What If You Had the Keys?

A few months ago, I shared with you that God was taking me through a period of reflection, a “timeout” from what I had been doing before a rash of health issues, and my frustration with the rancor and hostility in the public discourse I was attempting to moderate online, essentially shut me down for a while. I haven’t silenced myself completely, since I’ve had bursts of commentary here and there about current events, and I’ve written a couple of longer thought pieces since that time on religious liberty and the failure of the president to show leadership and rebuke harsh rhetoric from both sides of the political aisle.

For the most part, however, I’m unable to sit down and write about a topic on demand, and I’ve found myself responding differently to the things that moved me in the past.

For example, I am weary of the presidential election and have essentially stopped commenting on it. My opinion is that we put these men and women on pedestals to be deified or vilified, as if they are gods that will either save or destroy us. The fact is that they are no better than you or me, and their victory or defeat will not matter in the larger scheme of things. Be honest with yourself; has the presence of your favorite politician in the courthouse, state house, U.S. House, or White House really made your daily life any better or worse for you? Will your problems go away if your favorite politician wins in November?

It is principles and ideas, not personalities, that matter, and I would rather spend my time defending those than worshipping at the feet of a politician, or barking at the feet of one, as the case may be.

That doesn’t mean I won’t be critical of their words and actions if they are deceitful, or if they challenge ideas, like religious liberty and freedom of conscience, that I believe are fundamental to the character and well-being of our nation.

What it does mean is that my focus will be on encouraging people to take charge of their own destinies, and to help their neighbors without regard for what the government does or doesn’t do. We were designed to be a nation of self-rule, beginning with our families, neighborhoods, civic organizations, charities and houses of worship – “civil society,” to describe a concept that Alexis de Tocqueville observed in the early days of this nation, and chronicled in his famous work, Democracy in America.

While he called such aggregations “voluntary associations,” the form and purpose are the same, and Americans coming together within their communities for the common good was what protected the American experiment from the selfishness of pure individualism and the tyranny of the majority on one end of the spectrum, and the despotism of oligarchy on the other. Civil society is what makes self-governance possible, and while some will continue to characterize the political debate in America as a battle between left and right, I now see the central argument as whether we prefer governance from the ground up, or from the top down.

Think about it. Whether it’s a conservative town in Texas or an inner city housing project in any major U.S. city, what possible argument could there be against the notion that you’re in charge? “No, it’s bad for me to be responsible for what happens in my neighborhood”?

Within the constraints of the law, can you handle it if you and your neighbors are responsible for fixing what ails your community?

Does that prospect energize or terrify you? Does it make you uncomfortable that you might not be able to blame someone else when things aren’t the way you think they ought to be?

What does it look like to take charge and tackle the problems in your community, and not wait for someone to come and rescue you? What does it look like when you are the change you’re looking for, and you don’t outsource your responsibility to Washington?

I can give one example which with I’m very familiar. Robert Hahn, the pastor of Chesapeake Church in Huntingtown, Maryland, decided that he wanted to tackle the problem of hunger in Calvert County. It bothered him that Calvert County consistently appeared on a variety of lists as one of the richest counties in America, yet thousands of people in working families were going to bed every night hungry, and nearly 50 percent of them were children.

While his church operated a large food pantry, he knew he could do more. He didn’t wait for anyone’s approval, nor did he petition the government for a new law or regulation to help him. He simply went to work, and created an alliance of local churches, businesses, civic organizations, and even farmers, dedicated to one overriding mission – End Hunger in Calvert County.

I captured the efforts of this alliance, as well as other community outreach activities in which this church is engaged, in a previous article which I encourage you to read in the hope it will inspire you. The point is that he saw a need and acted on it without seeking government intervention or waiting for their blessing, creating a voluntary association that is putting food on the tables of struggling families in Calvert County, and even creating job opportunities for them through a culinary school run in conjunction with the local community college.

That is civil society and self-governance in action in the 21st century, it is quintessentially American in form and spirit and, as an old needlepoint sign my wife made for me says, “People who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those who are doing it..”

For decades now, we’ve been slowly talked out of the notion that we can do something about the problems in our communities, and we have become either too timid or too somnolent to just roll up our sleeves and do it. Who’s going to stop us from doing good for our neighbors? What are we afraid of?

Pollster Scott Rasmussen wrote in his book, In Search of Self-Governance, “We don't want to be governed from the left, the right, or the center. We want to govern ourselves.” I recommend you read the book – it’s only 71 pages, so you can knock it out in a couple of hours – and start getting your courage back so you can band together with others to take charge in your communities. Neither Republicans nor Democrats, or any other political party, for that matter, has the answers we’re looking for. To paraphrase the cartoon character Pogo, we have met the answer, and the answer is us.