Sunday, December 14, 2008

'Democracy Is A Human Institution, Always In Progress; That Is Our Glory'

My life intersected with Jim Birney's at the tender age of 10. It was the late 195os and my father had been transferred to a plant in a small downstate Delaware town.  He was a Roman Catholic and my mother the daughter of a Jewish father and Anglican mother.  Neither were particularly devout, but believed that their children should be exposed to "organized religion," as my mother called it in her own wickedly ironic way while understanding with the prescience that only a mother has that we would all grow up to be agnostics, which of course we have.
Anyhow, off we went to the nearest church, the point being to go to a church, not go to a particular kind of church.  That happened to be St. Luke's, where we met Jim Birney, who was in the first year or so of his first assignment as a young Episcopal priest. 
Reverend Jim and my folks were not a good fit in a town where the schools and movie theaters were still segregated.  While my parents more or less silently fumed, my father fearing for his job if he spoke out and my mother confining her activism to getting people to register to vote in the two small black neighborhoods, the Reverend Jim had no such compunction and spoke out forcefully.  This inevitably put him at odds with the theater owners, the publisher of the town newspaper, the country club directors, and many others.  St. Luke's was just the first of a lifetime of postings where he had no compunction about speaking his mind from a "What would Jesus do?" perspective. 
As Reverend Jim's son Scott notes, the civil-rights movement was his father's most passionate cause because as he saw it racism was the greatest transgression against the teachings of the church. 
"I was in the ninth grade when MLK was killed, and it was the most upset I had ever seen Dad," Scott recalls.  "He was down for a long time, and would go into downtown Wilmington with a bunch of other ministers from all the different faiths to try and calm the scene. I  remember Mom at the door once saying 'what if you don't come back?'  He shrugged his shoulders, hugged her and split." 
Fast forward to the historic election of the first African-American president, something that my late parents as well as the Reverend Jim -- now Grampa Jim -- dared not dream of. Scott, a friend of many years and a goodly number of shared experiences, sent me a copy of this letter. 
To my Children and Grandchildren: 
November 4th, 2008 stands for me as one of the great days in world history. I do not want to exaggerate, but it strikes me as one more mighty step in mankind's long, hard climb toward being all that we could be. To think that this human animal, on this tiny rock, spinning around a mass of burning gasses in the vast nothingness we call space, should aspire to the lofty ideal of those who founded this nation -- even though they, as slaveholders, did not realize the full implications of their dreams and actions. I am truly humbled and privileged to have lived in these times. 
When on Election Night I saw through my tears the tears on the face of Jesse, Jackson, one of the great heroes of the struggle for equality for black people in this country, I recalled that Barack Obama would not be there were it not for Jesse and thousands of others upon whose shoulders he stood: Julian Bond was shown in the Ebenezer Baptist Church, where the modern movement began, with Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph Abernathy, and all the young and old, black and white, who marched, and some who died for this great dream. 
I thought of Lyndon Johnson, Harry Truman, Bobby and John Kennedy, Abraham Lincoln, my own great-great grandfather, James G. Birney, the first candidate for president from the Liberty Party, in 1840 and 1844, and William Wilberforce, the great abolitionist in England. The Liberty Party joined the Free Soil Party. It, in turn, was absorbed by the Republican Party in 1856, which was then the compassionate party of the people. My father taught me the proud tradition of the Republican Party, which stood for limited government, states rights, etc. 
But with the arrival of the Civil Rights struggles in the 1960s, I came to realize that on their own, states would never overcome the prejudices of centuries. This realization was confirmed for me as the Republicans became more and more the party of big business, and forgot the common people, and the Southern states became Republican. It did take the federal government to do what had to be done. I have been a staunch supporter of Democrats ever since.
I believe my convictions come from the example of Jesus, who always was concerned for the little people, the outcast, whom most of society ignores or snubs. I record my joy for you, not for political reasons, but because I hope you might see with me that the election of Barack Obama is not just a great victory for race relations (which it is, though we still have a long way to go), but it is a mighty step on the long road to the vision of Jesus and of our Founding Fathers and of Martin Luther King Jr. 
As an eighty-four year old white veteran of the segregated Marines in World War II, my pride is not in the wars we have fought (many of them not required), nor in sometimes superficial patriotism. Many of us did our jobs, and then went about the work of the nation. I never dared to hope that a majority of our citizens would be able to see through and beyond our old biases. 
Democracy is a human institution, always in progress; that is our glory: That we can have such a vision, and work toward it. We shall never achieve perfection, but after the last eight years of discouragement, my hope for democracy is renewed. Perhaps we needed the Bush Administration to help us realize what, God willing, we can be, and must be if we are to survive as the human race.Perhaps we have been humbled enough to realize that we must care for one another -- especially for "the least of these," our brothers and sisters, and "for this fragile earth, our island home." Perhaps we might even be able to reverse the awful threat of global warming and the degradation of this amazing planet (unique in all the cosmos) that God has given us. 
I hope you will pray and work for that. 
I hope you will pray and work for that.

1 comment:

S.K. said...

Thank you Shaun for sharing Jim Birney's timely letter of and optimism and hope.

I too feel "truly humbled and privileged to have lived in these times."