In Papillion, Nebraska, there is a street named after Mark. He went to the same high school as I did, was in the same military unit as myself. He died in Iraq, killed by a roadside bomb. I pass by his street whenever I visit my father in Nebraska. Sometimes there are little white crosses, pinwheels, and patriotic ribbons at the base of the street pole bearing his name. Did he want a street named after him or would he prefer that there weren’t senseless wars in the first place?
Being civically engaged means being constantly disappointed. Being in the military requires my civic engagement because ideally, the populace of this country are the ones who are in charge of when we go to war and why. The greatest disappointment I’ve personally known comes from 2008. That year, veterans marched on the Democratic National Convention in Denver. Their march was allowed by the police and these veterans secured a promise from Obama: as president, he would end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, by the end of his presidency, he innovated death by drones, he approved assassination without trials, and troops were still there. It hurt because, well, what did we fight for? What about Mark?
Whether it is the atrocity of war, the casual degradation of women, the planned murder of the poor and elderly by the repeal of healthcare – most of us hate politics. These days it seems violently so. I had to find something deeper than the loss of my friends, the broken promises, the politicians who don’t even pretend to care about the majority of people anymore.
My spirituality sustains me. The history of our faith tradition sustains me to push on past these disappointments. They are deeper than any politician. Our spiritual ancestors, the puritans, innovated a new way to distribute power not based on the divine right of kings, but by the consent of the gathered people. The transcendentalists furthermore pushed this by saying the laws of man are not infallible; rather, we are subject to the greater laws of prophetic vision that starts in the innermost chambers of our hearts. Our spiritual tradition calls on us to diffuse power and make it ever more accessible to all people. In this time in which power is being rapidly consolidated among fewer and fewer hands, our call could not be clearer. We must engage with this broken system and make it whole.
While our democracy was set up for the land-owning white men, in its creation they planted the seeds for the destruction of their own power. Each generation improves what was made so that there is a political system that better serves people of color, women, gender and sexual minorities, immigrants, and every class of person those land-owning white men probably cared little for. There is no perfection, only progress. Each of these generations had Unitarians and Universalists on both sides, some for progress and some against progress. Now we honor those who fought for democratic justice even though it was against the grain. We can see how their dedication to a cause no matter how many times they were disappointed, even if what they fought for was never realized in their lifetime, paved the way for our rights. This is what I dedicate my life to.
We must make democracy available to more and more people. We must reach out to the dispirited and tell them the good news – politics is for them, too, and it is a lie they have no power or place in it! We must believe that we can win, no matter how many times those in power want to tell us we’ve failed. Our spiritual ancestors fought roman emperors, kings, slavery, imperialist war and all kinds of corrupt power structures. They knew the work would never be finished, only that the next generation could carry on in the same spirit. As it was theirs, this work is also ours to do.