• Thomas Jones

Talking About Common Ground

Updated: Sep 20


I recently attended the Martin Luther King Day virtual celebration hosted by Howard Thurman Center for Common Ground at Boston University. Thurman Center was founded in 1986 "...to preserve and share the legacy of Dr. Thurman who... spent his life working to break barriers of divisiveness that separate people based on race, culture, religion, ethnicity, gender, and sexual identity." Dr. Thurman was a prominent theologian, educator, and author who served as Dean of Rankin Chapel at Howard University (1932-1944), and Dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University (1953-1965). Thurman mentored Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during King's years as a doctoral student in systematic theology at Boston University.

Boston University's website says "Thurman Center is Boston University's cultural hub, and unlike many colleges and universities that have separate centers based on race, Boston University does not. The Thurman Center is intentionally inclusive and emphasizes the importance of stepping outside your comfort zone to build relationships and share experiences with others... Through an array of culturally based programs, lectures, discussions, films, events, and resources, the Center spreads Thurman's belief in the unity of all people and his philosophy of the Search for Common Ground. Thurman believed that meaningful and creative shared experiences between people can be more compelling than all of the faiths, fears, concepts, ideologies, and prejudices that divide; and if these experiences can be multiplied and sustained over a sufficient duration of time, then any barrier that separates one person from another can be undermined and eliminated... The Howard Thurman Center for Common Ground seeks to make those meaningful and creative shared experiences happen for Boston University students. The gems of the Center are the Student Ambassadors. They are dedicated young people...committed to Dr. Thurman's legacy of breaking barriers and building community. They come from a variety of races, religions, cultures, and places."

This clear and unapologetic commitment to search for Common Ground in pursuit of the Common Good is refreshing and encouraging, and unfortunately all too rare at America's colleges and universities. I tried to convey this same spirit in 1994 when I created and endowed the James Perkins Prize for Interracial and Intercultural Peace and Harmony at Cornell University, to honor the former Cornell president who launched the efforts to increase black student enrollment in the 1960s and resigned Cornell's presidency in 1969 as the scapegoat for faculty, trustee and alumni wrath following the Willard Straight Hall Takeover. The Perkins Prize is awarded annually to the Cornell program or student organization making the most significant contribution to furthering the ideal of university community while respecting the values of racial and cultural diversity. A sampling of Perkins Prize winners over the years is remarkably diverse, representing "a variety of races, religions, cultures, and places" comparable to the Thurman Center. The list includes Cornell Students 4 Black Lives; Dining with Diverse Minds; Intergroup Dialogue Project; Cornell Bridges to Community; Committee for the Advancement of Muslim Culture; Cornell Farmworkers Program; Cornell Hillel; Campus Climate Committee; Multicultural Living Learning Unit; PEHR (Peer Educators in Human Relations); and Festival of Black Gospel.

Finding common ground while preserving representative democracy and individual freedom is a core principle behind the design of the United States Constitution, which has enabled the U.S. to become the longest surviving democracy in world history. The Founders studied the collapse of democracy in ancient Greece and discerned that "direct democracy" in which citizens vote on government matters is vulnerable to unstable temporary and shifting majorities, and susceptible to demagogues inciting popular passions, so the Founders designed "representative democracy" in which voters elect representatives to a House of Representatives with short two-year terms to ensure responsiveness to the people. The Founders also studied the collapse of democracy in the Roman Empire and discerned that geographic scale and distance are impediments to effective governance, so the Founders reserved government powers to the States except those powers expressly granted to the federal government, with Senators elected by State legislatures for six-year terms in order to bypass popular passions and ensure stability of government policies. The Founders also designed "checks and balances" to protect individual freedom from an over-reaching or tyrannical federal government. The House of Representatives has the "power of the purse"and is the only body which can initiate legislation authorizing federal government expenditures. The Senate must approve senior Presidential appointments to both the Executive and Judicial branches of government, and foreign treaties. The Judicial branch can override Legislative and Executive branch actions. The President executes the laws, proposes budgets and spending priorities, and nominates judges to the Judiciary. These checks and balances are intended to limit potential abuse of power and to force the branches of government to work together, and to compromise when necessary.

Former President Trump and some Republicans are frustrated and angry with losing the 2020 presidential election, claiming electoral fraud in part because of pandemic-induced changes to voting by mail, early voting, and other election procedures. President Biden and some Democrats are frustrated and angry with being unable to advance their Voting Rights and Build Back Better social safety net legislation. But the Democrats hold only a thin four seat 218-214 majority in the House of Representatives, and the Senate is evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans (with the tie-breaking vote belonging to Vice President Kamala Harris). Democrats have not won an electoral mandate from the voters for their far-reaching legislative initiatives, and may enjoy only a "temporary majority". Our divided Congress arguably reflects a divided electorate. The checks and balances built into our Constitution means that sometimes things don't get done -- but isn't that ok if there isn't broad agreement on what should be done? The Founders strove intentionally to dampen Passion and encourage Reason. America usually moves forward when the people find Common Ground, as illustrated with the civil rights breakthroughs in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, although that process sometimes unfolds slowly. I think the Search for Common Ground, in an atmosphere of dampened passions and enhanced reason, is good for our country.

What do you think?

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