The Messiah is Not Coming

A preacher’s offhand mention of the work-hard-and-be-rewarded economy as “a thing that is passing away” got me to thinking of all of the other things that are passing away. Allow me to catalog them:

1. related to the preacher’s point, a large and stable middle class flanked by much smaller lower and upper classes: we are morphing rapidly into a society of elites and drones without a middle that isn’t being perpetually downsized and drone-ized in both subtle and unsubtle ways;

2. political life as we knew it when there was a stable middle;

3. civic leadership as we knew it back when leaders could make coherent appeals to a stable middle;

4. religious life as we knew it in relation to a stable middle.

Each of these devolutions requires a bit of amplification, apart from the first. That one is plain for all to see in the scary numbers given out by the Census Bureau earlier this month: big jumps in the number of Americans losing compensated work for working poverty or worse, and concomitant big jumps in the number of people losing health care coverage. The thing is—and labor market specialists all concur—these blows are no longer cyclical phenomena that will be reversed once “the economy” really starts humming. “The economy,” in the way that mainstream economists gauge it, and the economic well-being of everyday people has parted company for good.

Political life: Here the rapid evaporation of the middle produces grave disfigurations. The Tea Party phenomenon is just one example. As the anxious middle moves toward the fringe, the despairing new poor drop out altogether, while the angry rich fight for their pelf, in part by creating a whole new underground political strike force.

In their important new book, Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson demonstrate convincingly that Devolution # 1 is actually caused in many ways by Devolution #2: i.e., a wealth-dominated politics greatly accelerates widening inequality and does not simply flow from the “natural” accumulation of wealth at the top. This is the vicious circle we could see coming, but now it is clearly here. We could, if we like, choose to celebrate a progressive victory this month, as parts of the new health care law go into effect. But if we are sober, we will also take careful note of the non serviam issued by the big insurers that are simply not going to write new policies for kids who might be sick, etc. And this is but a minor skirmish within a well-financed global war to undermine health equity and social equity at every turn.

The Left seems quite powerless to engage this money-saturated political arena, and that is partly because the old model of civic leadership no longer applies. The paradigm that still governs much of the Left’s thinking surely counts among things that are passing away faster than the ice sheets of Antarctica. That paradigm holds that a leader is someone with a brilliant mind and a golden voice who stands up in front of the crowd, states the task at hand, charges the crowd to do it, and then leads the crowd into glorious battle. But what if the presumed “audience” for the leader is stressed, distracted, disenchanted, and thoroughly alienated from the old notion that any leader is trustworthy? What if that quiddity we used to understand as civic capital has melted away completely?

I doubt that the heroic model of leadership was ever very adequate for a healthy democratic society, and now it fails us utterly. Civic leadership during our particular End Times means entering into real common-ground conversation with our neighbors. Entering with one’s own ideas intact and with respect for the accepted protocols that allow real conversation to take place—but not presuming to enter at some kind of superior level.

Not long ago I helped lead a graduate seminar in leadership in which I challenged the old idea of the heroic leader and messianic deliverer; an idea that has deep roots in all three Abrahamic faith traditions. Not one person in that seminar room—not even the white males who were present—had anything good thing to say about the old model. Everyone agreed that we could do better by listening to each other, trusting each other, and finding new paths together.

And this gets us to the main End Times challenge for religious leadership. Congregational life in the United States (in all denominations and faith traditions) generally presupposes the existence of middle-class families as primary stakeholders. There are other models, of course: congregations as communities of resistance among the poor, and congregations as communities of self-congratulation and spiritual uplift among the rich. But middle-class congregations were the norm, and middle-class congregations are having a horrendous time coming to terms with the new reality of congregants who can no longer support the institution financially and who may even start disappearing—literally—because of the intense status-loss shame they have experienced.

Please say that you heard it here first: those congregations that learn how to minister effectively to the people experiencing this shame will survive and even thrive in the new apocalyptic landscape. And those preachers who have the guts and the clarity to explain how the old forms and verities are rapidly passing away—and why—will be worthy heirs of a still-vital prophetic tradition: albeit one that has been chastened and stripped of all messianic expectations.