Sometimes very innocent conversations can have consequences that echo across time. For example, when I first asked Ray Blunt, “So what is your work?” He told me of his teaching in the Federal Executive Institute and the Council for Excellence in Government—institutions that I later came to call “Daniel schools,” as they exist to prepare the next generation of leaders for the public sector–and of his having taken a group to Colonial Williamsburg to hear the Thomas Jefferson character speak about his own public service.
The more we talked, the more intrigued I was with Ray’s life. After the Air Force Academy, he came to the Pentagon and spent decades offering increasingly senior leadership to the military, eventually becoming one of the most trusted voices on the development of next generation leadership. A great-hearted man, he is a man who twines together a remarkable toughness with an unusual tenderness about things that matter.
But from that breakfast at a local diner, he and I became fast friends, praying and thinking and working our way into the future. From that meeting with Jefferson in Colonial Williamsburg ten years ago, he began reading widely and deeply in the lives of two men who he came to see had “crossed lives and crossed purposes,” viz. Thomas Jefferson and William Wilberforce.
Ray’s passion was simply this: he wanted to understand why Wilberforce persisted with his calling to abolish slavery, and why Jefferson did not, asking what that difference meant for the two men and their societies. A question for thoughtful people of every generation.
The long years of reading and writing have given birth to a newly-published book, rightly named Crossed Lives–Crossed Purposes. Ray’s work is our celebration here, as he is not only our friend, but our trusted colleague of many years. But to read it, you will have to buy it! What we offer is my Foreword, and we hope that you will find your way into the book as you see more of what he has seen about these two men, giants of their times as they were.
Follow this link to read a review of the book on HeartsAndMindsBooks.com.
Nobody is against empathy. Nonetheless, it’s insufficient. These days empathy has become a shortcut. It has become a way to experience delicious moral emotions without confronting the weaknesses in our nature that prevent us from actually acting upon them. It has become a way to experience the illusion of moral progress without having to do the nasty work of making moral judgments. In a culture that is inarticulate about moral categories and touchy about giving offense, teaching empathy is a safe way for schools and other institutions to seem virtuous without risking controversy or hurting anybody’s feelings.
David Brooks, “The Limits of Empathy,” New York Times
Some years ago I had a remarkable conversation with the woman who initiated the very first effort to take up the problem of human trafficking in the city of Washington. A project of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, her vision attracted the best and brightest graduates of America’s universities, mostly young women. The combination of Harvard, human rights, and Washington was very appealing. We talked for quite a while, and finally she said this to me: “Inevitably these young women walk down the hall to my office, knock on the door, and ask if they can talk with me. By now I know what they are going to say, because it is always the same. After thanking me for the job, and affirming the importance of the work, they say, ‘But I just wonder why it is that we think we have the right to say to people in Cambodia that human trafficking is wrong.’ I just wish that I had access to a kind of young person who believed in basic right and wrong in the universe.”
Reading Brooks recently, I remembered her words, wondering what he would make of her lament. Would he see an incarnation of his argument in her experience? Would it be one more example of “the limits of empathy”?
Very simply he says, “Nobody is against empathy. Nonetheless, it’s insufficient.” He argues that empathy does not necessarily lead to moral action; that one can “feel” for someone or something, but not have the courage or desire to address the issue because of its personal cost. He concluded his essay with these words:
People who actually perform pro-social action don’t only feel for those who are suffering, they feel compelled to act by a sense of duty. Their lives are structured by sacred codes.
Think of anybody you admire. They probably have some talent for fellow-feeling, but it is overshadowed by their sense of obligation to some religious, military, social or philosophic code. They would feel a sense of shame or guilt if they didn’t live up to the code. The code tells them when they deserve public admiration or dishonor. The code helps them evaluate other people’s feelings, not just share them…. The code isn’t just a set of rules. It’s a source of identity. It’s pursued with joy.
After a few more questions, the anti-trafficking program director said this, “Watching the human rights debates here in Washington, one thing is clear. Everyone’s passionate, everyone cares. But mostly, over time, everyone gets burned out. They just get tired, because it is so very hard. The only ones who keep at it are those with a religious commitment; they seem to have deeper reasons for why it all matters.” At the time she had no religious commitments herself, other than a belief in enlightened secularism. It was an afternoon and a conversation that I will never forget.
Ray Blunt has spent the years of his life asking good questions about the good life. From the Air Force Academy to the Pentagon, through years of service giving leadership in the public sector, he has forged a deeply-wrought vision for things that matter.
When I first met him he was teaching in what I called “Daniel–schools,” institutions and programs that exist to develop the next generation of leaders—just as the school for young leaders in the Babylonian empire once drew in the young exiled Jew, Daniel. In our day they are called the Council for Excellence in Government (now the Partnership for Public Service) and the Federal Executive Institute, and Ray was a prized faculty member.
Over breakfast at a local diner, I asked, “So what do you do?” He told me that he had recently taken a group of young leaders from various branches of the federal government to Williamsburg where they spent several days learning about the nature of leadership. One evening they had an audience with Thomas Jefferson—or at least the colonial Williamsburg version–and among questions that were asked, one had to do with Jefferson and his slaves. Only able to speak as Jefferson himself would have, the man answered that in fact his first act as a young politician in the House of Burgesses was a bill for the abolition of slavery. Yes, he had been against slavery.
That night Ray went back to his room, and took up a book that told the story of William Wilberforce. The more he read, the more intrigued he was. The two men, Jefferson and Wilberforce, had lived about the same time, had the same social and class backgrounds, had very similar educations, and had both taken up slavery as a politically contentious issue early in their careers. What was deeply different about them was the way their visions of vocation unfolded, and what that meant for their societies and the world.
Jefferson, to put it simply, did not persist in his passion. A brilliant political philosopher and an eloquent writer, while often offering words that stirred his own generation and that continue to do so generations later, his words did not become flesh. While notions of dignity and freedom threaded their way through his documents and speeches, he kept his slaves and defended the right of slavery throughout his political career. Again, simply, Wilberforce is still the “hero of humanity” because his passions persisted, and they became his life, changing not only his own nation but they continue to echo across history 2o0 years later.
As Ray returned to his students the next day, he brought Wilberforce with him—and that decision is the genesis of this book. The days that followed turned into years, and Ray began a disciplined and deep reading program, wanting to learn all that he could about these two men. First it was mostly biography, viz. what is the story? who were they? what were they like? where did they come from? what did they believe? But that biographical background became the foundation on which another set of questions grew. And those questions grew into this book, Crossed Lives–Crossed Purposes.
“Why did William Wilberforce persist and why did Thomas Jefferson not? Why was Wilberforce able to lead a global, colonial, class-conscious monarchy to end slavery—the nation vilified as the great tyrant by America? Why would the monarchy, England, show its slaves mercy and grace? Why did Thomas Jefferson fail to lead an end to slavery in the world’s first truly democratic republic, founded as it was on the religious and philosophical impulses of the freedom and equality of humanity that he wrote of so memorably in words that still ring compellingly across the globe?”
The questions matter. Not only for our understanding of history, but for our understanding of our own moment. As the incisive British poet Steve Turner puts it, “History repeats itself. Has to. Nobody listens.”
Brooks presses his point on the pages of the New York Times, wondering about the meaning of empathy. No one is against it—and yet. The director of the human trafficking program in Washington DC is grateful for the passionate young women who care about injustice—and yet. If we have ears to hear history, learning from the gifted public teacher and servant that Ray Blunt is, we will learn that Jefferson can only take us so far, that there were limits to his empathy. But better, we will learn that Wilberforce coherently connected his conviction that slavery was unjust with a deepening vocation that gave him vision and passion that lasted a lifetime—and that eventually brought about the abolition of slavery.
While it might be best to sit quietly at Ray’s feet, hearing him tell this tale, readers will find that Crossed Lives–Crossed Purposes is his labor of love—especially a love for those who will take up the responsibility of leadership in the next generation. That is why he lives, and that is why he has written this book.