America’s Crisis – Many Views, Many Hopes

Photo by Suzy Brooks,


What the hell is going on? How did it happen? What needs to be done? What’s mine to do? “I don’t know” is the most honest answer. America is facing critical questions that deserve more than superficial, simple theories and quick fixes to return to the appearance of normalcy.

What conversations are you paying attention to? What is helping you stay centered in hope? Yesterday we celebrated our national holiday in honor of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.  With our country in chaos, I have spent time reflecting on what the life and death of Martin Luther King can teach us about freedom and racial justice today.

As I have connected with friends and families since the horror of witnessing the savage domestic terrorism of January 6, I have heard thoughts that give me small glimmers of hope. One friend who grew up in Brooklyn and was part of organizing efforts of Malcolm X and Bayard Rustin reminded me this is not “Trump’s America” we are watching. It is America. Black people have known this America for a long time. Now it is time for the rest of us to “get it.”

An octogenarian African-American friend commented, “How beautiful it was to see the singleness of purpose this summer in the Black Lives Matter demonstrations among all ethnicities. The combination of races, colors, nationalities was AWESOME. I honestly believe that the atrocity that took place this past Wednesday will wake up White America to the difference in the ways the people were treated Wednesday and how Black Lives Matter were treated in our nation’s capital this summer.”

A twenty-something niece in a planning session for a second intergenerational family discussion we call “Justice Talks” cautioned against letting the uprising lead us to look for some magic quick fix and immediate action.

A Catholic priest friend from Baltimore commented on the reference to “cathedral time” in my January 5 post Hope for 2021: Wishful Thinking.  “Tom, I think a lot of our Civil Rights leaders had that hope (cathedral time/long view hope). They knew they would not see full and complete racial equality in their lifetime, but they gave their energy, focus and even their life to the present moment, the present dream. They were a small part of the big picture. That had to be sufficient.”

I have also turned to the words and teachings of Martin Luther King. He was a gifted orator, organizer and writer whose words were important, instructive and inspiring. Even more inspiring and instructive is what he and other civil rights leaders did. They organized around principles and specific change goals. The underlying principle for King was nonviolent resistance. King studied nonviolence and he and others taught it through organizations like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The Highlander Center in Kentucky served as a training ground for organizers of all races to work for civil rights and the elimination of poverty.

History likes to remind us of the tension between King and the nonviolent believers in the civil rights movement and Malcolm X and the Black Panthers. While there were differences, history tells us that King and Malcolm X were both learning and adapting as the fight for civil rights evolved. Some, including King’s widow Coretta Scott King in a 1988 talk, argue had they both lived past their 30’s, there would have likely been more coming together.

This debate about tactics reminds us of our human tendency to want there to be a right answer. Contemplative activist Richard Rohr calls it the trap of dualism. We want and look for either/or choices with one being right and the other wrong.  But the world we live in is a both/and world.

Many underlying issues contribute to our current disorder and invite us to examine real opportunities for change. Most of us have one or two we think are most relevant. If we can suspend judgment and the need for one right answer, we might uncover a rich learning opportunity for America that can bring about a more just society for all of us.

I invite you to share your thoughts to broaden and enrich our collective understanding.  What can we learn from the past and current civil rights leaders and activists? Let’s blow the dust from one another’s eyes and see what ugly and hopeful truths we need to face individually and collectively to move to deeper and lasting change.

A college friend, environmental activist and student of pilgrimages, who relocated to Canada during the Vietnam War era wrote:

Some random thoughts.  The Poor Peoples March.  

So many marches.  For and against.  I remember back in ’68, 

Tents of the poor alongside the reflecting pool- pink blossoms floating down from heaven.  Faces upturned and looking forward to change-to better days.

And change comes in small gasps.  Sometimes visible but more often than not 

 sometimes it feels like a backwards shuffle.

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  • Tom Adams writes and speaks on topics vital to the intersection of our personal lives with our community and global lives. He has for decades been engaged in and written about nonprofit leadership and transitions, spirituality and spiritual growth, how we each contribute to a more just and equitable world and recovery from addictions and the Twelve Step recovery movement.


  1. Keaton Shenk

    Thank you, Tom, for your posts!

    Here are a few thoughts based on Martin Luther King’s ideas from John Paul Lederach, Senior Fellow at Humanity United and Professor Emeritus at the University of Notre Dame:

    “. . . Perhaps Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. captured this better than anyone. He consistently appealed to guiding pillars that sustained the commitment to the social contract while pursuing long sought change for equity and equality in the midst of deep division.

    His first pillar referenced the deep soul’s despair that waiting for change was no longer an option. The ploys and pragmatism of politics kept placing true equality just out of reach, deferred to the next election or into potential new legislative goals. Promises no longer sufficed. “The sweltering summer,” as he called it, could no longer accept the “tranquilizing drug of gradualism.” This temporal pillar required such immediate action — and act they did and so must we — that he referred to it as the “fierce urgency of now.”

    His second pillar constantly reminded people that the struggle for equality and dignity unfolds by way of a long and difficult pathway. So significant was this temporal challenge that in his words, now etched on a national monument, the movement must “hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.” Hope requires patience and persistence precisely because “the arc of the moral universe is long,” even as “it bends toward justice.”

    In the midst of the temporal tension playing out between the fierce now and the long arc, Dr. King’s vision never wavered in the third pillar: the commitment to nonviolence and appreciation for our ultimate interdependence. Over and again, his imagination captured the understanding that while the past carries forward profound violation of dignity and the present continues to humiliate and divide, our future is shared. Calling this out in his “I Have a Dream” speech, he noted that across racial divides “their freedom is inextricably bound with our freedom” followed by the shortest single sentence in the speech: We cannot walk alone.

    These pillars offer the way forward into renewing our social contract and reversing toxic dynamics.

    Act on and walk into what you know to be true. Start local. Reach out beyond your comfort zone.

    Commit to nonviolence. Always protect the dignity of others.

    Walk together. In this the stone of hope is hewn.”

    • Tom Adams

      Thanks Keaton. What a wonderful summary of our dilemma and how the wisdom of Dr. King offers a guide to our conversations and actions. His first point reminds me of the 60’s poster, “If not now, when.” A broader and more active network of coalition with shared values and willingness to respect each other and work from love is needed. His second pillar reminds us this is long and difficult. The sermon at St Cecilia’s in Boston on Sunday by Father John ended with a number of quotes from Dr King one of which we expect easy answers and are not willing to think more deeply and then act. And his third pillar – we need each other and we need a shared commitment to nonviolence. Thanks for offering these reflections and road map. Tom

  2. sally mac

    I like that you mentioned Richard Rohr who adds so much to the conversation. His admonition to think in terms of “both/and” rather than “either/or” made its way to my cranium over 15 yrs ago. It’s strengthened
    my recovery a good bit. Kudos!

    • Tom Adams

      Thanks Sally, yes there is an interesting tension between our desire for absolutes and always right answers and the reality of the complexity of the human experience and spirit. I have come to remind myself that whatever the question is, love and compassion are a good answer. Peace, Tom


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