tens of millions of people. He organized and directed the vast wealth of a thriving nation toward a cohesive goal. But that goal was despicable, an affront to decency, in every way ethically and spiritually obscene.
It is, unfortunately, all too easy to unite people around corrupt and amoral ideals. Simply select a group of people on whom every social ill can be blamed, suggest that they are the reason for our difficulties, for our decline, and you can quickly amass a mob to act against them. If it is true that the Light of God is in all people, as we Quakers say, it is also true that the capacity to dim that Light is also in us. It is likewise true that some people acquire great power by calling for the diminishment of Light, the diminishment of decency. For there will always be people ready to embrace the worst of humanity and not the best. If there is such a thing as original sin, this might be it.
But healthy nations, and healthy leaders, unite people around noble and virtuous ideals. They summon forth the best in us, not the worst.
Now be aware, summoning forth the best in us takes time. If someone wanted to unite people around a corrupt idea, they could gather a crowd by this afternoon. But uniting people around a virtuous idea takes time and work. The seed of a noble movement must be planted and nurtured and tended every day. We can help someone hate in a moment’s time. But helping someone love, igniting in someone a fierce passion to help the world, well, that takes time. Summoning forth the best in us takes times. It takes patience and encouragement, day after day, year after year. And then some.
I heard a wonderful story this week about the Chinese bamboo tree. Before the Chinese bamboo tree breaks ground, it remains as a rhizome beneath the ground for nearly five years. It must be watered and nourished every day, and if you do that every day for five years, it will finally break through the ground. But once it breaks through the ground, it grows ninety feet tall in five days.
So here’s the question, “How long does it take a Chinese bamboo tree to grow ninety feet? Five days or five years? You know the answer, don’t you. Of course, you do. Because at any time in those five years, if you had stopped nurturing that rhizome, if you had stopped tending that dream of a plant, it would have died. So you need patience and you need faith, you need to believe that sticking to your plan day after day, year after year, is going to be worth it.
Healthy nations know this, too. They commit themselves, each day, to noble and virtuous ideas. No matter how long it takes. No quick fixes. No easy answers. Just day after day, year after year, of uniting people around a great and noble vision and staying with it no matter what. Even when people say they’re foolish for sticking with something so long with no visible results. Some people will say that, you know. When we unite people around a great and worthy goal, there’ll always be someone who comes along and says it can’t be done, that we’re wasting our time, that nothing can change.
But healthy nations, like healthy people, keep at it. They persist, bringing others with them, uniting others, in the pursuit of noble ideals. We are a church, but we are a specific church located in a specific nation. It is therefore our holy duty to unite people around a noble and virtuous vision, a vision that includes all, embraces all, works for the good of all; our holy duty to tend carefully the seed of goodness until it breaks through and grows with vigor.