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Parker J. Palmer on Racial Injustice and the Standard of Faithfulness

04/09/2015 03:49 pm ET | Updated Jun 09, 2015

Parker J. Palmer is an author, educator, and activist who focuses on issues in education, community, leadership, spirituality and social change, with nearly 10 books and countless articles to his credit. He is also the founder of the Madison, Wisconsin-based Center for Courage and Renewal, whose mission "is to create a more just, compassionate and healthy world by nurturing personal and professional integrity and the courage to act on it."

Parker graciously spent an hour and half with me on the phone on February 27, 2015.  A more complete version of this hour-long interview can be found here.

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RTN: I live in St. Louis, MO. Since the shooting death of unarmed African-American teenager, Michael Brown, St. Louis has somewhat become an epicenter of social unrest and racial tension between black and white persons. Certainly, it's highlighted a lot of what's already there. I guess I wanted to ask, what words of life would you offer surrounding this issue? What are we to do, and what do we do with our discouragement at racial injustice and the slow pace that people wake up to it?

PP: First of all, I don't really have the wisdom to cope with the enormity of this issue. I am one voice among many.  But, for what I could say, we Americans need to come to grips with the fact that racism is part of our DNA. It was bread into us from the very beginning of this country. People will argue that some form of racism or tribalism was bread into every human being farther back than 1776.

But we were founded by people who were geniuses, but were also bigoted. They had a very narrow definition of who "We the People" are. It was white, male, landed, gentry. Period. Amen. If you were a woman, Native American, a person of color, a white man who didn't own land -- you just didn't count. And, they embraced slavery, some of them overtly and enthusiastically, and some of them in a highly ethically compromised way -- but they embraced it. And we had to kill hundreds of thousands of each other off as Americans during the Civil War to even take a modest step forward on that -- the Emancipation Proclamation.

I say a "modest step" because it was followed by Jim Crow and now, by what author Michelle Alexander has called, "The New Jim Crow." This includes the fact that we have more people incarcerated in this country by percentage and by number than any other nation in the world, and a huge preponderance of them are people of color there for relatively minor drug offenses that research shows are committed at least as often by whites, but whites are neither pursued nor prosecuted nor imprisoned for those offenses. There is a tremendous amount of research to back this up. So, to get technically theological with you, we're just in one hell of a mess.

So, here's the only thing I can say, and I don't know what else could be said: We have to care about this. We have to continue to act on this. But those of us who have to care and act have to realize that we are going to spend our whole lives, until the day we die, standing and acting in a tragic gap that will never be closed, where the harsh realities around us and what we know to be possible and desirable will never come together.

There's a very simple test for those who are somehow clinging to the idea if we can't make measurable progress than it isn't worth doing anything: Name any hero of yours who has devoted his or her life to high values -- love, truth, and justice, for example. On the day that person died (or will die), was he or she able to say, "Boy, I'm sure glad that I devoted my life to that piece of the love, truth, and justice agenda. Now, everybody can check it off their to-do list because it's been accomplished once and for all"? The truth is that none of my heroes were able to die saying that -- Nelson Mandela, Rosa Parks, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Jr., on and on.

The point is that as long as we cling to this notion of progress and effectiveness, we'll die in despair. And even worse, as long as we cling to these very narrow standards of effectiveness, which our culture is enamored with, we'll take on smaller and smaller tasks -- they're the only ones we can be effective in. That's the logic. We're no longer educating children -- we're just getting kids to pass tests, because that's a small and measurable task that you can "succeed" on, including changing scores, teaching to the test, etc. Educating a child is a huge task that really has very little to do with test-taking capacities.

So, the final question is, "What is the ultimate standard of my life?" I'm not tossing effectiveness out -- I want to be as effective as much as the next person. I want my books to have an impact. I want the work of the Center for Courage and Renewal to be effective. But when I look at this from sub specie aeternitatis, "the aspect of eternity," as Spinoza said, then I have to find a standard that trumps effectiveness.

For me, the name of that standard is "faithfulness." If on the day I die, I can take my last breath saying to myself that within the limits of human fallibility, and God knows I have those limits and imperfections, I was as faithful as I knew how to be to my gifts, to the needs of those around me, and to the places where my gifts might meet some of those needs, I can die with a sense of satisfaction, and that my time on Earth wasn't wasted. But if I'm waiting around to check love, truth, and justice off the "to-do" list for myself or anyone else, I'm going to die as a very unhappy camper.

We're not charged with succeeding, but we are not allowed to let these issues go.