Recommended Reading: “Healing the Heart of Democracy”

Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit, by Parker J. Palmer. (Jossey-Bass, 2011)


You may remember the huge electrical blackout a few years ago that shut down nearly half of the continent. I was living in Toronto at the time, serving a congregation there as its summer minister and living a block away from the church.  When the hydroelectric power in the city shut down, something interesting happened at the intersection where the church and I were located. It is a major intersection of two avenues, which are main arteries of city traffic. The blackout struck just as rush hour was starting up. The traffic lights at major intersections throughout the city suddenly went dark. There at this intersection, two pedestrians leaped into the middle of the intersection and began directing traffic. I watched them, gesturing first one way and then another, choreographing getting cars to stop, pedestrians to cross, motorists to turn left and so on. I watched them do this for at least half an hour before an emergency vehicle arrived on the scene and an official took over. I saw in the actions of these two citizens, actions that were repeated, apparently, across the city that afternoon, a parable. A parable about what it means to be a citizen.

Do we believe we have the power, the responsibility, and do we act accordingly? When the public culture has a need for us, do we jump in to help? Or do we remain a cynical or passive bystander? What gives us permission to jump in and help? What prevents us from doing so?

Freedom – the spirit of democracy – is a way of life, an attitude, an orientation toward the world. It is the spirit of active participation and participatory action. Democracy is the self-rule of equals, free from coercion, tyranny, violence and the threat of violence. Leaders and decision makers do not draw their power from the gods, wealth, or tradition, but rather the will of the people. Institutions and habits keep this system running in a healthy way: a free press, an educated, informed, literate electorate that is ready to exercise its power. And we are responsible for exercising our power.

In his new book, Parker Palmer moves in the space of these queries about individual participation in democracy. He writes eloquently about the heart of democracy, and picking up on Alexis de Tocqueville’s nineteenth-century essay Democracy in America, on the “habits of the heart” that sustain a democratic polity.

Chutzpah and humility are two such habits Parker enumerates. It takes chutzpah—a spicy blend of courage and moxy—to know absolutely, I am needed here, I better jump in and make something happen. It means “knowing that I have a voice that needs to be heard and the right to speak it.” This personal sense of agency in citizens is essential for a polity that puts the power in its citizenry. Politics cannot be a spectator sport.

Humility involves “accepting the fact that my truth is always partial and may not be true at all—so I need to listen with openness and respect…” This is particularly true in the encounter with those who are different from us—who hold political views that diverge from our own, who are from class, cultural or sexual backgrounds that are different from ours, or whose life experience and social location differ from that of our own.

Parker advocates persuasively for the virtue of hospitality which “rightly understood is premised on the notion that the stranger has much to teach us. It actively invites ‘otherness’ into our lives to make them more expansive…” In democratic societies, in which diversities abound, being actively engaged with one another across differences is absolutely necessary.  Diversity (ethnic, political, etc) flourishes in the democratic ecosystem; only totalitarian régimes enforce uniformity. Openness to the other is a practice that makes civic dialogue and collective decision-making by the people possible.

This means, of course, be committed to the greater whole and being able to hold tension in life giving ways. It means be dedicated to the practice of community.

Too many citizens have become dispirited about our common life, turning away from politics in cynicism and despair. Palmer describes his own heartbreak about the situation in the United States. He uses that experience of a breaking heart for his discourse about the human spirit in politics. Hearts can simply break, or they can break open, and when they break open the longings therein are set free. Approaching the landscape of US politics, littered with the debris of a once-vibrant democracy, with a heart for human wholeness, empathy, accountability and other virtues absent from political discourse, is the path to social transformation.

Of particular interest to me is the chapter on the classroom and congregation as sites that could cultivate the habits of the heart needed in a democracy. I have long felt that the practice of democratic, covenanted congregational communities of faith can be schools of the spirit for an engaged involvement in the social and political order.  Any religious community worth its salt is cultivating in its adherents hospitality, empathy and accountability.

The danger of focusing on the habits of the heart, on the behavior of the individual citizen, is that the value of collective action gets lost. Changing our personal lifestyles can be satisfying, as it is largely within our control when so much of what’s wrong in this world is not. Individual lifestyle changes may have an impact. But it is not enough. Cultivating these habits is only a prelude to bringing them to bear in the practice of democratic politics and pro-democracy movements. The means must justify the ends, and activists seeking to renew American democracy must surely embody democratic values in our organizing and in our lives.

Larger forces at work in the body politic call for motivated citizens to act en masse. Democracy—people power—is citizens taking collective action, using social, political and economic leverage for social change. Though Parker never takes us there, I trust that this work can be thought of as a primer for pro-democracy activists, the personal and small group work that would sustain a larger social movement on behalf of democracy and not an end point in itself. It is certainly a useful resource for people of faith concerned with the renewal of democracy.

I’d be gratified if Healing the Heart of Democracy produces more individuals willing to take over, to jump in, when the traffic lights go out. Those kind of empowered citizens, acting on behalf of the common good, are needed in abundance.