by Rev. Dr. Aidsand F. Wright-Riggins
Political, economic, religious and ethnic divisions are so deep and wide in America now that some question the prospects of overcoming our polarizations towards the creation of a safe, healthy and loving world for ourselves and our children. A significant proportion of our population feels increasingly marginalized, wondering if their lives even matter as they experience assaults of their right to vote, to choose, to earn, to be healthy, and even to breathe.
When the Constitution of the United States was ratified in 1787, the first three words, “We the People” did not include white women, indigenous people, or enslaved persons. “People” or citizens were defined as free white men, meaning no women or people of color were given a voice in forming the new government nor in running it. Further along in the Preamble “people” or citizens is further defined as those who “do ordain and establish this Constitution.” Citizens ordain. Citizens establish. Citizens have not only the rights but the power to create and recreate the world they live in. Conceding power through struggle, the United States America has moved incrementally over time toward a “more perfect union,” enlarging its tent of those it calls “citizens.”
Activist and writer Baratunde Thurston encourages us to reimagine the word “citizen,” especially as we approach the 2020 elections. I am proud to have voted in every local, state, and national election since 1972 when I reached voting age. Yet, for Thurston, voting while critically important, simply isn’t enough. For Thurston the word “citizen” is a verb and historically should remind us how to wield our collective power for more justice and more democracy for more and more people in pursuit of the common good.
I am an elected official in a small town in Southeastern, Pennsylvania and the leader of a social justice organization, New Baptist Covenant. In these capacities I naturally invite people to exercise citizenship by voting. As a Christian and minister, I especially challenge people of faith to survey our society and participate in the challenging work ahead (no matter who wins electoral office) of healing and repairing our divided nation and the divided communities which comprises it.
Christians potentially have a positive role to play as citizens. We can catalyze constructive action towards the common good through reimagining the world as already but not yet the Beloved Community and demonstrating in creative ways the society we want to live in.
Ever since the Watts, California Rebellion of 1965, I have been engaged in the fight for civil and human rights in a variety of settings. I have demanded housing for the homeless. I have protested against apartheid in South Africa. I have blocked roads in the desert to prevent nuclear testing and proliferation. I have walked out of meetings where the humanity and hopes of brothers and sisters were denied. The list goes on and on in terms of ways that I have resisted the powers that be. But in the midst of it all, I have found that the citizen’s voice is stronger not by only by proclaiming what we resist, but by demonstrating and creating the world we want to see.
Recently, I was strategizing about what I might do as Mayor of Collegeville, PA to mitigate the tension in our community as the election approaches. Campaign signs from opposing camps were mysteriously “disappearing” in the middle of the night. Religious and racial minorities were calling me for counsel and solace as fears and anxieties mounted. Local newspapers included Op-eds that were decidedly partisan and unfair, promoting an “us” versus “them” tone and tenor. I didn’t know what to do. I went for a walk.
As I rounded the corner, I saw a fire pit set up in the middle of a driveway in the middle of the block. Around the blazing fire sat two families, two couples and their sets of children; roasting marshmallows and preparing to make Smores. These two families lived at opposite ends of the block but were sitting around a fire in a driveway not their own. I knew both couples and was familiar with their families and their politics. One family was devotedly politically and religiously conservative. The other family was progressively activist and religiously cosmopolitan and liberal.
The first family has the largest tribute to Donald Trump that I’ve seen in our housing development. Flags, posters and campaign signs occupy almost every square inch of their property. Dad sat by the fire in his wheelchair happily engaging everybody (I’ve never known him to be ambulatory) while wearing his MAGA red hat. Mom spread chocolate on the graham crackers for the boys.
The other family around the fire was led by two guys, married to each other about six or seven years ago and who had recently adopted their second child, an infant daughter. They sipped on beer and wine. Their home is decorated by Biden-Harris lawn signs and rainbow emblems. I often see this family strolling the neighborhood in the evenings pulling the oldest child in a wagon while rocking the baby girl to sleep. Both families have been cordial to me over the years, but I always assumed that they would be fire and gasoline to each other, if they even knew each other.
That evening, I thought that these families did more to demonstrate civic character and promote the common good in our community than any politicking that I could have ever done as mayor. Every neighbor who witnessed this had to be inspired and given reason to hope. These two families ‘citizened’ by reimaging a world that can be. May we go and do likewise as Christians by reflecting the glory of The Fire towards our own communities, committed to and exhibiting and extending the common good as citizens.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the seventeenth in a series of opinion articles on “Beyond the Divisions: Faith and Politics 2020.” We invite readers to submit perspectives of their own to firstname.lastname@example.org for possible inclusion in the blog series.
Rev. Dr. Aidsand F. Wright-Riggins is the Acting Executive Director of New Baptist Covenant, Mayor of Collegeville, PA and Executive Director Emeritus of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.