The Long Road to Solidarity
Two existential forces defined daily life in the USA when I was growing up: worship attendance and nuclear weapons. Churches were everywhere in my neighborhood – three within walking distance, along with a Reform Jewish temple and the Masonic lodge. People had a stake in these very visible outposts of meaning and ethics.
The nuclear threat was everywhere too. All of America felt it, of course, but our neighborhood could hear it and see it daily. At the US Air Force base across the river from my Louisiana town, B-52s roared off regularly into the Cold War skies, carrying their nuclear payloads to the four winds.
These two facts of our lives – nukes and religion – were fixed and unquestioned. And they acutely contradicted each other. The many congregations – their steeples, regular services, and exciting bustle – announced the presence of God. Memories of victory over Nazi fascism were still vivid. Much of America felt in sync with divine providence. A covenant with the Lord was in force. Yet the menace of the hydrogen bomb suggested something else entirely. We now had godlike power – a million Nagasakis – to undo what only God had made. We could destroy creation and ourselves, any minute now.
The dread contradiction – never discussed – grinded on and on.
Staring at the Sky
Even in grade school, we kids felt the weight of this, and we tried to resolve it by gazing at the sky. During school recess, amid kickball and jungle gym, many of us would glance up at the racing clouds and muse: News of the end of the world will arrive right there, either in nuclear fire or the coming of Jesus. The Book of Revelation and the Russians seemed to be running neck and neck.
The adults, not given to skyward ponderings, relied on a third force to ease the stressful paradox – prosperity. Good jobs and comfortable routine were reassuring in every spiritual sense. God was blessing us. Surely God wouldn’t allow us to blow it all up. The Lord’s hand would stay the missiles, we prayed.
Prosperity confirmed our superpower status, emboldened our religious instincts, and lent confidence to the national psyche. It shored up the stability of every establishment of power, local and national.
It also caused new magnitudes of hubris and tragedy.
A Sacred Order?
Abroad, America went to Vietnam because it was our job to be vigilant against communism everywhere. At home, that vigilance took a different turn: We were reluctant to extend prosperity to others, notably African Americans, because the prosperous “we” were mostly white and always had been. Many were determined to keep this sacred order intact.
Presiding at the time of these difficult dramas was the Protestant establishment. It stood for centrist politics, mild reform, emotional restraint, and education. It had been a great numerical baby- efboom success after World War II. The arrangement seemed touched by God. Surely it would continue indefinitely.
This long stretch of years offered the purveyors of the gospel a crucial opportunity, the chance to conduct an extended teaching moment for a new kind of solidarity, if they dared. Such a vision of unity would see the Risen Christ in all people, and preach from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and other fearless scriptural epiphanies of empathy. It would reject the idols of race and status. It would convert hearts on behalf of a solidarity larger than the suburbs, more ambitious than nationalism. A few congregations, at least, did teach this.
The suburban mainline Protestant church I grew up with was a worthy exemplar of a certain kind of postwar rectitude and achievement. In a time of obsession with the USSR, our church leaders were even-tempered. Sermons focused on the Golden Rule, not Armageddon. The congregation was municipally minded. Members were mostly from the managerial echelons of local businesses or government or the air base.
But like thousands of others, my church left something unchallenged: white hierarchy. Officially, we placed our security in Jesus. But in an unspoken way our confidence also relied on the assumption that God blessed our color, our prosperity, even perhaps our atom-bomb ingenuity. A larger portrait of human solidarity was politely passed over.
By now, prosperity is an embattled and fragile thing, elusive, out of balance, dependent on distant forces of globalization that no one can predict or control. Millions of Americans feel betrayed by an economic system that was supposed to produce dividends for everyone. That’s what the unofficial social contract preached: The American dream gave everyone a chance, but it required a team effort based on human-scale fairness, mutual respect, a balance of economic power.
In the 1960s, the average ratio of CEO compensation to worker pay was about 20-1. Today it reaches 300-1 or higher. Something went wrong. Inhuman asymmetries were at work, the cold math of the modern market. Elites cast off an old sense of public responsibility. Digital technology empowered individualism, yet it led to an unexpected result: Social trust declined and tribal identities intensified. The social contract was breaking.
A fund of civil and spiritual good will that we should have been adding to over the decades wasn’t there to draw on now. This good will might have been used to ease class distrust, sectional suspicions, and racial conflict. It would have helped prepare us better for the unstoppable pluralism and multiethnic facts of contemporary society, the real America. The 50 states honored the late Dr. King with a national holiday but not a deep commitment to King’s themes around a beloved community.
American Christianity meanwhile lost weekly churchgoers. The Protestant establishment diminished. So did gospel progressivism alongside it. Two generations after King’s death, we face a political climate disfigured by mob theatrics, rhetorical violence, and plutocratic might.
The eclipse of the contract – post-industrial, post-Seinfeld, post-Great Recession, post-Protestant – wasn’t sudden. By the early 1990s, soon after the Cold War ended and US power was uncontested, commentators were alarmed to note new waves of youthful nihilism, public petulance, a shortage of reliable adults.
Gratitude and Grandeur
In The Sibling Society (1996), Robert Bly worried that habits of gratitude were giving way to envy. Sacred imagination was weakening. Powerful hierarchies had done damage to individuals over the centuries – their collapse was inevitable – but something was missing in the aftermath, he argued. Human beings long for a sense of “vertical attention,” transcendence, grandeur. For some 2,000 years, spiritual grandeur was largely tied up with hierarchy – institutional structures of political and church power. If hierarchies are left behind or reconceived, spiritual codes must be reimagined too.
“Vertical attention,” Bly wrote, “implies the ability, or at least the longing, to look downward; or the ability to look upward, at the stars, at the energies beyond the stars, at angels.”1
Also: “The Native American view that whenever one makes a decision, one should think of its effect down to the seventh generation, is a vertical thought. The opposite of that would be a decision based on short-term profits, which often means refusing to invest in the plant or in the people who work in the plant. In vertical thought there is no distinction between men and women; one becomes an elder when one learns to think vertically.”2
What we’ve often seen instead are pockets of intense political yearning for the restoration of a Christian or Islamic or Jewish past or a utopian dream of the techno future. The result: The present itself is disdained. Inattention to the present made it easier to ignore dire trends in actual political life – the scale of personal debt and fragility of the markets, the overreach of our military ambitions, the depths of racial inequality, a boastful contempt for pragmatic governance.
The power of contemporary liberty, as Bly and others noticed, enhanced the individual’s power to withdraw from relationships. With the wall-to-wall ascendancy of social media comes the temptation to dwell in alternative realities, including armed fantasies of revenge.
Before his death in 1987, James Baldwin wrote much about the possibilities of a new solidarity but also warned against the poisons of self-deception. He said we’d get nowhere until we first conquer our own emotional evasions around race and power. Perhaps true egalitarianism was a fraud, he suggested. Maybe it was too hard to believe in: To feel good about themselves, people need to keep someone nearby who is worse off. White America, for instance, has never answered why it was so important to feel superior to black Americans. When African Americans stopped believing what whites were saying about them, many whites entered a time of spiritual bewilderment. Baldwin said this 50 years ago.
Baldwin grew up in Harlem and for a time was a teenage Pentecostal preacher. He would soon reject the faith and move – flee – to Europe to escape the brutality of American racism. But a fierce biblical eloquence never left him. Neither did a vision of love and redemption, a tenderness that managed to whisper: We must not give up on each other.
Baldwin struggled to hope that Christian churches could move beyond racism and jingoism and prove to be a humanizing beacon for more and more people. He put it starkly in The Fire Next Time (1963): “If the concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of Him.”3
This wasn’t easy for a society to hear. Baldwin argued that love is greater than skin color, and humanity is more important than race. This would require challenging ancient sociological arrangements and idols of convenience, baggage from olden days – not only racial separation but the subordination of women and the rejection of LGBTQ dignity.
Churches can’t run the political show, not in the US. But the body politic today needs balm and healing despite all the tough talk and roar of the 24/7 engines of division. Christian faith remains a source of salt and light. But the present capture and retailing of Christian identity – making it synonymous in the public mind with deregulation, traditional gender roles, and biblical apocalypse – will have to give way to a bigger circle of care, some larger embrace.
We’ll have to become fluent enough again to speak to vast and opposing sectors and subsets of culture beyond the church – to deteriorating neighborhoods, intellectual elites, football fans, mavens of the dance floor, operatives of the political opposition. There’s a lot of mutual suspicion to overcome.
New Public Faith
A revised public faith might have to identify far more strongly with global currents of nuclear arms reduction and earth care, step up the fight against the roots of terrorism, and speak up for fair economic policies at home. Maybe a new social gospel, a vivid beckoning of the Kingdom of God, will find its moment, just as the old social gospel gave moral heft to bold reforms in its day: the New Deal, the Marshall Plan, the civil rights movement.
Such kingdom belief will force us to face the truth about ourselves and grant us a new freedom to greet each other with grace. Spiritual need and propulsion will stir more and more people to seek divine truth as “larger, freer, and more loving.” The current moment, moving irritably toward everyone- for-himself, isn’t sustainable. A new spiritual politics will find salvation not in the past but the usable future.
There’s a little book of meditations that I keep handy. Always We Begin Again by John McQuiston II is a restatement of sixth-century Benedictine wisdom and sensibility.
“When we rise from sleep let us rise for the joy of the true Work that we will be about this day,” he writes, “and considerably cheer one another on.”4
That’s something I don’t hear much these days: Let us considerably cheer one another on. We might wonder why this is so hard to do. But something more urgent presses in: the need to defy conditions and dare to take a new step. McQuiston’s book declares what the church undergirds and the heart confirms:
“Each day carries the potential to bring the experience of heaven; have the courage to expect good from it. Be gentle with this life, and use the light of life to live fully in your time.”5
Ray Waddle is editor of Reflections. His books include Undistorted God (Abingdon, 2014) and Against the Grain: Unconventional Wisdom from Ecclesiastes (Upper Room, 2005).
- Robert Bly, The Sibling Society (Addison-Wesley, 1996), p. 213.
- Bly, p. 211.
- James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (Vintage International, 1963), p. 47.
- John McQuiston II, Always We Begin Again (Morehouse, 1996, revised edition 2011), p. 20.
- McQuiston, p. 20.