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I spent Monday evening and Tuesday with about fifty faith and secular NGO leaders in the ornate Indian Treaty Room of the Eisehnhower Executive Office Building, getting briefed by administration officials on how we can work together to reduce poverty, strengthen families, make America (and the world) greener, and advance interfaith cooperation. All starting now.
It was exhilarating and exhausting at the same time. There was a palpable sense that we live at a time of both profound possibility and also very real peril. Just about everybody who spoke underscored two things: we need an all-hands-on-deck approach, and there is no time to waste.
My friend Van Jones, who joined the administration recently to focus on the green economy, captured it best when he said that activists have to move from thinking like David and throwing stones at the guy in charge to acting like Noah and building arks that can get save us from drowning. He recounted with a laugh his own days “cussing out the mayor” and then pointed out that something revolutionary just happened – the guy in charge actually wants to work with and learn from citizens’ groups.
While we were preparing to meet, Obama was giving a speech to the Turkish Parliament on his respect for that nation’s internal diversity, its ability to hold together both its religiosity and its secular institutions. Asli Aydintasbas wrote about that speech in The New York Times, “In our eternal identity crisis, we Turks have lately been thinking only in opposites – that you are either secular or religious, Kurd or Turk, European or Middle Eastern. It took a young foreign leader on his first visit here to remind us that we are all of those things, and much more.”
In that way, Turkey is like America – a nation that, as the political philosopher Michael Walzer writes, has the challenge of both embracing its differences and maintaining a common life.
Looking around the Indian Treaty Room at the range of people – priests and rabbis, Muslims and Hindus, conservatives and progressives – asking “What can I do at this time of crisis?” made me feel like President Obama had managed to accomplish that same feat in his own country.