Petticrew Faith In Action Seminar Transcends Partisanship

Petticrew Faith in Action Seminar 2012: Restoring the Heart of Democracy

How can America return to the spirit of democracy its forefathers intended? The answer may come down to two words: “chutzpah” and “humility”. Social justice advocate, renowned author, educator and founder of the Center for Courage and Renewal, Parker Palmer remarked on how habits of the heart – including chutzpah and humility – can help heal the divisiveness in American democracy, during the Petticrew Faith in Action Seminar on October 23.

Held just two weeks before the 2012 national elections, the seminar titled Religion, Politics and the Common Good, brought together leaders from the religious, political and education community, including Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels.  Transcending the partisan, retaliatory dialogue often associated with politics, the seminar was a reflective and hopeful discussion of issues surrounding 21st century American democracy.

Parker Palmer: Five Habits of the Heart that Help Make Democracy Possible

Parker Palmer began the morning’s discussion on an optimistic note, acknowledging reasons for hope in America’s democratic future. “We have a political inheritance in our democratic structure or model,” he noted.  Yet the infrastructure that supports democracy is not sufficient in its own, but depends upon the human spirit to use it effectively. “Machinery does not work when it’s not used properly. Citizens need an inner tenacity for withholding tension to effectively use the tools of democracy,” he added.

How should we inhabit our political lives? The place to begin is not in politics, but in the human heart, according to Palmer, author of Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage

to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit. Although the heart is a vital human organ, Palmer noted humans do not have a natural yearning for democracy. Palmer said that the heart is where humans wrestle with their emotions.

He cited 19th century French political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville, author of Democracy in America who wrote that the future of America’s democracy depended first on the hearts of its citizens and then on the venues where the heart is influenced, such as classrooms, churches and society’s critical infrastructure.

Since de Tocqueville’s day, Palmer noted that the heart of American democracy has fallen into disrepair but that it can be rebuilt over time. He addressed five habits that can help repair American democracy:

1.)   An understanding that we are all in this together. Whether the challenge is resolving the global economic crisis or environmental concerns, Palmer said that interdependence is key to developing effective solutions. Yet he noted that America has long valued and espoused a “go it alone, independent” approach. “The measure of greatness is how we support the weak, yet American DNA is laced with the perception that Americans must make it on their own,” Palmer stated before noting, “We rise and fall together.”

2.)   An appreciation of the value of “otherness”. Today’s political environment is characterized by fear of the other. Palmer noted that the human heart is deeply tribal in nature, and views the world in terms of “us and them”. “The good news is that we don’t see the world necessarily as us versus them,” he said. The “us and them” mentality can advance a notion of hospitality to the stranger and a mindset that says whom we help today will help us tomorrow.

3.)   An ability to hold tension in life-giving ways. Individuals view the world from different vantage points, giving rise to tension when different perceptions conflict. Yet Palmer says the human heart can exercise this tension creatively by inviting others to tell their story, reinforcing the sense of interconnectedness. “We need to inquire of ourselves, are we here to win an argument or create a container for an ongoing dialogue?” he said.

4.)   A sense of personal voice and agency. As politics may feel overwhelming, Palmer said the habit of personal voice and agency may be the hardest habit to cultivate in a modern democracy.. Palmer challenged participants to lean against passivity, make their voice heard and help others find a way to make a difference in their communities.

5.)   A capacity to create community. The personal voice and agency cannot take rise without connectedness to a larger community. Espousing the need for interconnectedness and community, Palmer stated, “It takes a village to create a Rosa Parks. Similarly, it takes courage to act on the differences a Rosa Park makes.”

What can society do to integrate the five habits into democracy? Palmer said a blend of chutzpah and humility can begin implementing the habits into community life. He cited a few practical examples including an initiative conducted by the Wisconsin Council of Churches and the Interfaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee “Season of Civility” project. The project involved 400 people hosting small group discussions about the five habits focusing not on political differences but shared membership. The program attracted not just Christians of various denominations but members of the Jewish, Unitarian, Buddhist, Muslim and other communities. An expert in each tradition translated and accompanied the discussion with texts from each tradition.

Palmer closed by noting that we have reason to hope and that change is possible, sharing a story of reconciliation between a civil rights era victim and the man who attacked him nearly a half-century earlier. “People can change,” he concluded.

Following Parker Palmer’s remarks, Christian Theological Seminary President Rev. Dr. Matthew Myer Boulton moderated a panel to shed insight into how local leaders are working to move beyond politics as usual in the community. Panelists included former Indiana Lieutenant Governor John Mutz, Indiana City-County Council Member Vop Osilo, Apostolic Administrator of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis Bishop Christopher Coyne and Parker Palmer.

Remarks by Indiana Governor Mitchell Daniels

Luncheon remarks during the Petticrew Faith in Action Conference were delivered by Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels who will complete his second term as Governor in January 2013, before serving as president of Purdue University.

Governor Daniels remarked how his Presbyterian background and its doctrine of pre-definition impressed upon him to consult his faith for guidance. “Ask for guidance but never success. Listen to the inner voice and let the plan unfold as someone else has devised,” he said.

Regarding his role as an elected official, he noted an accountability to represent 6.5 million citizens of various faiths on a balance beam of equal representation by serving not as an advocate but as a protector. Yet he noted the paradoxical environment where matters of faith are often not protected. “It sometimes seems that the one permissible bigotry today is against people of religious faith,” he said.

Governor Daniels remarked on the need for forgiveness in the political process, noting that society and political candidates need to practice forgiveness and show respect for opponents. He suggested one means to showing respect is to refrain from labels such as “conservative or liberal”. “Don’t deepen divisions, but do what does not come naturally,” he said.

While faith can bring much to an individual’s life, Governor Daniels expressed that faith’s greatest gift may be a sense of humility before God and other fellow creatures. He added that an appreciation for what and who is truly important can keep human arrogance under control.

While his remarks were not political, Governor Daniels did express his aversion to expanding government. “In our age, government has exploded in size,” he noted. He drew upon the Bible’s portrayal of power and dominion in Satan’s temptation of Christ in the wilderness (Matthew 4), noting that greed for power is often more seductive than greed for material gain. “The more likely a person is to believe in a big, expansive government, the less likely a person is to give,” Daniels said. Again drawing upon Biblical examples, he noted that the Good Samaritan did not set up a “Bureau of Injured Travelers” but served and assisted another of his own accord. Governor Daniels also made reference to media coverage of the extremely affluent, noting that the rate of affluence has accelerated rapidly near the corridors of federal power in Washington D.C.

Concluding his remarks, Governor Daniels cited his thoughts on the separation of religion and politics. “The God I know is just a lot bigger than politics,” he said, leaving participants with a quote by John Adams, “Duty is ours; results are God’s.”

Conclusions on Faith, Politics and the Common Good

Morning keynoter Parker Palmer brought the Petticrew Faith in Action Seminar to a close by returning to the theme of creative tension and the opportunity society has to create a structure to hold that tension.

Palmer described two ways the human heart may break, one violent and destructive and the other generative. “Violence is what happens when we don’t know what to do with pain,” he said, describing anger hurled at a target like a fragment grenade. Conversely, however, he noted that the heart may be broken open into a greater capacity to hold the world’s suffering in a way that is generative and restorative.

26 Years of Petticrew Faith in Action

The October 23 conference broke attendance records and marked the 26th anniversary of the Petticrew Faith in Action series. As 2013 approaches, look for information on a Petticrew Conference in April that will mark the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and his “I Have a Dream” speech. 

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