Leaders or Obstructionist?

Bob Dylan, in his song “These times are a Changing,” reflected what a lot of us were thinking in the 1960s, that we young people were leading a revolution for a better world. Many of us sincerely believed, possibly in our naiveté, that we were heading toward a more compassionate and egalitarian world. It was after all, less than twenty years after the end of World War II when we as a country realized that our success had been, in part, a result of an entire country coming together, making common sacrifices and recognizing the absolute necessity of every single person who participated. For a moment we realized that no one had been more important in our success, whether they were a Five Star General or “Millie the riveter.” We were all dependent on each other to overcome a serious threat.

We honored the soldiers who came home. We helped educate them, helped them buy homes, and created jobs. This was a time when a working father could live a comfortable middle class life, have a pension and still have money left to send his kids to college.

By the 1960s things had started to change and we were faced with another war apparently not having learned our lesson in the costly stalemate in Korea. Young people were starting to understand that we lived in an interdependent world that was getting more and more divided by the “haves and the have-nots.” Idealistic as it may sound, many of us sincerely believed that wars no longer served a purpose and especially a war that did not threaten our population. We believed that President Eisenhower was right that one of our biggest threats was the undue influence of the “military industrial complex.” Many of us had friends and schoolmates who were coming home in coffins. But the growing hostilities in Vietnam provided the coalescing opportunity to protest the direction our country was going and it brought together many diverse people.

With youthful, national leaders like Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., the protests morphed into some of the larger social issues: equality for African-Americans, gender justice, and more opportunities for the poor and under-privileged. Thanks to people like Martin Luther King Jr., many of us actually began to see the connections in all of these issues.

I am not certain if those heady times in the sixties, when some of us viewed ourselves as young prophets of a new world, will be seen by historians as simply a narcissistic blip in the crumbling of an empire or if they will be seen as the beginning of something much bigger and much more important. Yes, I do believe we helped make some important changes in our country and the world, but today I think too many of us got too comfortable and too lazy, too soon. I wonder if the Occupiers will say the same thing in forty some years.

What we do know is that today the world is changing faster than we could have possibly imagined forty years ago. Some of those changes are driven by scientific information that is a quantum leap from the age of enlightenment. Some of that change is the result of the obvious technological developments that have turned the word “outdated” into something that happens in months, not decades. Could anyone have imagined in 1968, other than a rare few, what impact the computer and its cousin the “social network” would have on the world in 2011? Some of that change is simply driven by a growing awareness of the interdependency of our world. We continue to get the lesson that what happens “over there” ultimately affects what happens here. We can now see not only occasional photos of the suffering or the downtrodden. We can see them live in 1080 HD color. We can hear the sobs from the distraught mothers with dying children in their arms, and the anguished cries of the helpless fathers as they pledge revenge.

We are also living in a time that allows us to see, if we choose to do so, that the way we are treating our beautiful Mother Earth is no longer sustainable. We are already seeing the growing starvation all over the world and it does not take a scientist to realize that healthy food shortages could be coming our way. We are running out of clean water, already affecting the majority of the population of the earth, and if we continue to abuse our waterways with our poisons, we will be affected sooner than most people believe.

Governments are failing and faltering all over the world because people are trying to hold on to old ways of thinking and old ways of dividing. It is clear that people in leadership positions are still operating with a tribal mentality and real consensus is collapsing everywhere. In the process the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, and there has been no time in modern history that this has happened more rapidly. For many people it has taken a bunch of frustrated young adults to bring that to our attention. It appears that very few of them protesting in our cities are representative of any faith tradition, and yet they suffer, in barely tolerable conditions, to protest one of the issues that is foundational in the biblical faith…economic justice.

So the question that I ask is, in this rapidly changing world, where has the church been and where will it be in the future? What we do know is that in the sixties, some clergy were in the streets, marching for civil rights but it was a small percentage. Many of them lost their churches as a result. More clergy preached about what they thought Jesus would want us to do about the Vietnam War, and their actions caused one of the largest exoduses in church history. Clergy learned that there were consequences in taking a conscientious stand. Today they are learning that lesson all over again when taking a stand for full inclusion for gays and lesbians in the life of the church. And, based on my limited survey, most of them are “tip-toeing” around the Occupiers protests. Denominations are once again being split by righteousness.

The truth of the matter is, with some wonderful exceptions, Christian churches have seldom been leaders on tough, social justice issues such as slavery, civil rights for people of color, woman’s rights, or economic injustice. Nor, I would argue, have they been leaders for a more compassionate world, outspoken in their condemnation of war. Many of my aging friends would argue that religion has been one of the greatest obstacles to creating a more just and compassionate world. However, I tend to agree with the great theologian Lloyd Geering that we have a better world because of the teachings of Jesus. But is that enough and do those teachings still have meaning when religion is seen as the problem with so many young people today?

Most futurists believe that Bob Dylan was right in 1964. The world is changing and it is changing faster than anyone could possibly have imagined. There is a lot of hope among young and some old that we are moving into a cosmic shift. Some have argued that we are in a birth process and what we are going through today is the result of birthing pains. Most of those who suggest this are totally unaware that St. Paul used the same language, nearly 2000 years ago in his hope for a new world order. Others suggest that we are going through an evolutionary process.

It appears to me that humans, like other animals, only evolve when the survival of the species is in danger of extinction. Maybe that is what will happen, but if so, that will require an incredible growth in our awareness as a species that is not evident today. At the very least there will have to be a full acceptance that we are as a species truly connected and interdependent, not only with each other but with our Mother Earth.

Now there is a something our churches could be teaching if we want to become leaders in this incredible transition.

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