Building a container

History shows that revolution is hard work. The founders of this country, having ousted the British, fought bitterly among themselves over state and federal jurisdiction. And their descendants had to endure a bloody civil war and a century of racial segregation before true democracy was achieved.

Bernie Sanders has inspired millions with his radical vision of a more equitable America, but has yet to articulate a strategy to achieve it. In 2008, Barack Obama swept to victory on a wave of hope and a belief that this nation could set a new course, no longer bound by outworn concepts of race. But we seem more divided than when he took office. In an earlier decade, the “Reagan Revolution” called for a country less constricted by government regulation and more rooted in individual freedom and responsibility, a “shining city on a hill;” yet under his administration the federal workforce increased by about 324,000 and Americans are still in deep disagreement about government’s proper role.

The difficulties facing social change efforts are evident globally. The Arab Spring that began with so much energy and optimism has not proved sustainable. South Africa is discovering that ending apartheid has not ended racism or economic inequity. Countries of Eastern Europe, liberated not long ago from the grip of the Soviet Union, are erecting fences to block migrants and are retreating to narrow nationalism (as is most of the continent).

So what kind of leadership is needed for effective, long-lasting efforts for change?

Syngman Rhee, the former moderator of the Presbyterian Church USA, escaped as a young man from North Korea, marched with Martin Luther King, Jr., and devoted his life to reconciliation. He highlighted one key factor: “However brave and talented I may be, without a container or framework, compassion and commitment can become wrongly directed.”

Hugh O’Doherty, who teaches leadership at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, says the key question is how to create that container. He told a group of aspiring community facilitators in Richmond, Virginia, that many of the biggest challenges facing society require adaptive change. Technical challenges can be solved by experts but adaptive challenges require new learning and new behavior. “There is no promised land, ” he warned. “There are lots of snake oil salesmen. There is no road map. It can feel profoundly dangerous.” People are always looking for a leader, for an authority figure. The leadership challenge is how to connect people to a purpose that will make them willing to take the risk of moving out of the status quo and staying in the “learning zone.” An effective facilitator of change must be a “non-anxious presence when all there is is anxiety.”

Staying with this metaphor of the container and the demands of leadership, a few further points occur to me:

A strong container requires everyone to take responsibility. We cannot look to one leader to show the way, however visionary and persuasive he or she may be. As Syngman Rhee put it, “One stick does not make a strong fire.”

Nor can we be content to point the finger of blame. It has been said that the most reactionary people are those who demand change in others yet refuse to take an honest look at their own attitudes and behaviors. We all have work to do.

The container must be built to last. Millennials demonstrate passion, compassion and creativity. They sometimes show less willingness to invest in long-term commitments. Successful economic and social revolutions are usually the product of decades of patient, persistent work.

The container must be a place of welcome. It must be flexible enough to include potential allies who bring different life experiences. At times it may be intensely uncomfortable. But the most-needed reforms in our communities require courage and trust-based collaboration by individuals who have the vision to call out the best in others.

The container must be able to nurture the inner life. My former rector, Bob Hetherington, was among the thousands of students who traveled to Alabama in 1965 to support the campaign for civil rights. “Those were heady days,” he recalls. “But the forces of darkness were stronger than we imagined. We thought that if we worked harder we could bring in the Kingdom of God. People got burned out. We stopped saying our prayers. We did not renew our spirits.”

By contrast, Charles Marsh writes in The Beloved Community, that in 1956, following threats to his life, King prayed at his kitchen table to “that power that can make a way of out no way.” ”

Faced with the intransigence of white resistance, liberal platitudes failed him; notions of essential human goodness and perfectibility were not what the moment required.” In those early days the movement “pursued a form of discipleship that was life-affirming, socially transformative, and existentially demanding: a theology for radicals.”

Vision, persistence, courage, self-awareness, and a spirit of inclusion: all these qualities and more are needed to build the container.