by Bernice McCann
It has been three years now since the Millennial generation, mainly, woke up the world by publicly exposing the stranglehold that corporations and big money have around the poor, the environment, and the economy—and their pervasive, destructive influence on all American life. The young people undauntedly defied all authority by calling Wall Street to account for its abandonment of the common good. There often are persistent whispers that Occupy had its day—however, this could not be further from the truth. The spirit of Occupy has taken a permanent foothold in America. As the younger generation pieced together the ravenous toll the money changers have had on the empire, they also forged an educated, loving, indelible bond among themselves, both in America and countries abroad, and they have stalwartly begun to set aright the ship which attempts over and over to sail through this upside-down world as if nothing is wrong. This generation will not comply with old formulas while they adjust to business as usual. They are the first generation to galvanize the necessary change towards a more egalitarian society, perhaps because their student loans and the economy spiraled so out of control they were one of the groups who were hit hardest.
The surprising impact this has had encompasses people all across the country and the world, for they vehemently work toward not only a more just nation but a more just world. Their numbers were seen recently in the great climate march, where the concern was the development of respect for all creation. The value of the digital age in organizing cannot be underestimated.
For some, the spark for the necessity of a radical spirituality has been on fire ever since Occupy—a spirituality that encompasses those aspects of humanity, which aid in the development of strong minds, strong egos, strong communities, and most importantly inclusivity and community. They are eager for threads of wisdom they can glean from their elders so they can move forward in a new direction, recognizing the present economic paradigm is part of the problem. They are also keenly aware, however, that they are forging uncharted territory. They are quite clear that we have to start from the bottom and find new ways to love one another in a manner that includes all people. Unquestionably, all the structured religions have failed on this point, and clearly the governmental structures are broken.
However, most know not to throw the water out without saving the baby. Anyone can read the great spiritual classics, and many of the Millennials that I know have a deep sense of spiritual matters and a driving activism. Thomas Merton eventually recognized that contemplation without active engagement in our inner cities fell short of the goal. As he developed a vocabulary from pacifism to gospel nonviolence, his peers locked on and a voracious spirit of active nonviolence rose to the fore. This was actualized by Dan Berrigan and a legion of young Catholics and Jews who, like Egal Rodenko from the War Resisters League, marshaled the troops leading them away from the war mentality, giving them other options.
The Millennials are keenly aware that they are not the source of an unquenchable urge to move forward for a greater good. Their task, however, encompasses far more than taking on the local demonic giant in the inner cities or a specific war. Community structures have failed them because they were not built on the first commandment: Love your neighbor as yourself. When Occupy was going on, I was immediately struck by the biblical overtones of Jesus and his anger finally erupting in the temple to throw the moneychangers out. Just as this was the first public expression of Jesus towards the establishment, so too Occupiers are feeling that same drive to dismantle an system which does not include all. As a practicing Catholic, I can only take their side, and I must encourage them to go forward in every new way.
A clear result of the negative impact that our present structures in our government and our churches is that most of the young black and Hispanic youth in this country have been left out. The Millennials who realize this are pursuing a more just system. This is a particularly hard task as they must become self-aware of their privileged status and recognize that much of their benefits have been built on the evil of slavery. The impact continues to this day.
They have relentlessly pursued their hopes for a better world—one that is chosen by adherence to higher principles, not submission to principalities. Rather than relying on a world being run by money and war and obsession with overwork, they have chosen to act out of love and compassion for the struggling people of the world who they see are being crushed by greed and an economy that has failed its people.
At the Synod on the Family, Pope Francis has recognized these points of life and light and has joined his voice to the growing sea of activists who are reaching out across all cultural borders world wide to recognize our common suffering as they seek to change the tide of pessimism, complacency, and despair. This refusal to believe that things must remain the same has been actualized already in countless positive actions which collectively are defining a new spiritual awakening.
While the news channels across the country continue to spin their monotonous drone about wars, battle readiness, massive military spending, deficit spending, and nuclear-armament building, the groundswell among Millennials and peace organizations that have evolved from all world religions is heading in a far different direction. These voices for peace are mobilizing across the globe over through the Internet. But let’s talk about the most recent and pressing scenario in this country—the legacy of racism, the distressing stalemate in Ferguson, Missouri.
The large group of activists I have spoken with, many from across the country, who have been on the ground in Ferguson, are clear on the root causes of this seemingly intractable situation. The community is calling for the indictment of Officer Wilson. From the community’s viewpoint the line has been drawn, and it is clear that there will be more violence in part due to the inability of the police department to listen and grasp the intricate details of what has led to the resistance in the first place. This is the necessary continuation of the civil rights movement, which by no means ended with marches in the streets in the 1960s. Today we have experienced a new more devious and systemic racism that has resulted in the crucifixion of the black males in the inner city. The racially segregated community in Ferguson, with high poverty and unemployment, poor student achievement in overwhelmingly black schools, oppressive policing, abandoned homes, and community powerlessness, has yet to give up hope of a better America where all are treated fairly. At the heart of this movement is the deep love black mothers have for their sons who have been crippled by systemic racism while everyone in America is scrambling to keep up with the economic divide.
Mass incarceration is the answer, say the police. This archaic form of thinking has resulted in a country whose greatest value, freedom for all, has been defined as freedom for some if you do things our way. Did it never occur to anyone that doing things our way has created a giant mesh of institutionalized racism which continues to permeate the entire country? The issues in Ferguson are a microcosm of the entire country, which must begin to listen to the teachers and spiritual leaders who have been raising the alarm continually while white America appears to dismiss the content of their words. The problem has already been clearly spelled out by people like Michelle Alexander, Cornel West, the Rev. Sekou, and a litany of other activists across the country who understand what needs to change and have spoken profusely on the issue. So why are our government and people in power not listening?
Understanding the root causes would go a long way toward solving the problem. It is not an intractable situation. Currently, there is a lack of meaningful choices for the black community in Ferguson. We have, as a nation, the capacity for changing that. There are models throughout the country that can be cited as examples of how to build viable communities and to provide more choices.
The problems that we all share in this country will not go away by using the same tactics that caused the problems in the first place. The police, for instance, must reach out to the plethora of groups well versed in applying nonviolent principles and procedures to conflict resolution. This should be the primary task in Ferguson at the moment. There are people working within the community night and day doing this. They are doing their part. They are frustrated within the community and have, for the past 90 days, talked through their frustration.
This is not rocket science. There are definite changes that must be made in Ferguson and throughout the country. We continue to make mistakes around massive racial inequalities but can we move toward taking concrete positive steps to solve the problems together. I see the police and many in the white communities as culpable here because of their intransigent negativism. There have been very successful inner city community models despite the naysayers. The New Settlement Community Campus in the Bronx, New York, has already developed a viable, working model. Why isn’t this being used throughout the country? Where are the plans for more daycare facilities, community centers with real options for the youth, educational facilities that include swimming, dance studios and medical services? Where are the plans for developing better Fergusons, and who is making those plans? Continued reliance on old government, church, and military structures ripe with racism will get us nowhere. But to plug into the hundreds of thousands of Millennials and community organizers around the country might help.