The year 1968 was very significant in my life, and a decisive one for the nation. It was the year when the hopes borne by the social movements of the 1950s and ’60s were dashed by the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy.
If Robert Kennedy had lived to become president on the inside (as he surely would have) and Martin Luther King Jr. had lived to lead a movement from the outside, the U.S. and the world might be very different today. But the most hopeful political leader of his time and the most important movement leader of the century were both struck down, and 1968 was the turning point when it felt like everything began to go wrong in America.
I vividly remember my feelings at the time. I was a student at Michigan State, actively involved in the civil rights and antiwar movements. King had been the leader of the movements that had captured my imagination and commitment as a young activist and Kennedy was the only politician who won my political trust. I was getting ready to take a break from college to work on his presidential campaign when he was killed, and I remember being devastated by the loss.
Since 1968, it has felt like the door has been closed to real social change in the U.S. Since 1968, we have been wandering in the wilderness. This marks 40 years of that wandering, a passage of time I have been pondering of late.
I regularly teach a course at Harvard titled “Faith and Politics: Should They Mix and How?” Last fall, in the midst of a final class discussion of the central role faith is playing in this election season, a student abruptly asked me a personal question: “How many times have you been arrested?” I thought for a moment and replied, “Twenty-two times.” I told them that’s what happens when social movements confront closed political doors. I said I was willing to do civil disobedience again, if it was called for, but that I was now hoping there might be a significant paradigm shift about to occur. I explained that social change seems to most readily occur when social movements push against open doors. Real social progress seems to require that combination—strong social movements and open political doors.
I believe we may be approaching just such a time. With the election of Gordon Brown in the U.K. and Kevin Rudd in Australia, those countries now have political doors that are open to the fundamental issues of social justice. Both understand the power of social movements and seem to be inviting them to push against the reluctance of political power to make real changes.
British Prime Minister Brown understands that a world with 3 billion people living on less than $2 a day is neither just nor secure. No other current head of state has such a commitment to reverse global inequality.
And Australian Prime Minister Rudd, in the first act of his new government when he took office in February, delivered a speech of apology to the aboriginal people as “Government business, motion number one.” He began: “Today we honor the Indigenous peoples of this land, the oldest continuing cultures in human history. We reflect on their past mistreatment. We reflect in particular on the mistreatment of those who were Stolen Generations—this blemished chapter in our nation’s history. The time has now come for the nation to turn a new page in Australia’s history by righting the wrongs of the past and so moving forward with confidence to the future. ... We apologize especially for the removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families, their communities, and their country. For the pain, suffering, and hurt of these Stolen Generations, their descendants, and for their families left behind, we say sorry.” It was an action for which Australians had worked for years, and it begins to fulfill the hope that he will be a new kind of political leader who seeks to practice moral politics.
In this U.S. election season, the operative word is now “change.” The Democratic front-runners are now mostly debating how real change can best occur, not whether it should. And the Republicans are distancing themselves from their own president, who has led the nation to a place that both alienates and embarrasses most U.S. citizens of both parties. The problem didn’t begin with George W. Bush, but he has certainly demonstrated how absolutely wrong the direction of the U.S. now is.
That change will be the vision and strategy of Sojourners in this crucial year of 2008 and beyond. We are in the business of building movements, not winning elections. This election is vitally important, and we will be working hard to put the most important issues on the agenda. But we are already looking past the election to the kind of organizing and movement-building that will have to be done. The good news is that we see that movement already growing, more that I ever have since the fateful year of 1968.
Everywhere I go, something is happening. I’m writing this from the road on tour with my new book, The Great Awakening: Reviving Faith and Politics in a Post-Religious Right America. The book charts how “great awakenings” in the past have featured a “revival” of faith that also changes society. It describes how we may well be on the verge of another such movement to make dramatic change on issues such as poverty, pandemic diseases, climate change, human rights, and war and peace.
The dramatic changes occurring in many of our faith communities and constituencies, the energy and commitment of a new generation, and the openness of politics for change may indicate the beginning of a new and more hopeful period in the life of this country and the world. It may even be that after 40 years we might finally be ready to come out of the wilderness. That is my hope and prayer for this year of 2008. But it is a hope and prayer that will require, from all of us, the work of faith.
Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners.