At Your Service: Jan. 21, 2009
A page in history has been turned. Like so many transition points before it, the inauguration of America’s first African-American president marks the beginning of something new more than it does an ending. Moving forward calls for us to marshal lessons from the past and use old skills in new ways.
What is now the United States was settled by Europeans during the 16th and 17th centuries; a time when their home nations were competing to dominate the planet. Among the means of domination was the creation of an African-based slave trade. The development of this practice in the “New World” resulted in the United States being established on an economic foundation dependent upon slave labor. The legacy of this part of our history led to the descendents of those slaves being the last Americans to receive full rights as citizens.
The perpetuation of a racially divided culture required that as a people we use our inherent discrimination skills to separate ourselves from one another. All animals, as part of the survival instinct, have the ability to make the distinction between those of its own kind and other species, particularly in relationship to its position in the food chain. We humans have honed this skill to a razor sharp edge and all too often use it to create separation within the species.
It has never been more important for us to operate as one. The skill we have used to identify those things that make us different from one another could now be our most valuable resource. Shifting our focus to those things that connect us is a simple, yet profound, change of perspective. It makes possible opportunities previously only undreamed of.
In Martin Luther King Jr’s. well-quoted speech, he envisioned a time when his children would be judged based on the content of their character. A larger dream was also expressed that Washington morning in 1963, “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’” Barack Obama’s ascendance to the presidency is the realization of some aspects of that dream.
This point in time is significant for reasons beyond an historical inauguration. As a nation we face an unprecedented economic crisis that has far-reaching international implications. The world, once so large, shrinks daily as our fate is linked through the environment to the consequences of decisions made to engage industrial parity. Ancient rivalries continue to pit one group of people against another in much of this shrinking world while nuclear weapons hang in the balance. Times have never been more perilous for so many on so many different levels.
Finding solutions to the many issues we face will call for unprecedented cooperation among people and nations in the next few years and beyond. In the face of such need, there is much for us to do, but nothing as important as opening our minds and hearts to new ways of seeing one another. We have mastered the art of finding our differences, let us now look between those differences to find that which we have in common.
It is not incidental that when Barack Obama speaks, he so often uses the term “we,” nor that he spent time the day before taking office in direct service to others. His call to us all to be of service is but a first step. In this 21st century, we can put our histories behind us, marshall the best of our ideas and creativity and transform our nation and world.
These are high hopes and lofty dreams; they are nonetheless within our grasp. When we look at the history of America, we find that it is in the worst of times that Americans rise up to be better than they ever dreamed themselves to be. From the outset, when colonists stood up to a despotic king and declared certain truths to be self-evident we are a people who have consistently triumphed over adversity.
Most importantly, we have triumphed because in the face of each new challenge we have expanded our possibilities and become more inclusive. We cannot see where the resolution of these challenges will take us; we can trust that together we will continue a journey marked this week with an historic inauguration.