A few years ago, I heard Archbishop Desmond Tutu speak at a Los Angeles benefit for a South African project. He’d been fighting prostate cancer, was tired that evening and had taken a nap before his talk. But when Tutu addressed the audience he became animated, expressing amazement that his long-oppressed country had provided the world with an unforgettable lesson in reconciliation and hope. Afterward, a few other people spoke, then a band from East LA took the stage and launched into an irresistibly rhythmic tune. People started dancing. Suddenly I noticed Tutu, boogying away in the middle of the crowd. I’d never seen a Nobel Peace Prize winner, still less one with a potentially fatal illness, move with such joy and abandonment. Tutu, I realized, knows how to have a good time. Indeed, it dawned on me that his ability to recognize and embrace life’s pleasures helps him face its cruelties and disappointments, be they personal or political.
Few of us will match Tutu’s achievements, but we’d do well to learn from someone who spent years challenging apartheid’s brutal system of human degradation, yet has remained lighthearted and free of bitterness. Any clear-eyed view of the world recognizes that grave threats exist: war, environmental destruction, the runaway power of corporate greed. To make matters worse, those in power often take advantage of real threats, like terrorism, by exploiting fear and feelings of vulnerability for their own gain. Today fear so dominates our society that Americans hesitate to speak out against the very actions that make other people hate us, worried that they may be deemed unpatriotic or simply ignored, marginalized. When people begin to silence themselves, democracy itself is imperiled.
The antidote to such fear and silence is hope: defiant, resilient, persistent hope, of the kind that Tutu embodies. In this vision, we act no matter what the seeming odds, both to be true to ourselves and to open up new possibilities. As Jim Wallis, editor of the evangelical social justice magazine Sojourners, writes, “Hope is believing in spite of the evidence, then watching the evidence change.”
Another way of expressing Wallis’s sentiment is that hope is a way of looking at the world–more than that, it’s a way of life. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the stories of those who, like Tutu and Nelson Mandela, persist under the most dangerous conditions, when simply to imagine aloud the possibility of change is deemed a crime or viewed as a type of madness. Consider former Czech president Vaclav Havel, whose country’s experience, he argues, proves that a series of small, seemingly futile moral actions can bring down an empire. When the Czech rock band Plastic People of the Universe was first outlawed and arrested because the authorities said their Frank Zappa-influenced music was “morbid” and had a “negative social impact,” Havel organized a defense committee. That in turn evolved into the Charter 77 organization, which set the stage for Czechoslovakia’s broader democracy movement. As Havel wrote, three years before the Communist dictatorship fell, “Hope is not prognostication. It is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart.”
Even in a seemingly losing cause, one person may unknowingly inspire another, and that person yet a third, who could go on to change the world, or at least a small corner of it. Rosa Parks’s husband, Raymond, convinced her to attend her first NAACP meeting, the initial step on a twelve-year path that brought her to that fateful day on the bus in Montgomery. But who got Raymond Parks involved? And why did that person take the trouble to do so?
In 1969 Henry Kissinger told the North Vietnamese that Richard Nixon would dramatically escalate the Vietnam War, with “grave consequences,” unless both they and the National Liberation Front in the South stopped fighting. Nixon had military advisers prepare detailed plans, including mission folders with photographs of potential targets for nuclear strikes. But two weeks before the President’s November 1 deadline, there was a nationwide day of protest, the Moratorium, when more than a million Americans joined local demonstrations, vigils, church services, petition drives and other forms of opposition. The next month, more than half a million people marched in Washington, DC. An Administration spokesperson announced that Nixon had watched the Washington Redskins football game and that the demonstrations wouldn’t affect his policies in the slightest. That fed the frustration of far too many in the peace movement and accelerated the descent of some, like the Weathermen, into violence. Yet privately, as we now know from Nixon’s memoirs, he decided the movement had, in his words, so “polarized” American opinion that he couldn’t carry out his threat. Moratorium participants had no idea that their efforts may have been helping to stop a nuclear attack.
The protests of early 2003, the largest in decades, brought many into their first public stand, or their first in years. It wasn’t easy to voice opposition when being called allies of terrorism. Yet people did, in every community in the country, joined by the largest global peace demonstrations in history. This movement marked the first steps for innumerable individuals who, over time, may well join the ranks of the unsung heroes who ultimately create all change.
Even if the struggle outlives us, conviction matters. Actions of conscience confirm the link between our fate and that of everyone and everything else on the planet, respecting and reinforcing the fundamental connections without which life itself is impossible. Whether we flourish or perish depends on how well we can honor the interdependence that Martin Luther King Jr. evoked: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”
Nor should we forget that courage is contagious, that it overcomes the silence and fear that estrange people from one another. In Poland during the late 1970s, leaders of the workers’ support movement KOR made a point of printing their names and phone numbers on the back of mimeographed sheets describing incidents of police harassment against then-unknown activists such as Lech Walesa. It was as if, in the words of reporter Lawrence Weschler, they were “calling out to everyone else, ‘Come on out! Be open. What can they do to us if we all start taking responsibility for our true dreams?'”
As the Polish activists discovered, we gain something profound when we stand up for our beliefs, just as part of us dies when we know that something is wrong, yet do nothing. We could call this radical dignity. We don’t have to tackle every issue, but if we avoid them all, if we remain silent in the face of cruelty, injustice and oppression, we sacrifice part of our soul. In this sense, we keep on acting based on our conscience because by doing so we affirm our humanity–the core of who we are, and what we hold in common with others.