This article appeared in the March 2012 issue of Sojourners magazine

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider Jesus, who endured such hostility from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart. —Hebrews 12:1-3

Are there any remaining glimmers of hope in politics today? Such questions seem to me to be absolutely connected to the passage from the letter to the Hebrews. One thing that it says to me is that we do not have the luxury of falling into despair. There are too many folks who have fought too long and given too much and found their way through too many disappointments and seeming failures for us to say, oh, it just didn’t work, and, I’m finished with that stuff.

When you’re surrounded by Fannie Lou Hamer and Amzie Moore and Septima Clark and Malcolm X and Martin King and Ella J. Baker, and when you take seriously those lives and the thousands like them, then it seems to me that the first response to what we’ve been through in these last few years is the question that one of my friends said she is always asking: What is the gift? For she assumes that life is full of gifts, sometimes absolutely disguised gifts. She assumes that whatever we are in the midst of, especially when it’s fear-provoking and despair-encouraging, it is so necessary, so important, to keep asking, “What is the gift here?”

I am reminded of something that one of the great residents of Washington, D.C., used to say back in the ’70s, when he was getting very old and getting even spicier in his capacity to speak the truth. Thurgood Marshall, our first African-American Supreme Court justice, used to say, “Just think of it: Those slave owners and slave traders said they were building a democracy. They didn’t know anything about building a democracy. What do slave owners and slave traders know about building a democracy?” But he didn’t stop there. He said, “What that means is that every generation since then has got to do the job that they couldn’t do, that they weren’t qualified to do. We have to build that democracy that does not yet exist.”

We started with a beginning that was essentially flawed—trying to put together democracy and slavery, trying to put together democracy and capitalism. And, praise God, some of us crazily trying to figure out how to put together democracy and following Jesus. That’s where we are.

We are in a fascinating, powerful, and perplexing time. My assumption is that’s why we were created with such tremendous capacities: to deal with perplexing situations. That’s why some of us believe that there is within us the creative power of the universe, that God dwells in us. Now, what’s the point of God dwelling with us if we don’t have any tough jobs to do? God’s wasting God’s time, if there is no tough stuff to work on. For me, right now, the building of a democracy called America is the toughest job that we have to work on. The stuff that we are going through now is part of the context, part of the material that’s here for us.

One of the critical parts of the material that we have to work on is the gift of being taught that, in a true democracy, it is absolutely dangerous to focus our hope and attention on one elected official. Democracy is meant to build our gifts as the people, to focus our gifts and to bring our gifts in connection with the gifts of the leaders—but never to leave the leaders alone, just because “they are our leaders.” That is not democracy. All leadership comes from within.

THE GREAT CLOUD of witnesses that Hebrews talks about includes Mother Jones, who said, “Don’t mourn. Organize!” I would say mourn and organize.
As someone who is 80 years old, and a historian of this country and its life, I am constantly living with the reality that this country is just a bit over 200 years old. In the light of human history, that’s no time. We are, in a sense, in our childhood as a nation. At best, we are gawky teenagers as a nation. Always wanting everything now. Always overreacting to everything. Two hundred years.

The fact is, it’s only been for the last 60 years that we have even begun to commit ourselves to say out loud that we want a multiracial democracy. And so, when it comes to building a multiracial democracy, we are a developing nation, with no authority to bomb democracy into anybody. Because we are trying to figure out right now what it means.

As for the money question, the compassion question, the racial question, now the religious question—all of these are things that we have to take hold of. We should not see them primarily as more burdens, but, “Lord, what a gift you are giving us to try to make a nation out of this stuff. Wow.” It seems to me that’s the spirit we need to bring. And many ask, How do you struggle when folks are constantly pushing back? I can only say, How else do you struggle? That’s what makes struggle—not constant victories, but getting up after you have been knocked down, again and again. That is what makes for your faith in the fact that you are a follower of the One who took up the cause.

I am constantly being reminded of one of my great heroes, W.E.B. Dubois, who was alive and young and full of life in 1896, when the Supreme Court of the United States said it’s all right to keep black people over here, as far over here as possible. Out of the mainstream. Dubois was not yet 30. What I know is that Dubois did not stop struggling until he died in 1963. So four years, the period of a presidential term, is nothing. It’s breathing time. It’s time to get together again and again and say, now, what is the gift? What should we be doing? What should I be doing?

Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Children’s Defense Fund, is one of those magnificent women who was at the heart of the freedom movement. She has her hands on one of the most critical issues that we are facing now as a nation: what it means to have the kind of poverty rate where more than a fifth of our children are poor.

When Marian was in her senior year at Spellman College, back in 1960, she wrote this in her diary: “Now, as never before, is the chance offered to do something. This is a history-making epoch, where we, me, the young, can be major characters. Now is the time to act, to work, to sacrifice. Life is so pressing. Time is so strained. I’m very frantic in my quest to use it, not to waste it. Now is the time. Each moment must be made to count.” She was 21 years old then. She’s 72 now, still working at the tasks.

IF THIS PERIOD of blowback over the last few years does anything, it must encourage us to recognize that we are still children when it comes to building a democracy. We’ve got work to do. It will not come automatically. Nobody—no president—is going to give it to us. We’ve got work to do, and we’ve got to figure out how to organize the work. How do we plan for the work? Can it be work done in chapels, as often as we can? Can it be work in places where we live, where we eat together, where we meet together? What is the work that we should be doing?

What we need to know is that those who do not believe in democracy are working. Those who do believe in democracy will not get democracy just by talking about democracy.

I was very glad to be here for Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009. I came here with my mind deeply influenced by Brother Barack’s memoir, Dreams from My Father. I believed, and I still believe, that he has within him the capacity to be much more than he has been up to now.

The question is, what do we do now? We know what we shouldn’t do now, in terms of dependence on the Democratic Party, as it is, on the president, as he is. How do we move us and them to another place, so that the richest country in the world will not have more than 20 percent of its children in poverty?

We simply have to recognize that we are wrestling with something that is powerful. The gift of that is that we now have the opportunity to see how much power there is in our lives to deal with it, if we will submit ourselves to the magnificent calling:

  • that we have to take our lives away from the foolishness that the society wants us to be wrapped up in and to focus ourselves on the building of a new world
  • that there is the company of witnesses, the cloud of witnesses
  • that there is the loving Master who is available to us
  • that there is a community of folks who we will never know until we stand up and say, “I am tired. I am angry. I am beaten. I need some help. Please help me.”

We will never find it until we do that work of letting others know that we want to be servants of a new humanity. And then see what the end will be. You’ve got to just keep at it.

Vincent Harding, author of Hope and History and There is a River: The Black Struggle for Freedom in America, is a Sojourners contributing editor. This article is adapted from a fall 2011 interview with Dr. Harding by Sojourners editor-in-chief Jim Wallis in Washington, D.C.