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A Giant Leap for Humankind

The inner work we need requires every bit of the cooperation, imagination, discipline, and hope present in that first step onto the moon.

Rabbi Ted Falcon, Pastor Don Mackenzie, and Sheikh Jamal Rahman, known collectively as the "Interfaith Amigos," have been learning and teaching together since 2001. They blog weekly for YES! Magazine.

Bootprint on moon, photo by NASA

Astronaut Buzz Aldrin's boot print on the moon.

Photo by NASA.

Astronaut Neil Armstrong is 80 this year. Forty-one years ago he took that famous step and said the words that moved us:  “That’s one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind.”  Even Walter Cronkite had tears. Many of us remember where we were when the news came.

Ironically and sadly, I don’t think that leap for humankind was a giant one after all. While the example of cooperation and hope still stands, and medicine has benefited from the research at NASA, the most dramatic consequences of the trip have been improvements in the ability of the United States military to inflict pain and death on our enemies.

But on the occasion of Neil Armstrong’s birthday and in honor of his courage, it seems appropriate to ask what a giant leap for humankind might actually look like?

As I ponder the troubles, the difficulty, the pain, suffering, and violence all over our world, I come back again and again to the reality that we—yes, I am talking about myself, too—consistently behave as if evil is somehow “out there.” If we can just somehow eliminate it, we would all be better off. But never has an attempt to kill a person or persons understood to be evil ever succeeded in eliminating that evil. That is because evil exists in a potential state in each one of us. We each have a shadow side, and even though we are tempted to look elsewhere for the source of our troubles, much of the time that source sits within us. But we must not feel guilty about this, for guilt has no power to redeem. We must instead recognize this as a feature of what it means to be human.

Without a concern for the common good, no amount of moral leadership will penetrate a culture that desperately needs it. As Plato said, “What is honored in a culture will be cultivated.”

And here’s another feature: We have been given a spirit capable of transcending that potential for evil. But for the capability to be realized, we must do what my friend Jamal calls the “inner work”—spiritual practices that strengthen our spirits and prepare us to combat our evil potentials. And in doing so, we must find ways to release ourselves from what my friend Ted calls our “stuckness,” our imprisonments. That is a prerequisite for being in community—a state where the preciousness of relationships can nurture the growth that each of us needs.

This process might be the greatest moral need present on our planet. It’s also what a giant step for humankind would look like today.

Such a step would require every bit of the cooperation, imagination, discipline, and hope present in that first step onto the moon. But it would also require anyone in a position of moral leadership (leadership that is framed, always, by a concern for the common good) to articulate the need to live together on this planet peacefully with positive, imaginative, and compassionate energy. We need help to see that the historic “We vs. They” sensibility represents the illusion that people are evil. We can be filled by evil—and do and say evil things—but we are not evil.

Sand dunes, photo by Guilherme CecílioMoving Beyond Ego
Why do we prefer to talk about religion, fight over it, even kill for it—everything but live it?

Religious leaders should, indeed, be moral leaders. But so should public servants, college presidents, teachers, and anyone with a “stage” or a “pulpit” that commands public attention. And the rest of us should be on the lookout for that deeply important moral sensibility: Concern for the common good. Without that concern, no amount of moral leadership will penetrate a culture that desperately needs it. As Plato said, “What is honored in a culture will be cultivated.”

Some emerging global consensus that evil is not out there, but can be in here—and that the common good is served by naming those places where it exists—would point us in the right direction. This is one of the most important purposes of religion. In its most dramatic moments, religion has called us back toward such a consensus. This purpose, in fact, is one of religion’s most important roles.

And it would indeed be a giant leap for humankind. 


Don Mackenzie bio picPastor Don Mackenzie wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. He retired in June of 2008 as Minister and Head of Staff of University Congregational United Church of Christ in Seattle. Previously, he served congregations in Hanover, New Hampshire, and Princeton, New Jersey.

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