Center for American Progress

Renewing the Civic Covenant: Strengthening Our Community

Renewing the Civic Covenant: Strengthening Our Community

Opening Remarks

Civic engagement: politicians talk about it, bureaucrats resent it, activists long for it. What does it mean, civic engagement? Is it a lost art? And what would happen, what would be the consequence of seeing it restored? Tonight we’re here to talk about civic engagement. And the very fact of your presence, our presence here tonight, is witness to civic engagement.

Civic engagement is the active involvement of citizens in shaping the future of their communities. Civic engagement is politics. Not in some partisan sense, not even in an electoral or governance sense, but politics in its original meaning, from the Greek word polis; that is, the city in all aspects of the life of a people within a city.

Writing as a dissident in Czechoslovakia before the fall of communism, Vaclav Havel stated, “I favor politics as practical morality, as service to the truth, as essentially human and humanly measured care for our fellow humans. I favor anti-political politics; that is, politics not as the technology of power and manipulation, but politics as one of the ways of seeking and achieving meaningful life.” This is the kind of politics that we want to engage in tonight, and on our best nights and days as citizens of the polis.

These politics may be characterized and actually must be characterized, I think, by vision, action and hope. First – always first – is vision. Our politics must be visionary. My cosmology suggests that the world as we know it is a far cry from what it should be. It’s flawed and it’s close to broken. The good news is that we have been given all that we need to improve it, even to save it. We have big brains capable of solving large problems. We have perseverance to get through tough times and hold out for better ends. We have strength and we have tenderness, in roughly equal measure.

We can change the world. Now, if my cosmology identifies the world as messed up, then my theology points a way out of the mess. I won’t use this civic meeting to preach at you tonight, but I believe that the vision of a perfect world is embedded in the Hebrew prophets and it paints a world that is worth working for, worth living for, worth even dying for.

So that raises for me the second element of our politics of civic engagement – it must be grounded in concrete action. It isn’t enough to have a vision. It isn’t enough to imagine a better future. We have to orient our actions to accomplish that end. The future begins today, and the future may either be just and equitable, or not. It’s up to us. There isn’t a God who will swing down from Mount Olympus on a chariot and make it all better again. We will do it, or not.

So what is there to say about our action? It must be grounded in justice. It must be utterly selfless. Its aim must be the common good and its means must be equity and mercy and courage. It must be collaborative. We can’t do this alone: not as individuals, not as congregations, not as neighborhoods. We have to find ways to build new collaborative structures.

This will require a deep and careful listening. It will require bridging of cultures that we’re unaccustomed to doing. It will require a willingness to take risks and not to assign blame to others when our ventures don’t fully succeed. It demands that we go beyond rational thought. As rational thought brought us to the point we are today, it demands that we go beyond rational thought and that we incorporate spiritual discipline in our action.

Again, Vaclav Havel, this time writing as president of the Czech Republic: “There is a destructive impatience that grows out of a vain belief in the primacy of reason, and it assumes erroneously that the world is nothing but a crossword puzzle to be solved, that there is only one correct way, the so-called objective way, to solve it, and that it is entirely up to me whether I succeed or not.”

Well, what hard work this is, acting for a better world. What superhuman strength and patience and courage is required. But I tell you, there’s no other way. We either act for a just society, or we and our children’s children to seven generations suffer the consequences.

But finally, we cannot believe in visions of justice, we cannot act to make the world a better place, without the third element of our politics of civic engagement, and that is hope. Now, here is what we know about hope. It’s not simple optimism: a happy-face attitude in the face of raging injustice. No, hope is a fundamental way of approaching the world that imagines a better future and then lives as if that future were reality.

Let me ask President Havel to tell you what I mean. “Hope in this deep and powerful sense is not the same as joy that things are going well or a willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for early success, but rather an ability to work for something because it is good. Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense regardless of how it turns out.”

If such a spirit of hope motivated our work of civic engagement, would we not have more energy for organizing, more confidence in our untried tactics, more perseverance against overwhelming odds? Would we not have less burnout?

On my best days, I have this hope. I can spit in the face of injustice, knowing full well that I’ll get a baseball bat upside the head. Why can’t I have it every day, this hope? I could blame it on being human. That’s convenient and it’s true, but the fact is when I act in concert with others, I am strengthened in my hope.

We need each other. We need to shape and hold a common vision. We need to hold one another accountable, to lift the other up when he flags, to cheer the other on when she excels. We need to adhere to a common hope for a bright future. That’s civic engagement. That’s community politics. That’s the hope for our future.

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