Once in a while, I find myself stepping back and reflecting here on the very big picture and the very long view. I did that after the 2016 presidential election, and again when I made a commitment to racial equity work. The long-term, big-picture perspective can be both overwhelming and freeing. Committing to something for the long term (such as the rest of my life) can feel overwhelming, but letting go of expecting instant change (in a culture that wants everything now) brings a sense of release and freedom.
In this post, I want to muse on a big-picture cultural shift that I believe is underway in America today. I have been pondering this for a while, but didn’t have the language for it until I was re-reading one of Richard Rohr’s older books, Jesus’ Plan for a New World. In it, he describes the various types of societies that scholars have identified as existing through the centuries. (He notes that Jesus’ society was agrarian, and that Jesus was seeking to overturn his social order in significant ways, but that’s not the focus of my reflections today.)
The cultural shift that I think is happening in America is from economic (based on the manipulation of money) to political (based on the manipulation of power). I first noticed this (though I could not name it) when I kept reading about so many Americans who were supporting Donald Trump even when it didn’t align with their best economic interests. Having been raised in an economically based culture, I couldn’t imagine supporting a candidate for political office who wasn’t going to improve your lot in life. But, as I have since realized, those who did so had made the cultural shift from economics to political power.
Unlike the America of a century ago, or even a few decades ago, most people are voting and advocating and arguing based on issues of power. For many, economic concerns have become secondary. That’s not true for many “progressive” Christians I know, especially those engaged with movements like the Poor People’s Campaign, which declares the intent of “building a movement to overcome systemic racism, poverty, ecological devastation and the war economy.”
For me, the recognition of this cultural shift is clearly tied into my racial equity work. Whites who deny the existence of racism in this country, and those political leaders who are trying to curtail voting rights, are putting issues of power over economics. As America becomes more diverse, they feel their power base is threatened and will do whatever is necessary to protect it—even at an economic cost to themselves. Gone is that ethos of supporting each other. In that regard, the togetherness we experienced in America after 9/11 (just twenty short years ago) seems to have completely disappeared. Even an event that has taken many more lives (the COVID-19 pandemic) has only pushed us farther apart—because we are no longer focused on what’s in our economic best interest, but on squabbling for what we believe to be limited power.
Is there hope? I hope so. I do think that we need to be creative in our responses. There’s a lot of lauding the “summer of direct action” and I hope it’s successful, but I’m not sure the targeted political leaders care anymore about being shamed and guilted into doing something. They aren’t concerned with their reputation amongst the people they are supposed to represent. They only seem to care about consolidating and keeping more power.
So what does it mean to be creative? I welcome your ideas. I welcome your thoughts on this idea of a cultural shift too. What do you notice when you step back and think about what has changed in your society over the course of your life?