Saturday, April 18, 2009

On the Sidelines

In her insightful new book “The Breakthrough”, journalist Gwen Ifill turns the spotlight on four remarkable African Americans: a congressman, a mayor (of the city where I grew up), a governor, and the President of the United States.  It is a political narrative with a recurring theme – the shift from the “Moses” to the “Joshua” generation.  Her principal subjects are beneficiaries of the civil rights movement; all were too young to have participated in it.  They are of Harvard and Yale not of Howard and Morehouse.  With some key Moses generation players still on or near the stage, the transition has not always been easy.  Some have tried to label these new generation leaders “post-racial”.  Of course that’s at one simplistic and impossible.  Race may play a different role, but it still hangs over them and us.  That said, what Artur Davis, Corey Booker, Deval Patrick and Barack Obama have in common is that they are speaking to and for a much broader audience with more comprehensive purpose.  The only post racial thing about it may be that they are pulling their audacity (as Obama has called it) off, in no small part because the larger generation of which they are a part has moved on as well.

It is impossible to think about the civil rights movement without the central role played in it by clergy, which in part accounts for the Biblical Moses-Joshua leadership metaphor.  In his final days, Martin Luther King, Jr. presciently declared, as did Moses, “I see the Promised Land, …I may not get there with you”.  So in thinking about Ifill’s exploration of generational shift, I can’t help but considering whether there is an analogy in religious leadership, a Moses and Joshua generation.  There is, but it has taken a very different turn.  The Moses generation of Martin King was deeply engaged in the world beyond the pulpit, and not only in civil rights.  King, and many of his Christian and Jewish colleagues were equally vocal about the Viet Nam war.  They were concerned about both injustice and peace.  Ironically, just as the societal engagement of the Black Joshua generation has expanded beyond the civil rights struggle, the vistas of the Joshua religious leadership have contracted, sometimes to what amounts to effectual disengagement.  Coming off decades in which religion played such a high profile, some would say heavy handed, role in the body politic that may seem an outlandish statement.  Let me explain.

King and his fellow activist clergy came to the civil rights movement as religious leaders.  They were specifically moved by their faith and routinely peppered their speeches with the language of the Bible and other religious writings.  They came out of religion but not to impose their specific religious doctrine on anyone else.  Their underlying message may have been rooted in their beliefs, but it was unmistakably universal.  King’s message could be uttered by Christians, Jews and Muslims or, for that matter, atheists with equal vigor and intent, and it was.  In contrast, the high profile religious leaders who became engaged “with society” in the Joshua generation did so with the intent of imposing their parochial beliefs on everyone else.  Their agenda was not achieving a unity of purpose around universal ideals but promoting laws and practices that would conform to their ideology.  By definition, their goals could not be universally embraced because they aren’t universal.  That is a profound difference.  Martin King used his civil rights won moral megaphone to oppose the Viet Nam war, but would never have used his position, as did Rick Warren, to lobby for Proposition 8, imposing his specifically religious view of marriage on everyone else.

The Moses generation of clergy used their pulpits to turn their congregation’s faces and minds outward.  Activism, such as it is in the Joshua pulpits, turns inward.  Today’s clergy are largely focused on the parochial to the degree that it’s hard to think of any religious leader across all denominations that is playing the universal role of a King, a William Sloane Coffin or an Abraham Joshua Heschel.  Aside from those seeking to impose their parochial agenda on all of us, religious leaders have moved to the sidelines.  They may have personal opinions on the broader issues that face our society, many of which have distinct moral implications.  They may sometimes speak of them within the confines of their sanctuaries, but they have no significant voice in the public square.  It took a New Yorker journalist to both expose and then to express moral outrage about Abu Ghraib.  The religious community remained relatively silent.  Imagine if that had happened when King and the Moses generation of religious leaders were on the scene.

Religion is losing followers and its response is to turn inward and focus on communicating its values and traditions to the immediately present and accounted for within its walls.  It sees survival in the parochial and, in doing so, has lost its universal voice.  Ifill’s subjects have all faced charges that they are insufficiently Black, as if opening to the world threatened their identity.  Perhaps today’s religious leaders fear attention to the outside, the universal, threatens their faith’s identity.  It sees the political Joshua generation of the Black Americans as one that is losing its identity by melding into the larger world of common ground, of why we are alike not why we are different.  Perhaps the religious Joshua generation believes it can’t afford that path, but society and religion itself has lost something from their disengagement.  Insularity feeds on itself, and religion is likely to pay a high price for its retreat from common concern.  The prophets would be dismayed.

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