Searching for Pericles

The world’s first democracy lasted for approximately 200 years.  Its location was ancient Athens.  It succumbed to the pressures of constant war and a series of very bad decisions, not the least of which was the slaughter and enslavement of the islanders of Melos during the Peloponnesian War.

Some believe the destruction of the Melian people was the beginning of the end for the Athenian empire.  It’s particularly tragic given that it was entirely avoidable on the part of the Melians.  The Athenians asked only for “alliance on a tribute-paying basis and liberty to enjoy your own property.”[1]

20 years ago, as a new organizer with the Industrial Areas Foundation, I inherited the tradition of using the Melian-Athenian dialogue from The Peloponnesian War by Thucydides to teach ordinary people fundamental lessons about power and politics. The IAF developed this dialogue as a teaching tool over 50 years ago.   Since its creation, thousands of people from all walks of life have learned its hard lessons in our weeklong national leadership training.

As I approach the 30-year mark in my organizing career and as I see my own children become adults, I find myself going back to Thucydides over and over for his wisdom and reflections on the demise of his country.

Within The Peloponnesian War is the famous funeral oration of Athen’s greatest leader, Pericles.  In it he describes the virtues of Athenian democracy and the sacrifices we must make to our fellow citizens for the good of the city.

Has anyone seen Pericles lately?  How often have you seen an act of humility or sacrifice for the good of the whole on the part of our U.S. Congress, or a presidential candidate?  Maybe living in Iowa during caucus season skews my perspective but it feels more like American Idol than American democracy.

The irony is, we see the virtues of a Pericles everyday among ordinary American residents—people who run charitable organizations for little pay and at great personal sacrifice, men and women who serve in the military and run headfirst into harms way, neighbors who give freely of their time for the good of their community, people who fight fire and violent crime on our behalf, volunteers at Catholic Worker Houses, organizers, reformers, public school teachers, lay leaders in churches, mosques and  synagogues, union members struggling to make a workplace more humane and pay a just wage.  The numbers are legion and yet our national political landscape could not be bleaker.

How do we explain this disconnect?  How can a country that relied on democratic association and civic engagement to thrive now have such a dysfunctional national political environment?

That’s a question the leaders and organizers that make up the 60+ organizations of the Industrial Areas Foundation in the United States have been trying to answer every day for the last 75 years.

We believe the antidote to what ails us politically resides not in the mind of a presidential or Congressional candidate, or think tank, or foundation or “expert,” but in the practical wisdom of ordinary Americans struggling to make their communities stronger.  It resides in the practices, rituals and living traditions of their local institutions, religious and otherwise.  It resides in the slow, patient process of building relationships across the lines that divide and crafting solutions to local problems.  It resides in the heart of leaders like Bishop Douglas Miles of the Baltimore IAF affiliate (BUILD) who had the temerity to stand across the street from the White House and challenge President Obama to stop whining and start acting on the epidemic of gun violence in our country.   He and others in the IAF have crafted local strategies to this seemingly intractable problem.[2]

It resides in the hearts of thousands of local leaders across the country who have stopped complaining and started acting to build power on a local level to make their communities work.

It can reside in you too.  It can reside in you, if you stop looking up and start looking across.  Stop looking up for a national leader with a quick fix who’s going to take you to the promise land and start looking across the table, across the street, across your cubicle, across the pew and across the stereotypes you have of the stranger you encounter but don’t know.

If you do that, you’ll understand why Pericles went to such great lengths to describe the virtues of Athenian democracy, despite all its notable flaws.[3]  You’ll begin to see politics, not as red or blue, liberal or conservative but for the good of the whole, for the community we hold in common and the promise of a better future for our children than the one we inherited.

[1] History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides.  This is a debated point among scholars.  The IAF rejects the idea of the Melians as a principled people who had no choice but to die and allow their children to be sold as slaves.  We believe they had a choice and they made the wrong one.

[2] Metro IAF has led the nation in calling for a “smart gun” strategy that would prevents thousands of needless gun deaths in America –

[3] Athenian democracy excluded women, slaves, people who worked with their hands and others.  Not unlike American democracy in its first 150 years.