I know those people who were counting on a stunning come-from-behind victory for Vivek Ramaswamy are surely disappointed after his departure from the presidential race this week. I think we can all agree our nation has been well-served by billionaires with no political experience, but it appears Vivek Ramaswamy’s time is not yet. On the plus side, there is still time. He is only 38 years old. Had he been elected, he would have been the youngest person ever to hold that office, four years younger than Theodore Roosevelt, who assumed the presidency in 1901 at the age of 42.
You’ll be pleased to know I will soon be announcing my candidacy for the presidency. I’ve belonged to both parties over the course of my life, so anticipate the support of both Republicans and Democrats. I pledge to build a wall across our northern border to keep out the Canadians, who will be flocking to the United States after I institute a guaranteed minimum income, the same one proposed by Richard Nixon in 1969, the Family Assistance Plan, which would have paid a guaranteed minimum income to poor families. Nixon’s plan passed in the House but died a slow and painful death in a committee in the Senate, an obstacle I believe we could overcome with your financial support to my campaign, for which God will bless you and cause you to prosper. Naturally, I will require a substantial amount of paid time off, which I am confident you will accommodate.
But wouldn’t that be something—a guaranteed minimum income, the book of Acts come to life: “Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.” Acts 4:32. We don’t know what drugs Luke was on when he wrote that, but it certainly qualifies as one of the most hallucinogenic moments in Biblical history. Most Biblical scholars believe it didn’t actually happen, that it was more aspirational than common practice, but it is still a lovely thought, this image of one heart and one soul, of using one’s power for good, of people enjoying not only the same material status, but the same political status. One heart. One soul. What an especially winsome thought, in this age of oligarchy, when the only qualification for public office seems to be wealth and the arrogance that too often accompanies it. How do you use your power?
We’ve been talking about depression these past several weeks. Can anyone tell me the first thing we should do when we experience chronic depression? Yes, we should visit our doctor to see if there are biological causes that can be medically addressed. But after that, we have identified the practices and habits we can embrace to elevate and enrich our interior lives. Today, I want to add to our list this: using our power for good, using our moral and ethical energy to better the lives of others. That’s what power is, after all, our moral and ethical energy.
Let’s dispense with the notion that you and I don’t have power, that you and I lack the moral and ethical energy to effect positive change. We too often say to ourselves, “What can I do? No one listens to me. I can’t do anything about this situation.” This is a lie we tell ourselves when the task before us seems too daunting. But when we think of power as energy, we stop viewing power as something others have, something that is the sole domain of the highly placed and begin to realize that you and I also possess the moral and ethical energy to shape our world.
One of my favorite stories from our Quaker history is the story of John Woolman, born to Quaker parents in New Jersey in 1720. At the age of 26, while working as a store clerk, was asked by his employer to write a bill of sale for an enslaved person. Woolman refused, and instead convinced his employer to give the man his freedom. That’s how moral and ethical energy works. But Woolman didn’t stop there. One slave had been set free, but millions more remained in bondage. So this store clerk hit the road, traveling from one Quaker meeting to another, decrying the evils of slavery, urging his fellow Friends to manumit their enslaved people. And he used shame. Don’t ever dismiss the appropriate use of shame. Sometimes shame is the Spirit saying to us, “You are better than this.” When he would stay in a Quaker home and an enslaved person did anything for him, Woolman would reach in his pocket and pay them for their service, to the embarrassment of his hosts.
Some of those hosts, humiliated and angry by his breach of manners, would order him from their home, but just as many hosts, shamed by their immorality, freed their slaves. The interesting thing about Quakers is that we are wonderful record-keepers. We write down everything. Joining a Quaker meeting is the surest way to guarantee your immortality, since everything you will ever do in a Quaker meeting will be written down. Certain Quakers would write about Woolman, saying “Who is this store clerk to tell us what to do with our slaves?” But this store clerk exercised his power so courageously, so creatively, that by his death in 1772 one could not be a Quaker and an enslaver. A store clerk, John Woolman, did what the founder and leader of Pennsylvania, William Penn, could and did not do. How do you use your power?
Have you ever known someone who used their power maliciously and selfishly, then ended their day in happiness? Have you ever known anyone who neglected and denied their moral and ethical energy, then looked back on their life satisfied with their accomplishments? Our happiness never begins with the mere accumulation of power, but with its wise use on behalf of others. Our happiness begins when we devote our moral and ethical energy to the betterment of others. This is why some people can be the President of the United States and still be miserable, they have mistaken power with privilege, as an end and not a means, as a reward for themselves and not as a blessing for others.
A story: Theodore Roosevelt became the president in 1901, after the assassination of William McKinley in Buffalo, New York, while attending the Pan-American Exposition. When McKinley was shot by Leon Czolgosz (CHOL-gosh), a man standing behind Czolgosz wrestled him to the ground and took the gun from him before anyone else could be killed. His name was James Benjamin Parker, a Black man, born into slavery in 1857. The day before, he had lost his job working as a bus boy for a catering company at the Exposition. After the shooting, Parker was approached with several commercial offers, all of which he refused, stating in a newspaper interview that “I do not think that the American people would like me to make capital out of these unfortunate circumstances. I am glad that I was able to be of service to our country.”
We have a curious custom in this nation, and this is our tendency to look for our saviors among the well-placed and well-heeled, who seem always, inevitably, to disappoint us. These days, I find my heroes among the John Woolmans, the James Parkers, the store clerks, and the bus boys, who daily devote their moral and ethical energy to the betterment of others.