The Common Good
September-October 1995

Which Future Will We Choose?

by Jim Wallis | September-October 1995

In Oklahoma City, 168 people died because they were in the way of somebody's anger at the government.

In Oklahoma City, 168 people died because they were in the way of somebody's anger at the government. In Chicago, more than 500 people died from the intense heat because nobody paid enough attention to them. These two recent events are each signs of the times, to use the biblical language-and ominous ones at that.

Last spring, the home-grown terrorism that destroyed the Federal Building in Oklahoma City and injured and killed hundreds of people sent shivers throughout the country. Have we become so divided and angry that executing our neighbors (and their children) becomes a political act? Will our ideological passions, economic dislocations, racial polarization, culture wars, apocalyptic fears, and political scapegoating be too much for the fragile American social fabric?

New tribalisms are replacing notions of the common good. Who we are against has become the rallying cry of politics, instead of what we are for. Demagoguery threatens the spirit of democracy as the dialogues of old town meetings are replaced by the new "ditto-heads" of talk radio. When hate talk is the language of politics, violence always results.

THE DEATHS in Chicago this summer are another indication of our fraying social fabric. Most of the heat victims were elderly and poor; many lacked the family and community support systems that ensure elderly relatives and neighbors are checked on during such a stressful time.

Public support systems also failed. Insufficient numbers of medical and rescue workers resulted in inadequate responses to emergencies or busy firefighters trying to cope with health problems they were ill-equipped to handle.

Perhaps most distressing were the people who were afraid to go outside or even open their windows for fear of crime. Trapped and isolated, they died from the heat as prisoners in their own homes-both a horrible way to die and a frightening commentary on our relationship to each other.

Unless these social trends can be reversed, the events of Oklahoma City and Chicago could be a portent of our future. Systems are breaking down, social isolation and fear are growing, and our angry divisions increasingly define our public life.

The partisan political warfare going on in Washington only makes matters worse. The Democrats are playing a losing game of damage control while the Republicans continue to slash and burn old social systems, regulations, and safety nets-some of which have been shown to be problematic or inadequate. But the Republicans give no alternative social vision as replacement, and the Democrats seem to have even less vision than them.

While liberals have relied too much on the state for solutions to social problems, conservatives have relied too much on the market. Neither will, of themselves, produce the strategies and resources we need. Those strategies must be community-based, value-centered, and solution-oriented.

New social visions must be constructed from local communities themselves. New partnerships must be formed to include all sectors of the society-families, churches, schools, neighborhood organizations, businesses, and, yes, government on all levels. We must involve everyone, because in that involvement we might recreate a sense of community.

Many call the area in which new answers will emerge the "civil society." Others call it the non-profit sector. It includes the full range of community, family, educational, religious, and civic organizations. Its energy is voluntary and, at its best, very creative.

But for real solutions to emerge from the civil society, two things are necessary. First, every local community must develop strategies that invite people to work together. Second, the necessary resources must be available to do the job. Otherwise, the current Washington talk of "privatizing" and bringing solutions back to local communities will ultimately only be a cover for abandoning the poorest in our midst and balancing the federal budget on the backs of inner-city children.

Government alone cannot now do what must be done. Many of the problems caused by a breakdown of family, community, and values cannot be solved only or best by government action. But "churches and charities" alone cannot possibly solve the enormous social problems confronting us. Rather, local, state, and the federal government can play a critical role in both helping to convene new partnerships and in mobilizing resources. The business community must also be called upon to play a much larger role in making critical resources and skills available for social change.

The religious community can play a crucial leadership role by bringing other groups to the table and offering the necessary moral values needed to confront the depth of the crisis we now face. A change in our social and cultural values-a spiritual task-is now as important as marshaling political will and economic resources.

But it all comes back to our relationships to each other. Oklahoma City and Chicago show us how tenuous those relationships have become. Reweaving the fabric of life that holds us together must become our most important political priority. Nurturing the bonds of family and community is as important as creating new jobs. Community-based economic development will depend upon the formation of better personal and social values as much as the infusion of capital. It's all connected, as are we.

Who can bring us together? Who will fashion solutions at the local level that really work and don't just satisfy powerful interest groups? Who will treat with equal gravity the signs of cultural breakdown and the indicators of systemic social injustice? Who will call for a cease-fire in our cultural wars before they are completely out of control? And who will begin to provide new political leadership in grassroots communities without waiting for Washington to get it right?

Whether Oklahoma City and Chicago become harbingers or wake-up calls depends on us.

SUMMER TRAVELS

We walked down the country road, led by one in our group carrying a cross, on a beautiful summer day in Germany. Children skipped and ran alongside their parents. But ahead were other figures on the road. As we drew closer, we recognized the distinctive look of the Neo-Nazis. It was Midsummer's Night, an important holiday to the Nazi movement.

About a half-mile away, large numbers of the growing German Neo-Nazi movement were gathered for the holiday at their largest training center. A group of courageous German Christians had decided to walk for peace right up to the center. I was in the country to launch the German translation of The Soul of Politics, and these Christians had asked me to march with them and speak at a simple service planned on the site.

As we drew closer, anxious words circulated through our small band of peacemakers. Just before the two groups met, the Neo-Nazis split to pass on either side of us. They then followed us to the training center and gathered around our circle of prayer.

The center was a huge villa bounded by high fences and barbed wire. Many cars were parked inside. We stood outside, next to a huge tract of land complete with obstacle courses, old tires, and a rugged landscape created to be a paramilitary training ground.

Surrounded by menacing faces, we raised a voice for peace and reconciliation to counter the growing specter of hate talk and hate crimes in today's Germany. I was asked to tell stories from American movements for freedom, justice, and peace. People especially wanted to hear words to help them not be afraid. Fortunately, the prayer vigil ended without incident. There was even some dialogue afterward with some of the Nazi youth.

Two nights later, I was sitting with friends in a Turkish restaurant in another part of the country when it was attacked. Young Germans in the street began to beat on the restaurant windows and shout slogans and taunts to those inside. The Turkish owners and some patrons rushed out; a brawl ensued involving dozens of people. Police arrived before anyone was badly hurt, but the level of tension was alarming. Local residents said this is becoming a common occurrence.

Before my book tours in England, Ireland, Scotland, and Germany, I wondered whether people in Europe could make connections to the kinds of problems The Soul of Politics describes for the United States. It became clear that the crisis we face is a global one; the patterns in the West are remarkably similar. In Liverpool, I saw three generations of unemployment. Fourteen drug-related shootings had recently occurred there. Church and community workers were terrified by the number of guns on the street.

I stayed in Glasgow's infamous Easter House housing complex and saw street scenes reminiscent of southern Columbia Heights here in D.C. In Bournemouth, a resort town in the south of England, homeless young people slept under the pier. In Guildford, my musician friend Garth Hewitt sang a moving ballad of a young black architecture student brutally beaten to death by white skin-heads on a London street.

But in Europe too there are many signs of hope. In 11 British cities and seven more German towns, I met many people who want to make a difference. Their questions and struggles are much like our own. They were deeply encouraged by stories of ordinary people around the world who are changing their communities.

In London, church leaders sat at the same table with marginal people in the hope of bridging the gap. At the House of Commons, Christian Members of Parliament from three parties hosted a press conference for the book and talked of the need for a new political vision in Britain.

Several members of the Labor Party are trying to "reclaim the ground" of Christian socialism in the post-Cold War era and reminded me that social concern in Britain was started not by Marxists but by Methodists.

In Germany, I found soup kitchens modeled upon the Catholic Worker and a great German gospel choir (that's right!) led by a black former GI from Los Angeles who stayed to become a blues singer. A very energetic organizing network called "Kairos Europa" is now active across the European continent. And at the German launch of the book, several "value politicians" spoke to the need for a new politics in Germany that transcends the old categories of Left and Right.

One of my most enjoyable evenings was preaching during a creative liturgy called the "Thomas Mass" in Munich. This Mass for "doubters" began in Helsinki and is spreading through Europe, drawing large crowds of people who have never been to church before. Seeing Germans rise to their feet and enthusiastically clap to the local choir singing American gospel music was a delightful experience. (When I quietly suggested to my German translator that they needed a little help in learning how to clap in rhythm, he laughed and replied, "Yes, but we march well!")

In both the UK and Germany, the dynamic influence of women clergy is very evident. Many of the liveliest parishes I saw and heard about are being impacted by a new generation of women in leadership. The face of the church is changing for the better in Europe.

As a result of the monthlong tour, many of the bonds between Sojourners and our European sisters and brothers are stronger than ever. That alone bodes well for the future.

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