Politics (and Ethics) as Servant Leadership


On Friday, October 25th, my plane landed in Washington, D.C. for the weekend of a lifetime.  Just a few weeks earlier, the Democratic National Committee had informed me that I had been honored with the privilege of participating as a Hope Fellow in the Fall 2013 Hope Institute.  I expected it would be an informative and engaging experience in every way imaginable (I was right!), but I did not expect to leave Washington, D.C. feeling so at peace with the calling and purpose of my life.  Though I left exhausted to my very core, I was exhilarated for the promise of our future. 

My decade of Jesuit education instilled in me the value of living as a person for others, with others.  I have always felt and known that my deepest desire is to live in service of others to promote the common good.  But what does such a life look like?  I have the audacity to believe – along with so many of my friends – that I can actually make a difference in this broken, but beautiful world.  But how do I live to make that difference? 

My graduate education in ethics has left me constantly thinking critically about issues of social justice with great concern for those whose voices are unheard, for those who live their lives on the margins of civil society.  The following quote from Audre Lorde animates my reflection on social justice: “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.”  My graduate education in ethics developed my critical thinking skills surrounding all the issues that are sensitive to people’s lives, including their intersectionality. 

Critical thinking in order to achieve a good and right response to a social justice concern requires acute adaptability and intentional dialogue with a wide diversity of perspectives.  Critical thinking also requires humility and respect.  So does servant leadership.  My two years in graduate school not only taught me how to be a critical thinker, they also formed me to be a servant leader.   And politics is, first and foremost, servant leadership.

So, while reading Martha Nussbaum’s Creating Capabilities: The Human Development Approach the other day, the following line spoke to me in a very profound way: “[i]n the absence of action, rights are mere words on paper.”  The ethicist may spend weeks writing on human rights, but where is the difference being made?  Whose hearts are being changed?  Which social systems are being transformed in the here and now?  The trite saying is correct: actions really do speak louder than words.  

Nussbaum goes on to address the function of government as essential to reifying those rights:  “[f]undamental rights are only words unless and until they are made real by government action.”  Government is good and necessary; it is equipped with the capacity to promote the full flourishing of the human person.  And yet, we know all too well that government is not perfect.  But that does not mean we should give up on government.  Government is not perfect because humans are not perfect.

In other words, we have a lot of work to do – and all in the name of humility and respect. Humility and respect are virtues that every human being – not just our elected officials – could afford to acquire.  And it is with the deepest of humility and respect (and gratitude!) that I continue to live into the calling and purpose of this one wild and precious life I have been given.  I sincerely hope others would do the same. 

+ CMJ 

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