Segal: Renewing the civic covenant
One night while he was running for re-election, the mayor of Reading, Pennsylvania, went to a bar and paid for a woman’s drink. She thanked him but asked why a stranger had bought her a beer.
“I’m running for mayor,” he told her, “and I want your vote.”
“You got it,” she said, taking a swig. “Anyone’s better than the jerk who’s in there now.”
It feels like we are simmering in a social stew of resentment, ignorance and disillusionment. National politics is dysfunctional, to say the least. But I’m not here to tell you how bad it is. I’m here to call on all of us to do more to improve our communities and our country. And I’m here to convince you that it’s possible — in fact, that it’s already happening.
The March 2016 Atlantic Monthly magazine featured an essay titled “Can America Put Itself Back Together?” In it, Phillip Zelikow, a professor at the University of Virginia, was asked about the national mood. He said: “In scores of ways, Americans are figuring out how to take advantage of the opportunities of this era, often through bypassing or ignoring the dismal national conversation. There are a lot of more positive narratives out there — but they’re lonely and disconnected. It would make a difference to join them together, as a chorus that has a melody.”
We live in a time when the private and public sectors — corporations and government — are careening into greedy overreach. There’s a third sector that is supposed to balance the other two — the voluntary sector. It is made up of congregations, service organizations, parent-teacher associations and the like. The problem is, we don’t take it seriously enough, at least not anymore. It has seen a steady decline since the middle of last century. And so we are losing the ability, and quite literally the physical spaces, to negotiate public issues and solve problems.
Congregations used to serve this purpose. They were spaces where people of different backgrounds and perspectives gathered to break bread together. Congregations can serve a communal mission again, and many of us are working on exactly that in this valley. With the support of the Manaus Fund, we are building an interfaith, diverse, multi-issue, valleywide network. The backbone of the organization will be congregations and nonprofits that see the value in a new way of relating as neighbors, as citizens and as strangers. I’m proud that the Aspen Jewish Congregation has signed on as one of a dozen local sponsors of this project.
Each institution that joins the effort will form its own internal leadership team. Each team will work to revitalize outreach efforts within their church or nonprofit — listening to stories, hearing concerns and hopes, identifying leaders. Also, the teams from all the member organizations will gather regularly to share what they’re hearing. What stories overlap? What interests do we share? What issues can we work on together? Who are the leaders among us to move change forward?
Ultimately, it’s about how we structure power in our community. Are citizens and families represented at the table where decisions get made?
Today, all eyes are on voting, and I hope each of us fulfills that responsibility. But voting is only one piece of civic engagement, and in some ways the most basic. Tomorrow, life goes on and challenges remain. No elected official can fix all our problems for us. Elections matter, but it matters more what we do in between, and how we hold our elected officials — and ourselves — accountable to our values.
We need to do more. We owe it to our ancestors, and we owe it to our children. The past calls us. The future calls us, too. To paraphrase Wendell Berry, not only have we inherited this society from our parents, we have borrowed it from our children.
It’s not enough to complain about the current state of politics when we have it in our power to act. After the vote, what will you commit to? Join our community initiative or launch one, mentor or tutor, serve on a local board, volunteer for a cause. If you’re already doing these civic acts, invite your friends and neighbors to join you.
There’s a story told of a long sea voyage, when a severe storm broke out and threatened to sink the ship. As it swayed violently from side to side, passengers cried and fainted. One passenger prayed loudly, over and over, “Help, O Lord, the ship is sinking, we’re going down!” Another passenger asked him, “Why all the noise? It’s not your ship, is it?”
We ought to make noise when the ship starts to sink. But after that, we should get to work — the steady, decent, pragmatic work of repairing our ship of state. It’s all hands on deck, starting right here at home. Let’s add our voices to the national chorus of civic renewal.
Rabbi David Segal of the Aspen Jewish congregation can be reached at 970-925-8245 or firstname.lastname@example.org. He blogs at http://www.rabbidavidsegal.com. His column usually runs on the first Sunday of the month. This column is adapted from one of his High Holy Day sermons.