American society faces a spiritual, cultural, and political crisis. The crisis has taken especially visible form during this election campaign, through the emergence of both strong prophetic and transformative energies, and a proto-fascist movement.
The crisis is liable to enter an especially hot zone during the first two or possibly four years of the US government following the 2016 election. For during those years the conflicting energies that surfaced during the election campaign are likely to keep colliding – and therefore fruitlessly -- over whether and how to meet the conflicting desires that erupted during the campaign.
What should we be doing? I want to address that question by addressing honestly the intertwined crises we are facing that together make up a Super-storm of crisis –-- and then to suggest what we could do.
What are the deep crises we are facing?
(1) A planet where the very web of life in which the human species has lived for our whole history is in danger, threatened by the global scorching that has brought our climate into crisis. American society and its profligate burning of fossil fuels is one of the most powerful contributors to the crisis, and our internal political and cultural crisis has so far prevented us from taking emergency action. Mother Earth herself, treated as a mere commodity, becomes a rebellious “left-out” in our politics, erupting in riotous floods and droughts.
(2) Although the civil-rights movement of half a century ago made possible the emergence of a much larger Black middle class –- precarious though it has been in the face of the “Great Recession” – it left still smoldering a large part of the Black community subject to mass disemployment, abject poverty, terrible schools, harassment and humiliation and sometimes unjust violence by police, and mass incarceration. In short, brutal racism creating another “left-out” community.
(3) Immigrants and Muslims face a wave of fear, contempt, and hatred. More “left-outs.”
(4) Women in large parts of the country face threats to their economic equality, their health, their freedom to choose not only abortion but even birth control, and face even the danger of rape in seemingly “safe” places.
(5) There is a large proportion of white male Americans whose educations did not include a college experience, whose jobs or the jobs they expected their children to work in have been destroyed, whose labor unions have been broken, whose religious and cultural lives are shaped by strong attachments to inwardly and conventionally focused versions of Christianity, and who live isolated from the multiflavored urban stew of many cultures, religions, and races. Many of these men feel outraged by losing the America they thought was theirs. They are even dying younger.
Some have turned their sense of defeat and of being excluded, of being left out of the American present and future, into rage against all the elements of the “new America.” And some are like the young man shown below -- baffled, unwilling any longer to swallow lies from those who rule America, ready to argue.
(6) Many younger Americans who have entered the “college class” nevertheless find themselves economically stymied with great burdens of debt and few jobs that match what they thought their educations promised. They feel themselves culturally part of the new America -- but even so, left out. Filled with more hope than anger.
(7) The endless “war against terror” produces many desperate refugees -- and new terrorists (many fewer, but enough to shatter lives). Their violence then justifies more wars against terror, which then produce more refugees, more terrorists, more dead and wounded Americans and civilians of many nations, more intrusive Big-Brother surveillance of our lives, more resources robbed from schools and railroads and the joyful leisure that could heal us.
(8) Many of the physical, emotional, and educational infrastructures of American society are rotting away at the same time that the climate crisis threatens them with worse disintegration. These “left-out” aspects of our country take their revenge in lead-poisoned children, huge numbers of car-crash dead and wounded, thousands dead from gun violence, hundreds of thousands with untreated mental illness, millions of hours wasted in soul-deadening traffic.
This bubbling up of many versions of being “left out” will last beyond the 2016 election. So far, they have not cohered into alliances capable of bringing about the basic change that we need. Indeed, some of them see themselves as pitted against each other.
Even two of the most hopeful new energies –- Black Lives Matter and the Bernie Sanders campaign – have not been able or willing to work together – and those who identify with one or the other must face the truth that no progressive or radical American movement can succeed that does not include both the Black community and white progressives.
And – though most progressives are reluctant to think it or say it or mean it –- the frightened and furious white men who have supported Trump must also find a place in a movement for change. Left outside, even as a shrinking minority they will continue to be a bleeding, mortally dangerous ulcer in the American body politic.
Unless we can create an overarching spiritual, cultural, and political vision, we will not be able to make enough change to matter. We have already seen legislative “deadlocks” and judicial “road blocks” that have consolidated the power of top-down status-quo institutions that treat all these left-outs with contempt. If this simply continues after the election, by 2018 the frustration and fury will be still worse.
Governmental action or inaction will not alone resolve the crisis. Just as hunger is fed by bread but not by bread alone, so justice is made by laws but not by laws alone. If this crisis is to generate major steps toward a democratic transformation of American society, there needs to be a spiritual and cultural aspect to progressive action infusing, inspiring, and transforming the electoral-political process -- and going beyond it to fill the streets, the bayous, the prairies, the bridges with “left-out” people who can both protest oppressions and create new communities.
We have already seen the partial victories of the Sioux Nation and the Latino Dreamers and the Moral Monday revival meetings and the neighborhood solar co-ops and the women’s challenges to the invisible culture of rape on “elite” campuses and –- with all its stark dangers –- the potentially healing outburst of the white-male “left-outs.”
So there is great potential value in the fact that the fiftieth anniversary of the last year in the life of Martin Luther King will take place during that two-year period. This year will stretch from the 50th anniversary of April 4, 1967 -- when he gave the “Riverside speech” at Riverside Church in New York City -- -- to the 50th anniversary of April 4, 1968, when he was murdered.
The Riverside speech, entitled “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break the Silence,” named racism, militarism, and materialism as deadly triplets afflicting America. And the entire speech was rooted in Dr. King’s profound commitment to active nonviolence. To seeking what of human need and Godly value could be addressed even in “enemies” and could be turned toward the creation of the Beloved Community.
Dr. King’s life-work, especially during that last year of his life, offers a set of powerful teachings and symbols that could be brought forward to benefit the spiritual and cultural transformation that are now necessary.
The Shalom Center intends to serve as a catalytic energy to turn that potential into reality. We have taken steps to initiate a campaign called “MLK + 50 — A Jubilee Year of Truth and Transformation.”
I will share with you in Part 2 of “Beyond the Election” what we intend to do. We will need your help to do it. If this essay moved you, please click on the maroon "Contribute" banner on the left-hand margin.
May you and all of us be blessed with shalom, salaam, peace, and an Earth well-healed.