How odd it is to see so much media attention this week to what was happening in our country half a century ago. I’m so old that what others are treating as history I still think of as current events. I was in college when JFK was killed (and, yes, I know exactly where I was at the moment I heard the news). I was in grad school when Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered (and, yes, I know precisely when and how I heard the news). The Cuban missile crisis scared us and gave us great relief when it was resolved. The war in Viet Nam during those years was an ominous storm cloud on the horizon. And there was a great awareness that we were just a century beyond the Civil War.
I well remember the awesome sense of hope inspired by Kennedy, especially among college students. And I know that America has not yet recovered from his death because, to a large degree, it was the death of optimism for a whole generation. Nixon later added a great many nails to the coffin of hope in America.
And I remember watching the civil rights movement and being aware that a sleeping giant was being awakened. I knew that the “Negro” (the most polite term available in those days) was never again going to submit to the gross indignities and injustices of American racism. I wondered then and still wonder today why racism and its crude, primitive hatred and fear of another race, could have so much power. I look at the films of marches for justice in the American south and notice the few white faces marching among the Blacks. I’m sorry I lacked the vision and the courage to march with them.
During all that, I was agonizing over a broken engagement and trying very hard to learn to live as a Christian, having come to faith in the summer of 1962. I established a Christian fellowship on my college campus and had public debates with a sociology professor who wanted us kicked off campus. (The group is still flourishing on that campus.)
Only now, with the time for reflection which retirement allows me, am I realizing what tumultuous times those were. I think I was overwhelmed and numbed at the time by the number and immensity of the crises of the day.
Now, half a century later, I am less naive about racism, knowing that for a great many people, hatred is simply the easiest escape from responsible maturity. I am aware that national and international leaders are frail human beings like the rest of us. My pity for them has grown, though my respect has not. . .except for Abraham Lincoln. He bore an incredible load, led to a costly but real victory for the idea of democracy, and — most importantly — shaped the meaning of the War and of the Nation which emerged from it. (It saddens me deeply to see the Tea Party trying so hard to undo the fruit of that War and return us to an illusory “golden age” of agrarian America.)
The deepest certainty I have gained over the decades is that the Lord is faithful. I do not believe in the greatness of humankind. After all, the 20th century saw our most amazing achievements. . .including our new skills at killing millions and millions and millions of fellow human beings. We have cause for deep humility before God and very deep gratitude that He has protected us from destroying ourselves completely. Thank you, my Lord. . .