I’ve never made it a secret that years ago—nearly 20 years now—I was a member of a religious community that was struggling with a dwindling membership. The crisis called for reflection and for creative thinking. At one particular gathering, a specialist in community structure came to offer his advice. In a nutshell, here is what I heard him share with us…
Every institution begins with charismatic individuals who carry a vision and a profile of how that vision needs to be brought to life. Since he was a Franciscan friar, he shared with us how the vision of St. Francis led him to cast off all the trappings of his rich family and to turn his life to one dedicated to poverty/simplicity, to celibacy and to service to God via service to those who needed it most. Of course that implied seeking out the neediest and caring for them.
Soon others began following him and a community of men grew around him. As time went on, the members found Francis too focused on his vision and started modifying their calling. When Francis chastised them for softening their call, they threw him out. St. Francis was too radical for the Franciscans. The same has often happened to many visionaries in society—be they monks, clergy, politicians or everyday people able to read the signs of the times.
Many of you have already figured out where I’m heading with this. The louder many activists screech about going back to the charism of the Founders of our nation, the less they actually take the time to read it in the context in which it was written and intended. The Founders were not radicals in the sense that the Constitution was a finished and an absolute product, but they knew that as time passed, the intention (or charism) would become more specific.
To set the example, they found—early on—the need to create a Bill of Rights that further defined specific issues that surfaced. In the 240+ years our country has existed, we have periodically added amendments to assure rights, not to cut people off but to make sure everyone has a seat at the table.
Since the threshold for creating a new amendment became quite high, any changes were not taken lightly. In a way, the states experimented, tried and succeeded or failed at clarifying positions, and—eventually—there was enough consensus to add a right/truth to the Bill of Rights.
For the past eight years, our government has functioned with the GOP foot nailed to the floor, and every time our country tried to move forward, the GOP kept adding nails, tortured our leaders and became the disloyal opposition bent on burning down the room housing the nation. At all costs, we must avoid becoming the opposition focused on mindless tweets that are all blanks designed to keep trolls in place.
Our mission, should we accept it is to return to our founding charism, the central beliefs and practices that made America great and that have worked for us some 240 years. Mindless tweets will grow old very fast. We should focus on policy and charism and authenticity, not on fascist rhetoric and practice. We cannot give up; we cannot give in; we should not stoop down to the level of absolute ignorance that screams for a good feeding of reality, morality and intelligence.
We can go back to a German practice of biblical scholars from years ago called sitz im leben where a quest is launched to study documents while asking some basic questions: Who was the intended audience? What was the situation it wished to address? What issue did it clarify? How did the authors intend to resolve the conflict? While the strategy was intended for biblical scholars, it stands equally valid in the face of Constitutional document study.
A second strategy involves seeking the COMMON GROUND. Every issue raised can present itself as an absolute, but there are very few absolutes. More often than not, many points of conflict have much more in common than points that separate them. All too often, we throw out the baby with the wash-water.
For example, most people—except those of the Flat Earth Society—agree that global warming is happening; the point of conflict is whether it is a natural process or man-made. If we can agree that something is happening, then we need to explore what factors are involved. More than likely part is natural and part is man-made. That still leaves intact the need to respond before we begin losing our coastal cities and watch a new ice age develop over the interior of the country.
We are far from in the dark over what constitutes our founding charism—the spirit force that has held us together through thick and thin. We are far from having to re-invent the wheels of progress that have made us strong internally as well as externally.
Our strength does not move from the top down, but surges from the ground up. We need study and sharing cells, and we need to develop a new consensus where the founders could pop out of their graves and—seeing us act—would still feel right at home. They would see us as different and yet the same. We hold within us the seeds of renewal… Can we plant them in fertile ground, nourish them and help them grow?