Remarks delivered at the NC Justice Center’s 2017 Defenders of Justice Awards where the Council was recognized for Grassroots Empowerment.
In 1960 Terry Sanford ran for Governor of NC. By all accounts, he should not have won. He was not as well-known as his opponent and he consistently mentioned raising taxes. But he did win because he convinced people across NC that their tax dollars would be used to benefit everyone in the state and especially used to empower through education. At one time — some of us in the room might remember it — NC boasted one of the most robust and progressive public education systems in the southeast. It used to be hard to get a teaching job in NC because everybody wanted to teach in NC.
Of course, Terry Sanford was also the President of my alma mater for 16 years, retiring the year I graduated, so I also have a blind spot when it comes to Uncle Terry. Still, I cite him as an example of progressive leaders who have appeared on the scene in NC showing us our better selves and inspiring us to be those people.
I have no desire to return to the early 1960s when Uncle Terry was Governor of NC. We have overcome a lot of things since those years that I don’t want to do all over again, so this is no speech for the nostalgic past. It’s a summons to the future by reminding ourselves that what has been accomplished has brought us to a better place.
No one would dispute in the current climate that we are facing substantive challenges in order to move to better places. It seems the very heart of our democracy is at stake, but in truth, it always has been. I was doing some research for another piece I wrote a few weeks ago, and had reason to look up facts about the Boston Tea Party. I learned that the tea tossed into the harbor was taxed at half the rate as the same tea tying up to the docks in London. Who knew that Sam Adams was running black market tea into the colonies and didn’t want to have his product undersold by the East India Tea Company. “Taxation without representation” was a fact, but the King’s tea was cheaper than the tea sold by Sam Adams. And the rest is history…
Seems we’ve always had the tension between our baser selves and our better selves, but even mired in the base motivation of personal financial gain, is the better possibility of country striving to “establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”
So, what gives me hope for the people of NC in the years to come? My trust that the leaders of our better selves will emerge. Leaders like Terry Sanford and Harvey Gantt, Maya Angelou and Reynolds Price, Evelyn Mattern and James Forbes, and this array of people named aloud tonight as Defenders of Justice. They each give me hope because those of us who do this work know we are in for the long haul. There’s no silver bullet to shoot down the issues we are confronting, and since we work on peace advocacy and gun violence prevention at the Council of Churches, we wouldn’t shoot it if we had it!
And so, I leave you with these words from a poet, Charles Péguy places these words on the lips of God in “The Portico of the Mystery of the Second Virtue” — and you thought I was going to quote scripture. Péguy has God say:
Faith and love I can understand, but hope! Hope is a wonder, a miracle, a mystery, an unexpected sight in a world where the constancy of [human] folly seems to undermine any basis of belief in [human] future improvement!
Friends, hopeful living trusts in the future in spite of the present. In other words, just because we can’t find any possibility doesn’t mean possibility is absent. Through hope we are drawn into God’s ever-expanding future. History viewed through this lens is linear, not cyclic, and so, is susceptible to change by those of us who live in hope. That’s what the NC Council of Churches offers you, hope-filled living grounded in our understanding of God’s covenant with creation.
Thank you for the honor of being here tonight.