Forty Years of Fear: Kent State in Retrospect

Some sociologists now believe that Kent State may have triggered the next forty years of fear-based politics in the United States and catalyzed the growth of radical fundamentalism within Christianity.
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On May 4, 1970, our National Guard opened fire on student anti-war protesters and bystanders at Kent State. Four students died and nine other people were wounded. That was a dark day for our country and the families of all who died and were injured. Some sociologists now believe that Kent State may have triggered the next forty years of fear-based politics in the United States and catalyzed the growth of radical fundamentalism within Christianity.

Certainly there is evidence that the events of that day gave ultra-conservative Christians and their privately held institutions of higher learning a bonfire of fear to fan, and they did so with vigor. Preachers with pulpits full of confused and mourning Americans opened a flood-gate of condemnation against pot-smoking, atheist, radical hippies and all "suspicious acting and looking" people who could conveniently be lumped in with them.

Fast forward to 9/11, and insert Muslims into the sermon text, and you can quickly trace the events of the last four decades as Americans have been subjected to a steady stream of well-funded rhetoric and media messages about all of the people and policies we should fear and judge. Now the ones we are told to fear have names like "repeal Don't Ask, Don't Tell," amnesty and open borders, weapons of mass destruction, gays who want to marry, unwed mothers on welfare, socialists, and the list goes on. Even the mild-mannered Joel Osteen recently referred to gays as "not God's best."

On its surface, the institutionalization of fear by fundamentalist Christian organizations like Focus on the Family and the Institute for Religion and Democracy is hard for me to grasp. I was raised as an evangelical Christian in the South and was always told that the enemy of Christian boldness is fear. Jesus, after all, said, "Fear not!"

And, I understand the economics of church and church-related colleges. I taught at three of them. They have to keep the cash flow coming and the balance of patriarchal power in place. Fear is a great motivator.

I wonder what our nation would be like today if we decided to be bold instead of afraid? Not bold by shooting down dissenting young people in cold blood or threatening to deport vulnerable people, but really bold like Jesus was bold -- willing to confront what we know is hurtful, harmful, and indeed unworthy of the American spirit.

The anniversary of Kent State can help us reflect and change. It is a stark metaphor, as suggested by Jerry Lewis Emeritus Professor of Sociology at Kent State, for our nation's failure to deal effectively with the deep political and social issues that so sharply divide us.

What can we do to help turn our country around? Gandhi, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, and Jesus cultivated a generation of young activists who hadn't been indoctrinated by fear and who had the energy and conviction to nonviolently resist wrong when they saw it. I believe that it is time for boomers with social consciences to cultivate and tangibly support a generation of far-reaching spiritual activists as well. The Metropolitan Community Church's Statements of Vision, Purpose, and Direction, for instance, provide one template for how churches can provide a framework for encouraging this type of activism as part of spiritual formation.

Sociologists tell us that student activism has taken a minor role in social change for the last 40 years due to a confluence of factors around Kent State (as noted in a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article), particularly the fear-based metamorphosis of the institutions in which and by which student lives are formed -- mostly schools and, to be more specific, the fundamentalist faith-based colleges and universities.

Left to their own devices and protected by our courts, these institutions will continue to turn out graduates who believe it is righteous and justified to discriminate against women and gays, immigrants, and people of color. Sunday morning service will continue to be the most segregated hour of the week in America.

I am proud to work at Soulforce with a group of young activists in applying the principles of nonviolent resistance and pressure to these institutions. Those young people are, as my colleague Rev. Steve Sprinkle likes to say, "walking systemic interventions." We need more of them.

For the last four years, Soulforce's young adults have taken an Equality Ride to colleges and universities that have policies and practices that discriminate against LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer) students and faculty. Some schools received them hospitably for dialogue about ideological differences and harmful rules, and some schools had them arrested for trespassing.

These young adults remind me of the radical rabbi who stands at the center of my faith tradition -- Jesus. I think He was right there with all of those young people at Kent State 40 years ago and I think He sits with our Riders on the bus. Let's honor Him and them by supporting young adults who are willing to meet with their peers face to face and talk about tough issues. Perhaps those of us who are older should think about dropping our fears of the "Other" and actually start talking to one another. It may be our best chance of fulfilling our destiny as a nation that really is big enough to include everyone.

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