The year of 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 1950's and 60's were dashed by the assassinations of, first, Martin Luther King Jr., and then 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 everything began to go wrong in America. I remember my feelings at the time vividly. 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.
Ever since 1968, the door has been closed to real social change in the U.S. Since 1968, we have been wandering in the wilderness. The coming New Year - 2008 - marks 40 years of that wandering, a passage of time I have been pondering as we enter into it.
I taught my last class for the fall semester at Harvard this week. The title of the course was "Faith and Politics: Should They Mix and How?" 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 how 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. I have written before that we now have open political doors to the fundamental issues of social justice both in London, with the election of Gordon Brown, and in Australia, with the recent election of Kevin Rudd. 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. In the U.S.'s election season this time, the operative word is now "change." The Democratic frontrunners 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 wrong direction didn't begin with George W. Bush, but he has certainly demonstrated how absolutely wrong the direction of the U.S. now is.
The people of the U.S. are very unhappy with the direction our nation has taken, and the polling about that is consistent. There will definitely be a snap back after the extreme and disastrous policies of the Bush administration. The Democrats hope the snap back will result in their victory; the Republicans hope they can still retain power by offering a change in direction themselves. But we must hope and work for a snap back that goes much further than either a Democratic or Republican victory. Indeed, whoever your favorite candidate is, he or she will not be able to really change the biggest and most significant issues at stake in the U.S. and the world without a social movement that pushes them to make those changes. Remember that Lyndon Johnson did not become a civil rights leader until Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks made him one. It was a social movement pressing on an open door.
That will be the vision and strategy of Sojourners in this crucial year of 2008 and beyond. We are in the business of building movments, 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. And 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. My new book, out on Jan. 22, profiles an emerging spiritual movement with a social agenda. It's called 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 like poverty, pandemic diseases, climate change, human rights, and war and peace.
During my work on the book this year, the writing, praying, and vocational discernment got all nicely tangled up together. The "book tour," which will take us to many cities in early 2008, may feel more like a series of mini-revivals, and, this spring, we will begin a series of "justice revivals" that will last for many days in cities around the country over the next few years.
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 as we enter the New Year of 2008. But it is a hope and prayer that will require, from all of us, the work of faith.