University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service
I applaud the focus of the Clinton School of Public Service on training and educating leaders for global service, and seeking equity for all. Those are great and noble aims. If leaders do not hold out a large and ambitious vision, little passion or ability to achieve it will develop. This school builds on a heritage of those who have sought to exemplify that kind of lofty vision.
We have this week buried another who worked from a large and ambitious vision. While Gerald Ford had less time than many others in the position for which he is best remembered, his funeral reminded us all of the need for healing of the hurts and ills in this world. His act of pardon, most unwelcome at the time, brought this nation healing, and he himself paid the price. Mercy is not altogether a popular virtue. But the compassionate urge toward healing – and healing for the whole world – is what motivates mercy.
That deep sense of righting the wrongs and injustices of this world is needed in ever-increasing abundance. We need creative and compassionate leaders who can help to find healing in Darfur and the Middle East – we need them today, as we needed them in Ireland and South Africa in the 1980s and 90s. There will be equally deep need in human communities as you move into this work and leave this place.
The search for equity, if we understand it to mean the basic dignity of each human being, underlies many of the world's great religious traditions, especially those with which this part of the world is most familiar. The three Abrahamic faiths – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – seek a broad vision of peace with justice, known as shalom or salaam. Judaism embraces the great visions of the prophet Isaiah, of a banquet spread on a hillside, of a city set on a hill to which all the nations will come, and those visions find their specificity in a community where the hungry are fed, the ill healed, prisoners set free, the blind have their sight restored, and the poor hear good news about liberation from oppression.
Jesus' first reported act of public ministry (in Luke's gospel) is to read from that vision of Isaiah's, and to say, "today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." In doing so, he claims that vision as his own. Christians seek to make that scripture reality in this day as well.
Islam draws its very name from the understanding that peace comes in submission to the will of God, of living in right relationship to God and other human beings. Islam, shalom, and salaam all have the same root in a word that means a good deal more than simply "peace."
That vision of peace with justice, where no one oppresses the poor, where all are able to live at liberty, where no one's God-given potential is limited because of unchosen accidents of birth or life – gender, race, class, disability, illness – lies behind the work of prophetic leaders. Prophetic leaders, which I desperately hope you are becoming, are those who can dream big dreams of a world restored, and challenge the political systems of our day to move toward those dreams.
In our day, that vision of a world restored, a world where the poorest have enough to eat and access to education, health care, and the basic necessities of dignified human life, is exemplified in the Millennium Development Goals. The Goals are a concrete vision of the possible, achievable by the year 2015, and include:
- feeding the one-third of the world's people who go to bed hungry each night
- primary education for girls as well as boys
- improving maternal health care
- reducing childhood mortality rates
- preventing and treating AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria, and other diseases
- working toward gender equity and the empowerment of women
- ensuring environmentally sustainable development
- building global partnerships for development, with a focus on debt, aid, and trade
These frame a bold but achievable vision which challenges all the peoples and governments of the world. In order to reach those goals, the developed nations will need to increase their giving to development work – and the United States, while generous, gives at a significantly lower percentage than many other industrialized nations. Those large and industrialized nations, together with global financial institutions, will need to continue the good work of international debt relief begun in the Jubilee year of 2000. The developing world, in partnership with others, will need to attend to issues of accountability, transparency, and the misdirection of public resources for private gain. South Africa's Archbishop Ndgungane's Africa Monitor project is a solid approach to those challenges which is just beginning to take shape. The people of the world will need to continue to challenge their governments to live up to this bold vision that brings together developed and developing nations to better the lives of billions of people.
The world needs the kind of leadership that can dream big dreams, challenge old and inadequate ways, and courageously seek the best for all humanity and indeed, all creation. Those leaders you are and are becoming have a significant opportunity to build a more just and equitable world, and it will take all the gifts you have to offer – and some you may not yet recognize.
All great leadership begins in courage – the courage to dream those dreams, and to challenge unjust and corrupt systems. That courage will be repeatedly tested and tried, but it does grow stronger as it's exercised. You will discover that telling someone "no" gets easier the second and third time. You will also discover, if you haven't already, that fear usually arises in ignorance – fear of the unknown person or idea, fear of what is untested or unexplored in yourself, and fear of the future. Most of those fears quail in the face of exploration.
Your leadership and its effectiveness will depend on your ability to see connections in unlikely places – between people or ideas that have not yet met, in understanding the interconnected web which sustains all life on this planet (and beyond), and the reality that John Donne so eloquently phrased as "no man is an island, entire of itself, but each is connected to the main. Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. Send not to ask for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee." Every single one of us, and our ability to live a full and abundant life, is diminished by the failure of our neighbors to thrive. That is true whether the neighbor is a member of our immediate family or a woman with filariasis in Namibia, a fish-slave in Ghana, or a child sold into sex-slavery in Cambodia. Their suffering limits human flourishing – yours, mine, and that of all humanity.
A deeply grounded sense of compassion, coupled with a grand and global vision, can change this world. My tradition calls that vision the reign of God, or the commonweal of God, and while your motivation may not be explicitly grounded in a religious tradition, you are here because you seek the betterment of all humanity.
It seems appropriate to say something about the religious motivation of leadership, especially in our day. Like all gifts, it is one that can be misused or used well. At its best, religious motivation leads to the upbuilding of all humanity and all creation, not its diminishment. At its best, such a motivation – rooted in any of the world's great religions – seeks justice and peace and abundant life, ideally for all creatures. At its best, such motivation seeks that vision on behalf of all, rather than some subset of humanity. Beware of religious leaders who are unwilling to serve the greater good, who understand that God loves only some, or that some portion of humanity is not worthy of respect or dignity. That is a hamstrung and limping version of the great dream of shalom, salaam, or shanti (the Sanskrit word for peace). As in the dream of Martin Luther King, Jr., we seek a world in which all children can grow and play together, unconcerned by those accidents of birth or life that others see as all-defining. We seek a world where the poor hear good news, the ill are healed and the hungry fed, where prisoners are forgiven, set free, and restored to community, where no one studies war any more. We seek a world in which the systems that seek to maintain some in servitude or slavery are abolished, where all have the minimal right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, but even more, a world where all have the right to full and abundant lives at peace with their neighbors.
Achieving a world or a community that is more whole or healthy or healed or even holy (those words all come from the same root), or more closely aligned with that great vision, will require partnerships between groups and people with similar goals but varying motivations, religious and not. The ability to sort out the godly or humane motivations from those that are less than noble is part of the challenge before us all. In some sense it is the eternal dilemma that faces all social architects. If politics is the art of the possible or the art of living in community, how can it play an effective and fruitful role in building that just society? Jesus had a rather canny understanding of politics: "be wise as serpents and innocent as doves" (Matthew 10:16) and in Luke (16:8), "the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the children of light." Political savvy is not a bad thing, and he was clearly urging its development in service of that vision of the Reign of God.
That word, savvy, is about knowing (from savoir, saber, sapere). The public service of community building requires knowledge, and knowledge of several kinds. Religious vision and knowledge – what is sometimes called enlightenment – can inspire people to dream dreams and think thoughts that lead them beyond narrow instinctual self-interest toward a healed world of peace and justice. That kind of knowledge may be ineffable – or hard to put into words – but it does create the passion, zeal, and energy that are required to struggle toward that vision. Religious or spiritual knowing is basically about making meaning out of life – why am I here? How am I meant to live? And the answers usually have to do with right relationship to God, other human beings, and the rest of creation.
There is another vital partner in this quest for knowledge. Understanding the best of recent science is not a luxury, it is essential to building this vision of a healed community. Not only is the scientific method a potential arbiter of narrowly adversarial or competitive visions of reality, it is an important partner to the kind of spiritual knowing that is willing to dream beyond the mechanics of life toward equity, justice, and peace. Science is a way of understanding the workings of this world, whether at the level of quantum physics, ocean currents and weather systems, or the dynamics of human beings in community. It is a way of knowing what we have to work with, and can lead to testable hypotheses about the most effective means of changing what is.
The kind of political work, living-in-community work, that you are equipping for here is a vital piece of changing this world into something that is worthy of our aspirations. That savvy, however, must be a partner joined to the whole of human possibility of which religion speaks and to the reality and givenness of this world, of which science speaks. Without the transcendent, politics can become mere manipulation, without science, blind. Together this enterprise can build a more whole, healed, and yes, holy, world for the ultimate benefit of all humanity and all creation.