The Common Good
July-August 1999

Combating Cynicism

by Layne Mosler | July-August 1999

Sustaining the effort to create change.

"According to the White House Press Office, President Clinton is throwing his weight behind a bill to expand the definition of a hate crime to include violence against homosexuals." Upon hearing this long-overdue news, I remembered my struggles alongside members of the religious advocacy community to pass this very bill two years ago. I had left Washington, D.C., and my work with the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), a Quaker peace and social justice organization, long before Congress began to take the bill seriously.

In the process of working with the AFSC, I attempted to bring Quaker perspectives on human dignity and social justice to bear in the domestic social policy debate. I quickly abandoned my fresh-out-of-college optimism and felt as if I was trying to polish the U.S. Capitol with a very small toothbrush.

In Soul of a Citizen: Living With Conviction in a Cynical Time, Paul Rogat Loeb challenges such feelings of hopelessness among those of us working for social change, and he issues a call to action to those who crave peace and justice. Using powerful examples of ordinary citizens who create extraordinary results, Soul of a Citizen also provides persuasive suggestions to deepen our commitment to meaningful change—from coping with burnout to balancing our social involvement with work and family.

In addition to exploring these themes, Rogat Loeb condemns the current socio-economic order and offers "pieces of a vision" for the future. Unfortunately, the pieces of his vision—promoting human dignity, preserving the environment, and creating economic security—are neither original nor specific. Though Rogat Loeb admits that he is merely suggesting alternatives, it is clear that his expertise does not lie in offering prescriptions for the future or analyzing the roots of our socio-economic dysfunction.

While Soul of a Citizen fails to rally its readers around innovative solutions to social and economic injustice, Rogat Loeb does a masterful job of examining the roots of individual disengagement from struggles for change. In addition, he effectively reminds us that we are all accountable for the state of our society.

WE DON’T HAVE to be larger-than-life figures to take a public stand. Soul of a Citizen urges us to abandon the perfect standards of bravery and eloquence to which we often hold ourselves. We have to remind ourselves that social change is a process, a result of groups of fallible human beings acting with courage in spite of our fears of ridicule or failure.

Rosa Parks’ refusal to go to the back of the bus, for example, did not come out of nowhere. Before the day she refused to give up her seat, Parks attended civil rights training sessions and spent 12 years leading a local chapter of the NAACP. Although Parks is often called the mother of the civil rights movement, Rogat Loeb argues that her actions were "part of an existing broader effort to create change, at a time when success was far from certain."

Besides transforming our communities as we engage in public life, Rogat Loeb insists that we ourselves are transformed in the process of acting on our convictions. His stories of activists such as Virginia Ramirez provide powerful support for this truth. Until she was 45, the extent of Ramirez’s community participation involved making cookies for PTA meetings. When an elderly neighbor died of pneumonia because there was no heat in her home, Ramirez was so outraged she got involved with a local organizing group. Fourteen years later, Ramirez received an award from the president for an innovative job-training program she developed.

Rosa Parks, Virginia Ramirez, and other advocates are all testaments to Rogat Loeb’s idea that acts of courage resound in ways we cannot predict. The unforeseen fruits of our actions can stir the hearts of people we may never meet and contribute to important victories we may not even witness in our lifetimes. Of all the themes Rogat Loeb explores, this idea is perhaps his most persuasive for inspiring and sustaining social involvement.

In a firm but gentle tone, the book reminds us that we have to keep a "long view" of social change. That is, if we expect to see the final results of our actions, we are not asking big enough questions. If we want to build communities that embody our values and our aspirations for justice, we cannot let the apparent limits of our present time prevent us from creating a new vision for the future. While Soul of a Citizen leaves it up to us to clearly articulate this vision, it remains an invaluable resource for anyone who wants to work for meaningful change.

LAYNE MOSLER works at the San Francisco Food Bank and dreams of creating social change through the transformative power of sharing food.

Soul of a Citizen: Living With conviction in a Cynical Time. Paul Rogat Loeb. St. Martin's Griffin, 1999.

Sojourners relies on the support of readers like you to sustain our message and ministry.

Like what you're reading? Get Sojourners E-Mail updates!

Sojourners Comment Community Covenant

I will express myself with civility, courtesy, and respect for every member of the Sojourners online community, especially toward those with whom I disagree, even if I feel disrespected by them. (Romans 12:17-21)

I will express my disagreements with other community members' ideas without insulting, mocking, or slandering them personally. (Matthew 5:22)

I will not exaggerate others' beliefs nor make unfounded prejudicial assumptions based on labels, categories, or stereotypes. I will always extend the benefit of the doubt. (Ephesians 4:29)

I will hold others accountable by clicking "report" on comments that violate these principles, based not on what ideas are expressed but on how they're expressed. (2 Thessalonians 3:13-15)

I understand that comments reported as abusive are reviewed by Sojourners staff and are subject to removal. Repeat offenders will be blocked from making further comments. (Proverbs 18:7)