First, I must apologize that the title of my keynote address might bring up George Bush’s Compassionate Conservatism.
My Compassionate Politics begins with listening to the underlying messages, anxieties, fears, and humiliations of your constituents.
It exhibits empathy, trying to get inside their lives to feel how it feels to live at the bottom, or be Hispanic, or a woman of color, or a person of a sexual orientation that differs from the majority, or a single mom or dad.
The intention of Compassionate Politics is to liberate all creatures from pain, domination, injustice, cruelty, whether it is cultural, historical, or for us in the United States where our Constitution honors the separation of church and state, of the “Biblical Idolatry” variety, where the Bible is static and not a living Spirit.
Compassionate Politics is not like the example of the King in Yertle the Turtle by Dr. Seuss where King Yertle builds his kingdom on the backs of other turtles. As the pile gets higher and harder for the turtles to balance, the turtle at the bottom named Mack says, “Beg your pardon, King Yertle, I’ve pains in my back and shoulders and knees. How long must we stand here, your majesty, please?”
“SILENCE. You stay in your place while I sit here and rule. I need to be higher! Another 200 turtles will do.”
“I don’t like to complain but down here we are feeling great pain. You at the top have great sights. But at the bottom we should have rights. We can’t stand it. Our shells will crack. Besides we need food. We are starving.”
The King did not listen. “I need more turtles, about five thousand six hundred and seven will do. Get more. I need to be higher and higher.”
Let me illustrate: I attended at work camp in the Navajo Nation. There was a Navajo woman bending over a fire making pita-like bread for our lunch and carrying water from a well, when there was a two bedroom trailer on her property. The government had set it on her property with the promise that it would be hooked up. But five years later … no hook ups, and she preferred her hogan anyhow.
A compassionate political leader would have gone to the woman, sat in her hogan, and discussed what she needed, what would make her life better. But no one came. The orders came from Washington to place a manufactured metal trailer on her property where she greeted the ancients every morning when the sun came up.
Compassionate Politics begins with listening to the underlying messages, anxieties, fears, and humiliations of your constituents.
A King Yertle came to my work-camp site deep in a holler of West Virginia. He said to the resident, “If you are so poor, how is it you have a big screen TV when you need food stamps to feed your family?”
The dad lifted his ball cap and scratched his head. “See that creek out there? In the spring and fall it fills up and covers the road, and the school bus cannot pick up my children. With the TV we can pick up the school lessons for my kids. Food stamps or school lessons? Education is the only way my kids are going to get out of this holler. I work, but my income is not enough to provide everything for my family, so I have to make choices. If the road was fixed, the kids could get to school, and then I could get off food stamps.”
You see, Compassionate Politics is like that old saying from the Native Americans: Don’t judge a person until you’ve walked two moons in their moccasins.
I seethed, but I tried to practice compassion when I read the added note in a letter to the editor in the High Country Press where I was named, and wrong information was cited, but again seething, I paused and let it alone. I didn’t want to detract from the real story that I was present at their rally at Watauga High School as one against Amendment One. I didn’t want to dilute my presence by being petty.
It’s getting lost in that sort of tit-for-tat that takes us away from our progressive agenda to defeat Amendment One, to restart the economy, to create jobs, to protect our environment, and to improve the education of the children in North Carolina and Watauga country. Mud-slinging and horizontal violence and negative campaigning will detract from our progressive agenda.
You might be familiar with Horton Hears a Who! Horton, a huge elephant — oops! Sorry about the elephant, but Seuss needed the elephant’s big ears for the story — Horton hears a small voice, shaking with fear, calling for help. He searches and finds the smallest of the small in a speck on a piece of clover. Horton is ridiculed and called a fool. The Wickersham brothers snatched the piece of clover and the Black Bottomed Bird drops it into a field of clover. Horton searches. The rest threaten to rope and cage Horton and his speck of dust. Until they all hear a voice from that piece of clover, saying, “We are here! We are here!” Throughout the story Horton repeats the phrase, “A person’s a person no matter how small.” At the end all the jungle believed the who’s were persons, and all agreed to protect them and speak out for them.
Like Horton, Compassionate Politics would liberate all persons from pain, domination, injustice, cruelty, whether it originated in culture, at a time in history, or from Biblical Idolatry.
Biblical Idolatry is what led to the arrest of the Lovings after their interracial marriage in 1958. In 1967 the Supreme Court, in the case of the Lovings, “Begged to differ with the idea that modern civil law should be based in biblical exegesis.” The Supreme Court justices said, “The freedom to marry has long been recognized as one of the vital personal rights essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men.” At the time 70% of Americans opposed the court’s decision, yet the institution of marriage did not collapse. It will not collapse with same-gender marriage.
I know we’ve tried to move our arguments against Amendment 1 from same-sex marriage to what might or will happen to unmarried partners and their children and to domestic violence enforcement and the economy, but after my experience at the “Rally for the Marriage Amendment ,” I think we need to take a look at marriage.
As those who practice Compassionate Politics we need to understand and hear where they are coming from. They fear that their marriages will somehow be different. I felt the fear in the auditorium at the high school.
Even today those who quote the Bible are mostly “in dominant theological traditions.” Mark Ellison writes, “Marriage remains a gendered structure that normalizes inequalities of power, status, and role between partners.” They fear their concept of marriage will change. “Who gives this woman to this man?” might get reversed.
Marriage has shifted from dominance and power to gender equality, the mutual partnership of equals, a dismantling of sexist patterns. Marriage is being delayed. Children in the wedding party are becoming the norm. This is hard for some to take in, but they need to know that marriage reform is an expansion of the pool of eligible, committed, loving, and mutually responsible persons who desire to live in monogamous relationships and enjoy the civil benefits, emotional well-being, and protections of marriage. It is not about altering the institution of marriage.
The goal is equal access, not the transformation of marriage.
Sadly, compassionate politics does not come naturally. We always think we are right, whether we want to admit it or not, and have a me-first mind set. It is hard work to get into the mindset of “the other” and budge from our perspective.
But we have heard the voice of those who are denied, and so like Horton, we need to stand up, be with, and speak out.
And like that plain little turtle named Mack, when the king announced he needed five thousand six hundred and seven, he burped. Now all the turtles are free, as all creatures should be.
That plain little Mack burped for justice, equality, and respect for all people.
I’m proud to be a Democrat.