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Forgetting God, Afghanistan, and Generosity

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So. The Republicans didn't talk about Afghanistan, and the Democrats didn't mention God. But Republicans are pretty faithful in retaining a "war option" in their platform, and Democrats, uncomfortable around evangelicals, still invoke some variation on a "Jesus-loved-the-poor" approach to government.

Still, I feel uncomfortable, weary, even discouraged when, after all the balloons had fallen, I realized neither party gave a damn about generosity.

Americans are the most generous people on the planet. We have more non-profit organizations, civic groups, charities, foundations, service clubs, and groups dedicated to help others in need than all the other countries in the world.

We give a larger percentage of our income away; we volunteer more hours, by a long shot. When we see a need, we raise money, volunteer on boards and committees, build organizations, and host fundraisers for every sorrow, suffering, tragedy, disaster or loss capable of being inflicted on human beings.

I'm not referring only to wealthy philanthropists, with their pictures and names in the paper. To be fair, many of those who do give, give a lot, usually quietly, to avoid fanfare or publicity. And another thing: Research has suggested poor folks give more to charity, by percentage of income, than anyone else in America.

Listen: Juan teaches kids from his impoverished neighborhood to build computers for themselves, for their school, for poor children in Africa. Jill, a waitress, trains dogs to help disabled adults -- for free. Lynn gathers friends together to raise money for people in the community who need medicine or an operation but have no health insurance. Martha starts community gardens with elementary school kids, who now volunteer their free time growing food in empty lots in inner city neighborhoods.

Shelley teaches the homeless of San Francisco to care for each other; Mary started a network of lending libraries in beauty shops; Robert counsels suicidal people in the middle of the night; Ben and Carolyn have volunteered on five continents, serving sick and impoverished children; Violet goes "unshopping" whenever she uses public transportation, giving sweaters to the cold and unprotected.

Do any of these people think they are saving the world? Of course not. They do what they do. They seek neither fame nor money. They just do the right thing.

This is a singular, defining trait of Americans. Not all of us, and not always. But statistically, when we warn our children not to talk to strangers, we teach them that our own people are fundamentally dangerous. And, when in danger, they will run from those people most likely to do everything in their power, go out of their way, to help, care for, even save the life of that child.

Generosity is one way we overcome our failures as ethical beings. We committed the most heinous, violent, oppressive transgressions and abuses from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from the North to the South, when we made America. It was only our generosity, a fragile beacon in a hurricane of habitual mistrust we brought with us, that nourished any hope that what we would plant on these shores might one day be honorable.

No matter how firmly we gripped our murderous, slaving, genocidal weapons -- weapons cultivated always and everywhere -- it was the impossible seed of generosity, fallen on rocky soil, that miraculously lifted us upward to stand a tiny bit taller, just enough to see how desperately we need one another to survive, to become more, to become a better people.

If we would ever transcend the aristocratic farce behind the claim that all were created equal, we would first have to learn to love our neighbor as ourselves.

This is the story omitted in Tampa, in Charlotte. However far we stray from any perfect union, there is something true that must be counted. Our generosity, however inadequate, is the best of who we are.

Skillful leadership inspires and liberates this. It illuminates, calls forth our best, our gifts and talents, for the benefit of all. Great leaders are not here to save us; their trust and confidence in our strength, courage, and our goodness nourishes the soil in which we enthusiastically and collaboratively work together for the common good.

We ache when we feel the horrible absence of this leadership. We are -- or should be -- repulsed by the arrogant presumption that we wait, helpless, for the salvation of either party to rescue us, when their policies begin by presuming we are unable to care for ourselves, let alone one another. One party insists we need government to save us; the other claims only the rich can make us valuable.

Attention must be paid. The healing of a divided nation begins by liberating the extraordinary capital embedded in a nation of generous, creative, passionate people, eager for the common good.

Abraham Lincoln, in the dark days of our history, summoned from deep inside us this compassionate generosity to craft a lasting peace, even from the shredded hearts of families torn asunder, a bleeding nation at war with itself. He called for these better angels of our nature to rise up within our national soul. He knew, as well as anyone before or since, that without the full-statured, open-hearted embrace of these luminous forces of human generosity, we would surely perish.

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