I’ve always liked Margaret Mead’s words, even though my confidence in their veracity has waxed and waned over the years.
As a university student in 1971, I was convinced that our protests over the planned testing of a nuclear bomb in Amchitka Island off the coast of Alaska could change the world. Proximity to Canadian waters brought nuclear testing close to home, and we were confident that our voices could prevent the worst.
So we were heartsick when then U.S. president Richard Nixon took the advice of another small group, the U.S. Supreme Court, who voted 4-3 in favour of that test. But then, three months later, the Atomic Energy Commission announced that it would abandon the Amchitka test site for “political and other reasons.” Our confidence in the difference we could make returned, and the island was made into a wildlife refuge.
In recent years, I confess to frequent cases of cynicism over whether committed citizens can still influence important decisions. But over the past few months, I’m with Mead again. It was amazing to watch our federal government’s interaction with the voices of civil society, including those of us from the United Church, at last year’s climate talks in Paris. They listened to our advice and even acted upon it. After a decade of dealing with a government apparently deaf to our pleas for constructive action, it was a heartening development. The world seemed changed.
Two months later however, the U.S. Supreme Court weighed in with an unfortunate 5-4 decision that halted American efforts to curb carbon emissions from U.S. power plants to levels required by the Paris agreement — at least temporarily. This story isn’t over.
The dance of history often appears to be two steps forward and one step back, or one step forward and two steps back, depending on how engaged we are as citizens. We step forward through persistence; when there’s a step back, the trick is to stay in the dance.
Last February, our small congregation of Windermere United in Toronto gathered for worship, joined by friends of the community, eager to hear what had been billed as “a good news announcement.” We gasped with relief and tears flowed as Arif Virani, our member of Parliament, announced that the Pusuma family would be freed from danger and welcomed back home to Canada. The Pusumas were our Roma refugee friends who had lived in our church, in sanctuary, for 18 months while hoping for a fair hearing about their persecution in Hungary. Their first lawyer later admitted he inadequately represented them, but still, our friends had been deported. We hadn’t felt much like dancing in the year since. But now Virani was telling us, “Advocacy works, and you just proved it.”
Margaret Mead was an American cultural anthropologist whose work drew mass media attention in the 1960s and ’70s as she explored modern Western culture through the lens of her study of South Pacific and Southeast Asian traditional cultures. Less known is that she was also a practising Christian who helped draft the 1979 American Episcopal Book of Common Prayer.
No one seems to know the circumstances in which Mead made her famous comment. The Institute for Cultural Studies, which Mead founded and which managed her estate, said that the quote “probably came into circulation through a newspaper report of something said spontaneously and informally.” I like to think she said it upon hearing of a group like those of us at Windermere who made a thoughtful, committed effort in service of compassion and justice.
I’m sure it would have pleased Mead to know that Rev. Alexa Gilmour began and ended the sermon that day with her words.
Mardi Tindal is a facilitator and mentor with the Center for Courage & Renewal and a former United Church moderator.