Pomp and People Power

By Jim Wallis 02-11-2008

Sunday morning a week ago I preached at the beautiful Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, California. Their service blends the best of the Anglo/Catholic Episcopal tradition with the creative San Francisco one-this time beginning the recessional with dragons celebrating the Chinese New Year. Offering a sermon on hope with the light of a dozen stained glass windows dancing in the huge Gothic Cathedral was an absolute delight.

Dressed head to foot in flowing clerical robes, a religious train of participants processed in, calling the congregation to worship. While my uniform of choice while preaching is usually limited to dark jacket and black turtleneck, this day I threw on the robes and joined in the pomp and circumstance. My wife Joy, formerly an Anglican vicar, would have loved to see me all dressed up like that.

In a surprisingly similar experience, I was a guest at the State of the Union address the other week for the very first time, sitting up in the gallery. What I saw unfold below almost rivaled the pageantry of Grace Cathedral with everybody processing in.

First came the representatives. Then the senators. Then the Supreme Court justices. Then the military brass of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. And finally, with that now famous call to worship, "Madame Speaker, the president of the United States!"

Everyone stood up to give the president a standing ovation, then sat down, only to stand up again when the Republican commander in chief was introduced by the Democratic speaker of the house. It's a time-honored ritual in the best traditions of high-church Washington politics.

Of course, the air was full of murmuring political expectations and questions. Would Barack and Hillary shake hands? (They didn't.) Would either shake hands with President Bush? (Barack did, but Hillary had her back turned as the president passed by.)

I know many of the legislators who were down on the floor and like many of them. But watching them scurrying around below, a realization hit me. "These people often think they are at the center of the universe; they think they are the most powerful, important, people in the world."

But history offers a different perspective.

History suggests that change doesn't start inside the beltway, inside our chambers of power, inside the heads of politicians. Change begins outside Washington, D.C., in the hearts and minds of those who first experience society's brokenness, envision a different future, and then bet their lives on a new vision. That's how social movements begin.

The wind generated by these movements changes politics, rushing into places like the U.S. Capitol where politicians throughout the United States' history have always held wet fingers in the air, gauging its direction. Our leaders often respond long after the country does, and they are usually the last to change.

That's what we are talking about every night on the Great Awakening book tour-how change begins with us, all of us, and that betting our lives on new visions is always what changes the big things.

And from the response we are getting on the road, something new has already begun.

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