I attend Union Theological Seminary. It’s one of – if not the most – liberal seminaries in the country. Here, the father of Black Liberation Theology, James Cone, and more recently, Cornell West, teach students the importance of fighting for the voiceless and challenging systems of oppression. We are girded for the future with the thoughts and theology of Reinhold Neibuhr, Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X, and countless others. The study of struggle and overcoming said struggle is our bread and butter.
Trouble is, we have plenty of struggle these days, but not nearly as much overcoming. It would be naïve to say that the struggles we face today are worse than those in the past. The French had it pretty tough in Early America, as did the Native Americans, and those involved with the Civil Rights movement. Today, there is a push to change the economic system, to re-distribute wealth and create a more equitable society.
It’s tricky to say such things without sounding like a Marxist, a word that will probably be forever dirty thanks to the McCarthy era. To be sincere about creating an equitable society we must take into account what we are standing up against. America is built upon the Protestant Work Ethic. You deserve what you get and you get what you deserve. It’s hard to tell people to be more charitable when charity is supposed to come at the giver’s leisure. Recreating an economic system requires a complete shift in social mores and the pretenses we all hold. That’s not something you can really knock out in an afternoon.
As we look at the monumental tasks we face today, it easy to become overwhelmed. It’s easy to feel like Sisyphus, staring up the long road we are destined to walk. Will we even make it to the top of the hill before the stone rolls back down? Will this be the time that the stone decides to stay at the top? Are we always destined to chase the stone of struggle back down the hill only to discover that what we left at the top has morphed into something new on the way back down?
The answer is probably yes and it can be depressing as hell.
We look to MLK for inspiration at times like these. But if we’re looking for quick inspiration and an easy solution we may be shocked to learn that it took Civil Rights Activists years to desegregate the buses in Birmingham. The Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act came nearly ten years after the struggle began. The people in the Civil Rights movement were dedicated and organized. They understood the problems and created practical solutions to overcome them.
In this I find inspiration and I find hope. For over ten years a group of people fought diligently to change the world. They radically altered the public narrative by refusing to cave in. They attacked the situation from the top-down as well as from the bottom-up. They nurtured the grassroots so that when RFK came South, he walked through fields of hope rather than acres of desolation.
As we move forward in the struggle for a more equitable economy, it does us well to remember that we are not the first to watch the stone fall back down the hill. It does us well to remember that the road is long and full of obstacles. Most importantly, though, it does us well to remember that success has been found before and that it will be found again.