On Friday night, July 21, 1967, in a rectory on Detroit’s West side, I was having dinner with a couple college classmates and two of our former professors. It was one of those unpleasantly warm and humid July nights. We were chatting and laughing, when another friend arrived. He had a worried look on his face: “The natives are restless tonight,” he said. “There is something in the air.”
On Saturday night and early Sunday morning, July 23, Detroit’s “12th Street riot” broke out: one of the most violent urban revolts in the 20th century. Detroit has still not yet recovered from that revolution.
I have no desire to be melodramatic, and I am hardly a pessimist; but these days there is indeed something in the air. Revolutions, when they begin, are invisible, at least to the wider society. They start with the slow discrediting and dismantling of old — no longer effective — structures and ideologies.
Along with critical historical observers, like journalist and Presbyterian minister Chris Hedges, I am convinced that a very deep cultural shift — a kind of revolution — is now well underway, in the United States and around the globe. It will end up reconfiguring national governments and international political arrangements, global economics, mass comunications, ethics and moral behavior, and of course religion.
Old ideologies are collapsing, as they should: patriarchy, clerical superiority, gender inferiority, racial and ethnic superiority, and nationalistic superiority in a globally inter-dependant world.
Although leaders in my particular Christian tradition continue to condemn homosexuality as intrinsically disordered — and spend millions of dollars each year trying to convince legislators to vote against it — the latest Pew Research Center report indicates that USA public support for allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally continues its rapid rise: A 57% majority of Americans now favor allowing same-sex marriage. Just five years ago, more Americans opposed (48%) same-sex marriage than supported it (42%).
A key element in shifting American attitudes on same-sex marriage is the strong support for gay rights among younger Americans. Younger men and women have long been more accepting of homosexuality and of same-sex marriage than older generations. As Millennials (who are currently ages 18-34) have entered adulthood, those views have influenced overall public opinion. Nearly three-quarters of Millennials (73%) currently favor legal recognition, with fully 45% saying they strongly favor it.
Are we approaching a socio-cultural breaking point? Quite possibly. Old ideologies are collapsing but the process, for many people, brings anxieties. Polarization is strong and fierce: between races, between religious traditions, in political parties, between the capitalist haves and the no-longer-middle- class have-nots, about migrants and immigration policies, and of course around issues of sex and gender. Bruce-become-Caitlyn Jenner is but a small example.
To begin with, whether people want to admit it or not, racism and prejudice are still very much an issue in the United States, where every 28 hours a person of color, usually a poor person of color, is being killed with lethal force — and, of course, in most of these cases they are unarmed. People march in the streets and people protest; and yet the killings don’t stop. I still remember — during the first year that Mr. Obama was President — a big sign put up in a field not far from where I grew up: “We used to hang Niggers,” it said “but now we put them in the White House.” I doubt that sentiments have changed that much today…..While people of color make up about 30 percent of the United States’ population, they account for more than 60% of those imprisoned. Pale-faced people are less crime-prone?
And then of course we have our exaggerated American gun culture. A few weeks ago a Catholic priest in Lansing, Michgan blessed his parishioners’ hand guns. I am not surprised.There are some 310 million firearms in the United States, including 114 million handguns, 110 million rifles, and 86 million shotguns. There is no reliable data on the number of military-style assault weapons in private hands, but the working estimate is about 1.5 million. The United States has the highest rate of gun ownership in the world. I sometimes fear that our US addiction to gun violence marks a nation in terminal decline. (No. I am not anti-American; but I am a deeply concerned American.)
Yes there is something in the air; and we can begin now to take some prophetic and protectve measures by moving away from some of the old ideologies that had maintained our cultural status quo. A good starting point would be to throw-out the old “just-world ” theory.
According to the “just-world” theory, the world is basically just and people get what they deserve. A couple years ago an outoken archbishop, whom I know, proclaimed that when gays come down with AIDS they are getting just what they deserve, due to their disordered sexual behavior. A lot of contemporary Roman Catholic bishops would agree with him. (Perhaps even the ones who are actively but clandestinely gay?)
If one believes that the world is always fair, one can explain or rationalize away just about every prejudice and every injustice: usually by blaming the victim. A local politician asserted not so long ago that young women, for instance, who get raped, are sexually abused because of their suggestively indecent dress. Full of such political wisdom, he also asserted that people live in poverty because they are too lazy to work…..
More just-world ideology. If the Inquisition burned heretics, they only got what they deserved. In Reformation Germany, Catholics burned Lutherans and Lutherans burned Catholics. They all got what they deserved, depending on where one lived. Fascism was a just-world theory. If Jews died in the concentration camps, they got what they deserved. The point is not simply that good people get the good things, but that bad people get bad things. Neoclassical economics, our principal source of economic policy norms, is a just-world theory. As the economist Milton Friedman said: “The ethical principle that would directly justify the distribution of income in a free market society is, ‘To each according to what he and the instruments he owns produces.’”
We can only hope that Christian churches will recognize the signs of the times and become prophetic voices in contemporary society. Perhaps they can discover, in their own traditions, the very things that people today are yearning for so passionately: a sense of meaning, purpose, and direction in their lives.
There are of course other dangerous ideologies that we need to combat, during this time of great cultural shift. When people sense their world is collapsing around them, they often grasp, without much thought, the most convenient ideology or fundamentalism. Without thoughtful consideration of where we are and where we want to go, our cultural shift can easily turn into a very disasterous climate change.
Among today’s dangerous ideological groups, the people I fear most are the “anti-government” militia people. Put a gun in their hands and you will have many a sleepless night.
Whenever there’s an instance of police brutality, whether real or imagined, one inevitably finds someone from “Cop Block,” “Open Carry,” or some other fanatical group, who tries to use the situation to promote an anti-government agenda. These people really don’t want police reform and police accountability. Their goal is to smear all law enforcement and abolish the police. They want nothing more than a society in which they alone can impose their own beliefs on people, at the barrel of a gun…..and many of them claim, of course, to be devout Christians. In the same way that IS militants claim to be devout Muslims.
When “something is in the air,” the churches have a lot of contemporary-reality prophetic work to do. They need to reassess their own mission and focus. It is no mystery that one of the main reasons that so many people are distancing themselves from churches these days is because they find them more interested in addressing all the old questions that no one is really asking.
Unfortunately, church members and church leaders have often tended to think of Divine revelation as something over and done. That however is only part of the Christian picture.
If we truly understand and believe what Jesus said, the Divine — also and still — reveals itself to humans directly and intensely in the happenings of the contemporary moment. We need to pay attention to the signs of the times. We need to continually probe and discover more authentically who Christ is for people today, how the Divine is disclosed in contemporary life, and how we can commit ourselves in ever new ways to Christian ministry and mission
When “something is in the air” and short-sighted (and occasionally craz) people are trying to push us in all directions, we need to critically reflect, to listen carefully; and then, hand in hand, to move ahead.