In talking with people as I run for office, I often ask them what they consider the most important issue before the country and often hear the answer: “healthcare.” Recently, I heard the answer: “racial justice.” I thought I would seek to say something about the subject, and where I stand, that is not filled with platitudes.
I became politically active in high school with a national organization, the Social Democrats, USA, whose national chairman was the great civil rights organizer, Bayard Rustin—the principal organizer of the 1963 March on Washington at which King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Bayard taught me a lot about the moral authority of nonviolence and about the importance of strategy.
The most important lesson I learned from Bayard is that a community fighting for justice fights for
, or it is fighting for nobody, least of all itself. Because we seek to stand in “the center of progress toward democracy,” he argued, we have what he called: “a terrifying responsibility to the whole society.”
Bayard’s sense of deep responsibility for the common good of America—and indeed of the world—was evident in his deeds as well as his words from his Freedom Rides testing the Supreme Court’s decision in
Morgan v. Virginia
in the 1940s to his work with the Solidarity trade union movement in Poland in the 1980s.
Bayard’s insistence that the marginalized champions of democratic progress have a responsibility to provide leadership for the society as a whole proved both strategically sound and politically powerful in the history of the civil rights movement. I think such insistence ultimately rests on what I believe is a central truth within a religious outlook and tradition that holds that the last will be first and the first last.
While I am seeking to represent all the people of the 5th District—including Jews and Muslims and Christians as well as secular folk—my own faith certainly informs my outlook. The cross, for Christians such as myself, is an indictment of all power that does not proceed from abundant love—in other words all political power in this world. I would say that this indictment extends to the power of “identity politics,” however the identities are defined, except insofar as the identity involved is the one that we all share as children of God. This does not mean that our more particular identities are necessarily evil, quite the contrary, as long as we do not make idols of them, and so use them to oppress others, they are a blessing. It does mean that they stand indicted. They may involve a sense of affinity for all those who share this identity—and rest on love as well as on exclusion—but, disgracefully, they frequently, and sometimes even systematically, involve denying equality to those who are deemed “other.” At their best, they fade in comparison with openness to the Kingdom as a motive for action.
Articulating a concern for the common good of the world, and not merely of America, Bayard once wrote: “My activism did not spring from my being gay, or for that matter, from my being black. Rather it is rooted, fundamentally, in my Quaker upbringing and the values that were instilled in me by my grandparents who reared me. These values are based on the concept of a single human family and the belief that all members of that family are equal. Adhering to those values has meant making a stand against injustice, to the best of my ability, whenever and wherever it occurs.”
Ta-Nehisi Coates, in his open letter to his son (in the form of the book
Between the World and Me
) writes of the people brought up to believe that they are white: “These new people are, like us, a modern invention. But unlike us, their new name has no real meaning divorced from the machinery of criminal power. The new people were something else before they were white—Catholic, Corsican, Welsh, Mennonite, Jewish—and if all our national hopes have any fulfillment, then they will have to be something else again. Perhaps they will truly become American and create a nobler basis for their myths.” By saying that this is something that hopefully “they” will do—rather than something that hopefully “we” will do together—Coates suggests that his primary contribution will be that of someone focusing attention on injustice rather than that of someone seeking to cultivate an inclusive American identity with a nobler basis.
When A. Philip Randolph first introduced the idea of a
in the 1960s, he championed its program as being capable of wiping out poverty in ten years. Designed by Leon Keyserling, who had been the chairman of Harry Truman’s Council of Economic Advisers, this program was intended to benefit all who were poor regardless of whether they were poor African-Americans or the poor members of any other ethnicity—including the poor whites who constitute most of our country’s poor people. The Freedom Budget, as Martin Luther King, Jr. said in his introduction to that historic document, “is a moral commitment to the fundamental principles on which this nation was founded.” It is time to design a Freedom Budget for the twenty-first century and build the consensus necessary to see it adopted and implemented.
There has been some decline in the poverty rate among African Americans from 31.1% in 1976 to 24.1% in 2015. But the
on the gap in wealth between white households and black households remains striking evidence of ongoing inequality in America: the median net worth of white households was roughly 13 times that of black households in 2013 ($144,200 for white households, $11,200 for black households). Moreover, as a recent
notes, both white and black Americans largely misperceive the situation and show “a systematic tendency to perceive greater progress toward racial economic equality than has actually been achieved.”
While remaining true to the facts of American history, I will be seeking to cultivate an inclusive American identity with a more noble foundation in a talk I'll be giving to the
Chicago Literary Club
on “America and the Kingdom” in early October which will then be available on my
For now, I would like to close with this poem of Howard Thurman’s from 1953: “Life Goes On”
During these turbulent times we must remind ourselves repeatedly that life goes on.
This we are apt to forget.
The wisdom of life transcends our wisdoms;
the purpose of life outlasts our purposes;
the process of life cushions our processes.
The mass attack of disillusion and despair,
distilled out of the collapse of hope,
has so invaded our thoughts that what we know to be true and valid seems unreal and ephemeral.
There seems to be little energy left for aught but futility.
This is the great deception.
By it whole peoples have gone down to oblivion
without the will to affirm the great and permanent strength of the clean and the commonplace.
Let us not be deceived.
It is just as important as ever to attend to the little graces
by which the dignity of our lives is maintained and sustained.
Birds still sing;
the stars continue to cast their gentle gleam over the desolation of the battlefields,
and the heart is still inspired by the kind word and the gracious deed.
There is no need to fear evil.
There is every need to understand what it does,
how it operates in the world,
what it draws upon to sustain itself.
We must not shrink from the knowledge of the evilness of evil.
Over and over we must know that the real target of evil is not destruction of the body,
the reduction to rubble of cities;
the real target of evil
is to corrupt the spirit of man and to give his soul the contagion of inner disintegration.
When this happens,
there is nothing left,
the very citadel of man is captured and laid waste.
Therefore the evil in the world around us must not be allowed to move from without to within.
This would be to be overcome by evil.
To drink in the beauty that is within reach,
to clothe one’s life with simple deeds of kindness,
to keep alive a sensitiveness to the movement of the spirit of God
in the quietness of the human heart and in the workings of the human mind—
this is as always the ultimate answer to the great deception.