I was in Jr. high school when Kurt Cobain's raspy, almost incomprehensible voice exploded into the mainstream on Nirvana's Smells Like Teen Spirit. From the time the music video aired on MTV (MTV showed music videos in those days) to the day Kurt--our generation's Jimmy Hendrix--committed suicide, his voice and his words resonated deeply in a generation severely lacking a "Where were you when . . .?" moment.
"Here we are now, entertain us
I feel stupid and contagious
Here we are now, entertain us"
Those words, summaries of the hollow social experience of the 1980s and predictive of the socially lethargic and directionless spirit of the 1990s, said it all: "We are here--entertain us. We have nothing else to do. We have nothing to sing about, nothing important enough to protest, no reason to occupy the public space that our forbearers and leaders fought to keep open.
Please, come on, sing a song. Do a dance. Make a stupid cat video and upload it to YouTube. Make a sex tape so we can make you a celebrity. Hack a celebrity's phone so we can see her naked. Anything, please, I am so bored. I feel stupid. I don't know what to believe in, much less how to believe in it. What is there to believe in? Entertain me long enough to make me forget I am here." Incidentally, one could probably make a different, but similar case for Jay Z's Big Pimpin...
Ten years later, the "Where were you when . . .?" moment arrived in the form of the worst attack on American soil in our history. None of us who were old enough to recall the various images from that day will ever forget where we were and what we were doing when those towers crumbled to the ground. It was shocking, transcendent, incomprehensible. And maybe the only thing equivalent to its brutal and surprising nature was the decade that followed.
Ten years from "Here we are now, entertain us/I feel stupid and contagious/Here we are now, entertain us" to 9/11, and then another ten to where we stand today. Since that generation defining moment, we have experienced two world wars, the opening of Guantanamo Bay, the worst worldwide economic crisis since the Depression, the biggest government bailout in our nation's history, and finally, the Arab Spring.
So, what's the point? Over the last three weeks the public space that had been vacated by a generation and a half of young people has been re-occupied. The 99% of Americans movement (or Occupy Wall Street), a movement that indeed spans generations, racial divisions, socioeconomic levels, and social concerns, has gone from what the media considered a laughable protest by radical left-wing, pot-smoking hippies, to what the author Naomi Klein now considers the "most important thing in the world."
And, in that three weeks I want to suggest that perhaps a new song--one more akin to a spiritual cry for justice, rather than a guttural grunge anthem--has begun to been sung. Instead of, "here we are now, entertain us," the chorus beckons for a equality and democracy. Instead of languishing behind Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and a smartphone; Americans in all the major cities and many smaller ones as well have begun to sing about not allowing corporations to ruin lives, about cooperation, and about basic human rights. Instead of an expression of apathy and meaninglessness, something closer to a spiritual is being sung by Americans who are fed up enough with a broken economic system and derelict bipartisan government culture to step out from behind the curtain of their respective computer, television, and tablet screens in order to occupy public spaces. Despite the important role of social media in the whole process, there is a recognition that sometimes in order to send a message, you have to do it with your presence rather than by clicking "send" or making a snide remark on a blog or video post.
Now boldly and perhaps prematurely, I have to admit: this kind of movement reminds of Kingdom-of-God type stuff. This type of reaction recalls the social Gospel--the Gospel predicated on justice, equality, and most of all, a concern for others. It recalls the Golden Rule embodied by those who once fought for women's suffrage, the abolition of slavery, and civil rights. This is a Gospel of non-violence, of hope, and a desire to make this world--the one we all share (at least when our respective screens don't get in the way)--better. Of course, we are light years from the impact and importance of what Dr. King and the Civil Rights movement accomplished and represented. There is no need to get ahead of ourselves with clumsy comparisons. I know it is a big leap. But, after a long sojourn in the desert, this type of reaction at least hints at the kind of social concern that used to be associated with Christianity in this country--the type of Christian ethos that preoccupied more with human beings than the apocalypse, with loving your neighbor as yourself rather than making sure your neighbor is not an illegal immigrant--the kind of ethos that linked the titles Dr. King (the activist) to Reverend King (the activist).
I know that not everyone will agree that the 99% of Americans Movement should be associated with yearnings for the Kingdom of God. I also know that the nascent form of the movement means that not even those camping down on Wall Street know exactly where it is headed. To this point, it has been staunchly non-violent, despite heavy police involvement in some areas. We can only hope it continues on this path. Yet, I can't help but be hopeful that we have somehow reached a point where a collective cry for change might manifest itself.
I also can't help but hope that not only will a progressive social movement effect change in this country, but that voices calling for peacemakers, for non-violence, for equality, and for justice will not only be heard in the public square, but will also resound from those who consciously and purposefully associate with the desire for the Kingdom of God. Finally, I am hopeful we are on the brink of finding a new song. Despite my now twenty year-old love affair with Nirvana, I hope we are finding a reason to do more than entertain ourselves--that this time the contagion will be active and activist, rather than apathetic and individualist.