Washington DC is a strange and wonderful place. For years I have seen it as a city of glories and shames—sort of like each one of us, but magnified as must be because it is a “city” after all. There are more of “us” here, and “we” become institutionalized over time, with systems and structures that have their own life. Persons become a polis, souls become a society.
A good man wrote me yesterday wondering if he would need to come to the “Power Center” if he wanted to talk. I smiled, of course, pushing back from that view of Washington—even as I understand it. For blessing and curse the city is that, in a unique way, a glorious and shameful way.
Not because it is the most important place on earth; it just isn’t. And not because all things begin and end here; they just don’t. While the World Bank and the IMF are located here, institutions with global influence and reach that they are, and the three national “centers of power” are here—the Congress, the Supreme Court and the White House –I deeply believe that the culture is upstream from politics too. How things turn out in the world is complex and mysterious, and there are many players, millions upon millions of players. Some of what matters happens in Washington, and most of what matters happens elsewhere.
Washington is a convening city, and perhaps that is its power. The Supreme Court convenes on Capitol Hill, as does the Congress. The World Bank works all over the world, but its headquarters is in Washington (and it is the most fascinating window into globalization that I know, with faces from every corner of the earth having lunch together in its cafeteria).
When someone calls from the White House, people usually respond. I remember once having lunch there with Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins; he even bought a new suit in the honor of the day! But it wasn’t my friends and me, it was the White House that brought him, though the conversation was with us about things he cared about, and that we cared about. The same is true for Capitol Hill; most of us will respond to an invitation: “Would you come for lunch in the Senator’s Dining Room in the Capitol?” And we will go, with honor.
Recently I was part of three windows into the convening power of Washington. People come to this city with certain hopes in their hearts—and their days and weeks and years here are a time of sorting out the nature and character of what they believe and how they will live. They were three groups on three days, each one drawing students of various sorts into the city: one here for a summer of internships on Capitol Hill, one for a few days of pondering the relationship of “values and capitalism,” and one for graduate students from every continent, all in their own ways eager to take up their places in history. All are thinking about vocation, with its meaning for life and the world– and it does of course mean something for each life, for the sake of the world.
One of those I met was a young man from Haiti, studying politics and economics with an interest in public health– with purposeful plans to go home when his studies are done. He told me, “I have Haiti on my shoulders.” I looked at his face, and saw his smile, born of a serious heart. He sees himself implicated in the questions that are Haiti’s, and with his education forming his vocation, he intends to be part of its future.
Over the days I met people from California to South Carolina, from Africa to Asia—literally all over –and they had each come to Washington with hope in their hearts. That is this city at its best, and it is why I keep saying “yes” to people who ask me to speak into the complex nexus of what is and what might be.
If there is a question that brings them, it is this: how will the world turn out? and perhaps within that, this question too: what part do I have in that? Any way forward for us as a people, at least any way that is honest and sustainable, will be found in a recovery of a deeper, truer vision of vocation. If we fail at that, then Washington is a “House of Cards,” simply and sadly—and that is a tragedy.