I attended the most inspiring event of my tenure in Indiana last week where I learned about the awesome transgenerational power of faith and philanthropy that may yet enable America’s civic renewal.
Faith traditions help generosity triumph over despair and we definitely saw a marvelous expression of this in the conversation with Brad Braxton, Aimée Laramore, and Starsky Wilson. Their panel on race, hosted by Lake Institute on Faith & Giving together with the Mays Family Institute on Diverse Philanthropy, was about the African American experience and the power of faith and generosity in shaping the survival of black America and how it overcame the betrayal of our founding ideals. Their dialogue cannot but inspire hope.
Our panelists, all parents also, acknowledged how important it is for children to experience struggle, not only to remember the shoulders they stand on, but also through struggle to make the great principles of faith and civic justice their own.
There are deep lessons for our civic renewal in the power of the black church to embrace our founding civic ideals while navigating systemic oppression, and, at best, persistent mainstream ignorance. With the faith of each successive generation’s struggle to persevere, and to own for themselves and their times the ideals consistently betrayed by those in power, it is in their struggle that we see the actual realization of the civic ideals we have encased in marble monuments and pious encomiums to our nation’s exceptionalism.
Earlier the same week, we welcomed Paul Carrese, the director of a new school at Arizona State that seeks to engage students with the great classical texts that have guided the civic and constitutional ideals we see reflected in the institutions that now govern most of humanity. A master teacher, he spoke of the classical tension in the Western tradition of political thought between liberty and equality.
We now see it reflected in our polarized public life, with one partisan side emphasizing freedom and the other equality. We are equal citizens of equal dignity, and yet when we act, we draw on different resources and move in ways that create different outcomes. A great tradition of liberal learning has been for each successive generation, and each educated person, to read deeply in the canonical texts and come up with their own considered formulation of how to conceive of this tension and how to manage it for themselves.
So here too, we have a generative struggle—discomforting conversations that lead to a formulation of one’s own position, one’s own commitment in dialogue with those who disagree and bring different perspectives.
These discussions constitute our civic space in the sense that we make it what it is through the understandings we share with each other, but also in the visions we create of how we belong together and commit to sharing a polity. Much of the vision of the good life is bequeathed to us by our forebears, but it also needs to be remembered and recreated in each successive generation.
We carry with us mental images of how our country is one and how it does and should operate to move forward as one. As we share these images we create a common civic space that leads to deep commitments on the one hand and shared understandings on the other that enable all manner of joint activity.
Amidst the ferment of these world-making conversations, there is growing evidence of institutional racism that we have generally swept under the rug. Emerging generations are quicker to appreciate the new civics that reveal how iconic elements of our public culture, from the Star Spangled Banner to the GI Bill to federal housing policy systematically excluded people of color.
Clearly, some of the protests on college campuses are overzealous and subvert the principles they promote. But it is also plausible that having been exposed to the research on racism, our younger compatriots are impatient with our sometimes willful ignorance of our tainted inheritance and our own incomplete struggle with how to craft a newly relevant vision of the public good.
We are going through a difficult time in considering received texts and icons of our founding past. Our campuses are riven by claims of words and images that do violence on the one hand and claims of coddled “snowflakes” who refuse to engage uncomfortable ideas on the other.
Our current struggle to remake our civic space is further complicated by a generational disconnect as youth tell us that our categories require rethinking. For people of my age, it is perhaps natural to think that my struggle is behind me and that the youth are engaging in a sort of self-indulgent special pleading for their struggle.
But I think it may also be that they paid more attention to the mounting evidence that we have allowed and abetted the systematic betrayal of our values, not only in certain limited periods in our past, but that we continue to do so today. It may be that our younger fellow citizens have also been listening to the black church, where one sees a triumphant devotion to freedom, equality and justice as articulated in our sacred and civic foundings. So they offer not only a proposed diagnosis for our condition but a model for its treatment.
As a school, we seek to create a welcoming place where our students and faculty feel safe to engage in the struggle with difficult and disturbing issues. It is what the world is made of and how we hope to improve it.
In this process, the struggle for inclusion is not simply a quest to make marginal improvements or to remove vestiges of injustice and inequity. It is a fundamental confrontation with the proposition that we have systematically excluded certain communities, that we continue to do so today, and that the “we” we propose as the moral voice now needs to understand and learn deeply from these communities.
So many of them have lived, celebrated, and advanced our ideals and values through struggle in the face of our collective betrayal. How did they do it? How did they overcome the world’s disregard for the ideals they continue to hold dear? How can we overcome our ignorance? It will be a struggle.
To get a sense of how it is done, please watch the panel featuring Dr. Braxton, Reverend Wilson, and Ms. Laramore.Best regards,
Eugene R. Tempel Dean