The following is an excerpt from the new book Becoming Wise by Krista Tippett (Penguin Press, 2016):
I was privileged to interview, and come to know, Vincent Harding, who died in 2014 at the age of eighty-two. He and his wife, Rosemarie, helped Martin Luther King Jr. develop the theory and practice of nonviolence through the Mennonite Center of Atlanta, and he helped King write his controversial Vietnam War speech. Vincent Harding spent the decades until the end of his life bringing young people into creative contact with elders, civil rights veterans—offering experiences of them, as he said, not as figures in history books but “as living and lively and magnificent.”
Krista Tippett: I’m interested in the fullness of moral imagination and spiritual imagination that has emerged from all your experiences, including, of course, the civil rights movement. The words civil and civility are getting tossed around a lot in America right now. You’ve stated very emphatically that to reduce to “civil rights” that transformation that you were part of in the 1960s is not correct, and that civility is not big enough language. What I’m hearing these days is that a lot of people feel that civility is not a big enough word for us right now either.
Vincent Harding: "Interestingly enough, I hadn’t quite made the connection that you are making now with my own thought, but that’s wonderful. That’s why we need each other. I have felt increasingly that what we are really talking about is not how we can have more civil conversation. What we’re talking about in the context of our society, for one thing, is how we can learn how to have a democratic conversation. That is what we need. We are absolutely amateurs at this matter of building a democratic nation made up of many, many peoples, of many kinds, from many connections and convictions and from many experiences. And to know how, after all the pain that we have caused each other, how to carry on democratic conversation that in a sense invites us to hear each other’s best arguments and best contributions, so that we can then figure out how do we put these things together to create a more perfect union."
Tippett: For decades you’ve been saying that the question of how to be democratic is really taking seriously that question of living into a “more perfect union.” I find that helpful as a way to open that word up.
Harding: "For me, Krista, it also opens up the question of what it means to be truly human. Democracy is simply another way of speaking about that question. Religion is another way of speaking about that question. What is our purpose in this world and is that purpose related to our responsibilities to each other and to the world itself? All of that seems to me to be a variety of languages getting at the same reality.
"Let’s remember that that community that helped to create King and that he then helped to nurture was a community deeply grounded in the life of religion and spirituality. This was their way of being. For instance, everyone near him knew that he took very seriously this traditional, beautiful terminology when he said that what he was seeking was not simply equality or rights, what he was seeking was the creation of “the beloved community.” He saw everything that crushed against our best human development and our best communal development, like segregation, like white supremacy.
"When he moved to break down those laws, those practices, he was doing it not simply as an act of civil action, but a deep spiritual responsibility. People like Jimmy Baldwin and others, Malcolm for a certain time, couldn’t imagine how Martin could see those possibilities. But I think he was seeing it because he was looking with an eye that was deeply filled by love and compassion and that eye opens us up to see many things that might otherwise be missed."
Tippett: You’ve said that most riveting and instructive for young people you meet are stories of how civil rights leaders have worked on society while at the same time constantly working on themselves.
Harding: "My own sense, Krista, is that there is something deeply built into us that needs story itself. Story is such a source of nurture that we cannot become really true human beings for ourselves and for each other without story—and without finding ways in which to tell it, to share it, to create it, to encourage younger people to create their own story. We also encourage younger people to find the elders, to find the veterans, not the celebrities, not the TV stars, but those folks who nobody else knows have lived such magnificent lives. Find them and then sit with them and learn how to ask the right questions so that the opening can take place. I think that this country cannot become its best self until we find ways more effectively of institutionalizing that process of sharing the stories of the elders."
Tippett: When you say that we as human beings have a built-in need for stories, what your work shows is that we human beings also know what to do with stories, right? So that, as you say, the young people you work with know how to take those stories as tools and pieces of empowerment in this day, this year.
Harding: "Yes, as tools for their own best work. Now is a powerful time in this country for young people and others to be asking the question, What are we for? Do we exist for some reason other than competing with China or finding the best possible technological advances? Are there some things that are even deeper that we are meant for, meant to be, meant to do, meant to achieve? Jimmy Baldwin used to like to talk about us “achieving ourselves,” finding who we are, what we’re for and making that possible for each other.
"When the mother with the baby at her bosom starts telling stories, it is clearly not just to pass on information. Most often where I go, where I speak, I start out by asking people to tell a little of their stories. And it is amazing what people discover of themselves, of their connections, of their community. I find this even in some of the strangest situations. It’s wonderful."
Excerpted from Becoming Wise by Krista Tippett. Reprinted by arrangement with Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © Krista Tippett, 2016.