Sunday, July 6, 2014

Seeking the Agora

The Corinthian agora
This Fourth of July weekend I've been considering, with gratitude, the freedoms I too often take for granted, and wondering how much longer this experiment in democracy will continue.

During our March trip to Greece I was reminded that while the first democratic governments began in the Greek city-states, for most of the last two thousand years, “demokratia,” literally “people power,” was banished from Greek and its beautiful islands, as various empires, invaders, and monarchies held sway.  

In Corinth, our Biblical Tours guide, Costos Tsevas, made very clear that the “agora,” often translated “marketplace” in English-language Bibles, originally had nothing to do with buying and selling. The agora was the center of political discourse – the place where citizens came to share their views, to make their case, settle disputes, determine policy.

For four hundred years, roughly 800 to 400 BC, over a thousand city-states rimmed the Aegean, Mediterranean, and Black Sea shores, “like frogs around a pond,” according to Plato. Some of these were monarchies, some oligarchies where power was held in the hands of the powerful few, but many were governed by versions of direct democracy.

By the time of Paul, Greek democracy was just a memory, swept away by King Philip 2 of Macedonia and his son, Alexander the Great, then by the Roman empire. Yet even in Paul’s day, the agora was a place for sharing ideas, celebrating victories, and condemning traitors. Paul was accused, beaten, then released in the agora in Corinth, accused, beaten, and sent to prison from the agora in Philippi.

In Athens, I spent a morning wandering by myself through the ancient agora, far larger than the Roman agora that later took its place, far grander than the marketplaces that sprang up around it.

Where is our modern agora?

At first, I found Costos’ insistent distinction between agora and marketplace perplexing: so what?

Stoa of Atalos in the ancient agora, Athens
But the more time I spent in the agoras of Corinth, Philippi, Thessaloniki, and Athens, the more I began to wonder: which is more important, separation of church and state, or separation of commerce and state?

In a way, neither is fully possible. As humans, our beliefs, economics, political views are interwoven so tightly we can never separate them.

But what happens when the marketplace drives our common life and shoves aside all discourse about the common good?

And what happens when there’s no gathering place for dialogue, for sharing vision, for confronting challenges as fellow citizens?

In early June I attended the national convention of the League of Women Voters. The League is a non-partisan organization formed on the eve of women’s suffrage in 1920 to study issues, educate voters, and create space for dialogue outside of party lines.

For almost a century now, the League has been hosting debates, providing voter’s guides, and looking for ways to understand issues on a deeper level.

A repeated concern expressed at the convention was the influence of money in every stage of the political process. Corporate lobbying shapes regulation; deep pockets sway local elections; global industries place invisible pressure on trade agreements and foreign policy decisions.

Many observers suggest American democracy is already dead, supplanted by a transnational plutarchy (power in the hands of a wealthy few) cut free of national allegiance. Author Chrystia Freeland analyzed this increasingly dislocated group in Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else, (summarized in a similarly titled TED talk). The inordinate power held by this small group has helped fuel protest movements from Occupy Wall Street to a recent March for Democracy in California, which proclaimed:
The history of this country is marked by the tragic contradiction between its rightly esteemed principles—of fairness, freedom, equality, and the pursuit of happiness—and the destitute behavior of its government, ever willing to exploit, oppress, and make war on behalf of a tiny economic elite. Simply stated: We do not live in a democracy. This is a plutocracy, government for and by the wealthy. 
Other observers argue we need a new term to describe the current political situation: corporatocracy. As defined by The Oxford Dictionary:
NOUN (plural corporatocracies)
A society or system that is governed or controlled by corporations: in this age of corporatocracies, the money goes not to the inventor, but to the company.
For the League of Women Voters, the issue is important enough to warrant a major two-year study on the constitutional amendment process (are amendments needed to block corporate influence in elections or to clarify the difference between the rights of people and corporations?), the use and abuse of money in politics, and the role of redistricting.

One of our convention speakers was Peter Levine, professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University, author of several books on the future of democracy, most recently “We Are the Ones We’ve Been Waiting For.” In his convention remarks, and his book, he describes the troubling failure of key American institutions:
We have put 2.2 million of our own people in prison, far more than any other nation in the history of the world. . .  Yet imprisoning millions of Americans does not make us safe. Our homicide rate remains at least three times as high as the rate in any other wealthy nation in the world.
We spend more per child on K-12 education than almost any other country in the developed world, yet one-third of our young people drop out before they compete high school.
We spend far more on health care per citizen than any other country in the world . . . Even if the Affordable Care Act of 2010 meets expectations, we will still have the most expensive system in the world, with some of the worst health outcomes for poorer people.
 Levine’s assessment:
Plainly, our institutions do not work. Their failure is not just wasteful: it is deadly. They are not just broken: they are corrupt – making some people rich and comfortable while failing the rest of us.
The solution Levine offers is not that we need better government, but that we need better citizens: the kind of engaged, informed, actively involved citizens that gathered in the ancient agora to share concerns, debate solutions, then go build walls or gather boats to carry out the shared conclusions.

It’s easy to sit at home and denounce the evil dunces whose policies we’ve heard caricatured on the evening broadcasts that share our political leanings.

It’s harder to understand the complexities of the problems around us.

Even harder to find ways to engage in practical solutions.

We’re busy.

We’re distracted.

We’re deeply divided.

And we are less and less willing to listen carefully to other points of view, less willing to participate in any kind of group that doesn’t share and endorse our own perspectives, less willing to engage constructively in civic organizations.

I go back to the Apostle Paul’s encounter with the Athenians in their place of assembly.

He took time to listen and observe.

He saw the obvious: temples to a wide array of gods.

But he also observed the less obvious: an altar to an unknown god.

He listened carefully, and gave credit where he could: “I see that in every way you are very religious.”

He stated his own point of view without personal attack, while making clear that he had heard and considered other voices, quoting and validating what he could:  ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.

He introduced points of difference, but saw no need to have the final word, and stopped speaking while at least some listeners wanted to hear more: “When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.”

As we head into a new election season, I’m planning to blog again on issues that confront and divide us. But as I do, I want to hear from people whose views are shaped not by party politics, Fox News or CNN, but by their own experience in the complexities of daily life.

I want to dig more deeply into the possibility of being salt, light, or a voice of hope or wisdom in places mired in anger or confusion.

I want to suggest ways to engage, not just by signing a survey, or making a phone call, but by serving our communities in love while helping to renew a web of compassionate engagement.

This is the last in a series of reflections, Texts in Context, revisting two formative weeks spent in Greece in March 2014. Earlier posts:  
And it’s the first in a new series - yet to be named -  exploring issues that confront and divide us.

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome. Just click on   __comments below to see the comment option.