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Un-Stuck America

Car stuck in the ice
Last winter, I was spinning my wheels. Literally. Our little ’97 Toyota Corolla was trapped in an ice-covered ditch, just outside our house in Washington, DC. No matter how I tried to time it, I just couldn’t get traction; all four wheels spun uselessly on the ice. I was stuck, and I had no idea what to do about it.

It was a bad feeling. The same kind of feeling I have when I think about where we’re at as a country. We’re stuck pretty bad. No matter what we do, the wheels just keep spinning. It’s left vs. right; white vs. black; young vs. old; 1% vs. 99%. Everybody vs. everybody.

We’re immobilized with fear and defensiveness.

This isn’t just political. We’re stuck at a cultural level. Our collective creativity is at a low ebb. Right now, it’s hard to even imagine a future that is different from the past. And, for most of us, the present is just too angst-ridden and painful to live in. We numb ourselves with Netflix and Facebook. We’re waiting for something, though it’s hard to describe just what.

Occupy: Just the Beginning

What happened to us?

Things haven’t always been this way. Back in 2011, we had a sense of forward motion. Something had shaken loose, and there was a broad social movement calling for change throughout the developed world. Inspired by the movements for liberation that we saw erupting in the Arab Spring that same year, it felt like the world really might make a turn for the better.

And in a sense, it did. The conversation around income inequality is alive in the United States in a way it hasn’t been in generations. Our class consciousness has been awakened, with 99% and 1% as universally recognized categories that are routinely used in public discourse. Slowly, belatedly, tentatively, we are beginning to learn how to talk about class in America.

But the Occupy movement was limited in its accomplishments. The conversation moved, but the reality on the ground still hasn’t changed much. For those of us who were hoping for a tectonic shift in our priorities as a society, the past few years have been disappointing. Occupy was more of a foreshock – a taste of things to come – rather than the main event. For those of us who are looking for substantial change in the way our society does business, we’re still waiting for the real transformation.

After a brief period of momentum in 2011, it feels like we’re back spinning our wheels again. The media busily churns out uncritical discussion of the latest political horse races. Many non-profits, after a brief attempt to capitalize on the energy of Occupy, are mostly back in maintenance mode. The US government is entrenched in gridlock, and the political class just seems to be waiting for the 2016 elections to sort out the mess.

Get Moving Again

For those of us who resonated with the Occupy movement, this is a wilderness time. An in-between time. A season that tests our patience and commitment to long-term transformation in our country. How will we use this time of cultural suffocation, the angsty waiting that precedes whatever movement might be coming?

How are we going to get out of this ditch?

I haven’t got an easy answer to that. I don’t think there is an easy answer. The right answer is going to be a hard one. It’s going to involve patient endurance. It’ll involve building real community with others who are seeking concrete change in the here-and-now. It’s about planting seeds, not knowing when, whether, or how they’ll sprout. It’s about continuing to work, even through we’re not sure we’ll ever enjoy the fruits of our labor.

One thing is for sure: We’re not going to get out of this stuckness by waiting passively in front of the screen. All our entertainments and obsessions, workaholism and causes, aren’t going to make this go away. We have the power to transform our lives and communities, but some assembly is required.

That’s something we learned from Occupy.

Prophetic Action

Andrew McLeod and I met several years ago during the early days of the Occupy movement. Occupy DC had just gotten started, and I was working with a few other folks to help pull together an initiative that we were calling Occupy Church. Our goal was to help amplify the prophetic voice of the Christian tradition, bringing biblical witness into confrontation with our present-day principalities and powers.

This led to actions like our delivering a golden calf to Capitol Hill. We invited Congress to repent of their addiction to corporate largesse, and to remember Jesus’ warning that we can’t serve two masters: If we choose to prioritize wealth, we can’t truly love God – or people!

Tending the Horses

In the waiting season where we find ourselves right now, our actions are probably going to look different. For example, today Andrew is working to promote cooperative enterprises that allow communities to develop robust local economies. He’s sowing seeds, laying a framework for the world after the earthquake. Along with many others, he’s helping to build a new world in the shell of the old.

That’s the kind of work I want to be a part of. What does it look like here in my neighborhood? What will it look like in yours?

This November, I attended the annual meeting of Friends Committee on National Legislation, and during one of the meetings I heard someone quote Cecil Hinshaw, an Iowa farmer and Quaker, who apparently said: Someday, people will jump on the bandwagon. Until then, we’ll be tending the horses.

That’s an image for our moment. Things may not feel like they’re moving right now, but the horses still need fed. We are in between euphoric movements right now, but the outcomes of the next big jolt forward are going to depend utterly on the work that we choose to do right now, in the silent space between the headlines.

One thing is for sure: We can’t do this work alone. If the Occupy movement taught us anything, it’s that our voices are amplified when we speak together. Our efforts have greater impact when we cooperate. So, if the car won’t budge, it may be time to go knock on our neighbor’s door and ask for help!

What’s your part in this? What gifts has God given you that you can put to good use right now, despite all the feelings of stuckness? What practices are you engaged in to resist feeling overwhelmed? How do you remember what is really important, and what is specifically yours to do? Where is the community that will accompany you for the long haul?

Video:

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  • It requires a variety of efforts guided by the Spirit. These include community building, prophetic action and others.

    Regarding Occupy, it should be noted that as the Occupy movement was largely burning out, Hurricane Sandy hit. People of faith who had been involved in Occupy in NYC quickly started Occupy Sandy – http://occupysandy.net/, and rapidly organized a system of assistance to those affected by Sandy. Much of that assistance was on the ground before the large, traditionally structured relief groups had much going. Occupy Sandy has remained active ever since, and one of the things it has been doing is helping people organize worker-owned businesses. And they have worked on the political structure, and gotten the City to earmark significant funds for this purpose. They succeeded in creating community which went far beyond the politically active, and are building alternative structures to the traditional capitalist approach. Some traditional social change philosophy talks about the need for “constructive program.” Occupy Sandy is a constructive program outcome of the Occupy movement.

    It should also be noted that the Catholic Worker movement has long joined together constructive program, resistance to the system and alternative community. That combination has proved to have staying power, and has inspired many who have never been part of a CW community. The CW approach now has a counterpart in the Protestant world in the New Monastic communities. The CW and New Monastic communities provide practical help for people in their communities within a different paradigm than the larger society, serve as base communities for social change efforts and provide a vision of an alternative way of life.

    In the prophetic realm, the Plowshares movement has been engaged in prophetic actions at military institutions since 1980. Plowshares actions have been marked by things happening during the actions which seem impossible within the normal frame of thinking, which is an historic attribute of prophetic action. There may not be an obvious impact on the system of militarism, but I believe prophetic actions eventually do result in change. And there’s a real tie to what I wrote above, since a large proportion of those doing the Plowshares actions have been part of CW communities.

    A key is the commitment to being faithful, without that being dependent upon seeing “success” in worldly terms. Being involved in a community in which we encourage one another to grow spiritually and deepen our commitment to pointing to a world in which all creatures and things are reconciled to God is critical. We have to trust that our faithfulness is of value regardless of what we see in the world around us.

  • Diane Benton

    “Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together” Heb 10:25

    “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To
    change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”
    –Buckminster Fuller

    Compliance and conformity are highly valued and pressed upon us in the world. Creativity is easily lost in the midst that.