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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?

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Related Posts:

The Ministry of Occupy Wall Street

Getting Ready for the Next Occupy