Last week I spent three days in Washington, DC with 700 or so strong, outspoken women and a handful of men courageous enough to join the League of Women Voters. We were wrestling with issues of democracy:
- Roll-back of voting rights in the wake of the Supreme Court decision that gutted the Voting Rights Act
- Vast infusions of undisclosed donations that followed the Supreme Court Citizen’s United decision declaring corporations are people.
- Erosion of public trust in the structures and systems of government.
We’ve heard the stories in the news: five hour waits to vote in poor communities in Arizona.
The speakers I heard brought the headlines alive with context and stories and troubling insight into underlying issues.
Amanda Taub spoke on the rise of American authoritarianism, describing the way rapid social change can become an occasion for whole groups of people to look for scapegoats to blame. Powerful, punitive leaders can stir anxiety into fear and sweep laws aside with a promise of protection from encroaching others who bring unwanted social change.
Jennifer Lawless focused on the dangerous dismantling of trust in public institutions and the undermined legitimacy of those institutions when the majority withdraws from engagement.
Arturo Vargas, of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, spoke, in tears, of the obstacles put in the way of a growing Latino population. He insisted that his people care deeply about their communities, yet find it difficult to translate that concern into civic engagement when so much is done to ensure their votes don’t count.
Kristen Clarke, President of the National Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and Christine Chen, of the Asian Pacific Islander American Vote, described new forms of voter suppression and ongoing barriers to full inclusion of minority voters.
Ari Berman, author of Give Us the Ballot, gave a masterful overview of the struggle that shaped the Voting Rights Act of 1963 and continues to play out in polling places and courthouses across the country. As he said with passion: "It is fundamentally immoral to try to win elections by stopping people from voting.”
The primary focus of the convention was democracy, voting rights, the forces undermining the ability to reach good solutions that serve the common good. But we also spent time looking at some of the fallout of our political dysfunction, acknowledging that every political decision has real-life human outcomes.
My friend, Jennifer Levy-Tatum, presented insights from our year-long criminal justice study, demonstrating in tragic detail that little shifts in sentencing legislation can throw thousands of families in to poverty and ruin more lives than anyone imagined. Speaking to a room packed with men and women from other states she shared just a little of what we’ve learned, about county jails packed with people waiting trial for months. Defense lawyers with schedules so tight they meet clients just before a trial begins. Mentally ill men and women kept in solitary confinement rather than receive appropriate treatment. Pregnant women giving birth in shackles. Millions of tax dollars invested in building new prisons rather than putting money into teachers and schools to give poor communities a better path to the future.
In the news between our meetings, like the rumble of thunder, we heard ongoing coverage of the Orlando shooting.
In the days since, disruption on Capital Hill has captured the news, with civil rights hero John Lewis and others pleading for the House Speaker, Paul Ryan, to allow a vote on gun safety bills.
The temptation to place blame runs high.
For some, President Obama is the cause of all our current woes.
Others point to the Republican Party.
Hillary and Bill Clinton.
But what if people are symptoms, not causes?
Donald Trump didn’t undermine our ability to weigh facts and fiction. That started long ago, with philosophical relativism, deconstructionist theory, the post-modern dismissal of objective reality and absolute truth. A culture that still believed firmly in objective truth would have little patience with Trump’s obvious lies.
Gays haven’t destroyed our families. That honor goes to a dizzying stew that could include slavery, pornography, birth control, growth of women’s rights and opportunities, loss of job security, oppressive work hours, addiction, abuse, a “me-first” philosophy endemic to our current culture.
Governmental dysfunction wasn’t invented by Paul Ryan or his fellow GOP representatives, or by President Barack Obama. It’s been built into the system, with steady intent, over long decades of determined self-interest by leaders from both sides eager to bolster their own standing.
Hate, fear, suspicion, prejudice? We can’t pin those on any one group, religion, race. They’re our constant companions, held in check by compassion and self-control, or fanned into destructive fire by careless speech and lazy patterns of thought.
As Paul wrote to the church in Ephesus,
we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in heavenly places.
What are principalities and powers?
Are they spiritual forces?
Embedded patterns of action and thought that hold whole continents captive?
Scholars and theologians have written reams on the question. Walter Wink alone wrote five books on the topic: Naming the Powers (1984), Unmasking the Powers (1996), Engaging the Powers (1992), When the Powers Fall (1998), and The Powers that Be (1999). All address the disordered worldview that puts trust in violence rather than love and prioritizes wealth over justice.
There is much to learn about what it means to wrestle with principalities and powers, but the meaning of the first part of Paul’s observation seems very clear. We aren’t doing battle with mere humans. Individuals aren’t the cause of our deep dilemmas.
Omar Mateen, the man who opened fire in the nightclub in Orlando, killing 49 people and injuring 53 others, was certainly the immediate cause of death and injury.
Yet he himself was and is a symptom of complex forces: misguided notions about race, religion and power, conflicting ideas about gender and belonging, a cultural love-affair with weapons and violence. He’s not the first American man to turn his inner agitation outward in an explosion of deadly power. Just the latest and most visible.
It’s always easiest to scapegoat.
And always dangerously wrong.
Any real solution to our current morass will involve attention to causes, courageous engagement, selfless service, a renewed willingness to seek and speak the truth, great wisdom and compassion.
No one person, no one party can make that happen.