You know how in Scripture, particularly the Old Testament, the narrative will skip over several generations to get to the next important event or person in the story? For instance, before Judges 13 when Samson came on the scene (hey, Samson’s hair would have fit perfectly in the 80s), the last part of chapter 12 shows numerous leaders where virtually no information beyond their names is given. We only know in 13:1 that the people of Israel “did what was evil in the sight of the Lord” and so very little is known of that time.
As someone who essentially grew up in the 80s – graduating high school in 1985 and college in 1990 – I have always thought of my generation as one of the ones you have to skip over to get to the next event or person, the next really good part of the story.
So, in reading The Other Eighties by Bradford Martin, I have to say I feel a little renewed about my lost generation. Martin focuses on some of the movements in the 80s – those not upholding the dubious “Reagan Revolution” that sadly filled the decade with a focus on self-indulgence. In his study – which I cannot recommend strongly enough, especially to those like me who were alive, but never quite at home in the 80s – Martin’s main point is that the voices of dissent were quite active and even influential on such issues as AIDS funding, opposing the nuclear arms race, the feminist movement, and others.
As are most things in life, my memories of the 80s are mixed with positive and negative feelings. Because it was the decade of my “coming of age” so to speak, I remember fondly the films and songs, the hair styles and dress styles that were so “unique” to it. I still love the music of REO Speedwagon and I continue to be impacted by the powerful films such as The Mission, Platoon, The Verdict, and Glory.
But I have always felt a certain amount of bitterness and regret as well. It was in college especially when I dedicated my life to Jesus and ultimately felt called to a life of ministry. This was partly a response to the amazing friends I had in college whose love of Jesus was the most authentic expression of Christianity I had seen to that point in life. But my dedication to Jesus was also a result of my political engagement that really came to full expression in college as well.
Due to a favorite teacher in high school who was deeply conservative, I flirted with political conservatism in high school. But when I went to college and renewed my relationship with Jesus, and as I read and studied Scripture, I came to the conclusion rather quickly that there was no way I could be faithful as a follower of Jesus and hold to the values of the Republican Party at that time (much less, now – but that’s another post). Now, I don’t have to tell you that this conclusion was not one that a whole heck of a lot of people were discovering in mid-19080s Abilene, TX.
(On a side note, I did try and be a Democrat for awhile, but I gave that up by the 1990s, and felt fully confirmed in this decision, as I saw Bill Clinton as more of a Republican than a liberal. The man took time away from campaigning to rush back to Arkansas to put a mentally ill man to death for God’s sake!)
Although it took another 20 years for me to fully understand and cling to my calling, I knew I was called to be an activist. The hard part – again, being at college in the mid-80s and in Abilene, Texas – was living that calling out. The godsend for me was the establishment of a chapter of Amnesty International on my campus. If I hadn’t been involved in Amnesty I likely would never have found the path my life is on now. I loved my friends who so passionately followed Jesus, but none of them were activist in their political leanings, and if they leaned politically at all, it certainly wasn’t in my direction.
And that is precisely what I never could understand. I still cannot understand the political fence-sitting when there is so much injustice, oppression, and poverty in the world and when so much of that injustice, oppression, and poverty is human-made. I would be the first to admit though, that my political engagement was (and is) a mixture of an authentic desire to see the Kingdom manifest in this broken world, as well as a love of raising hell and stirring the pot.
For instance, I remember collecting signatures to eliminate the McMurry cheerleading squad and to use the money to create more minority scholarships for students. It seemed so logical. No one I knew liked the cheerleaders – the mascot even called me a dick one time (even before I started the petition) – and we all knew that there was a very small contingent of minority students on campus so this felt like we could solve two problems at once. Of course, when I presented it to the student government for discussion I was practically thrown out of the room. You would have thought I was proposing to run over their grandmothers there was so much outrage.
But besides getting rid of the cheerleaders, I was shocked to find so many of my McMurry classmates so content with doing nothing. And this was the primary impact that the “Reagan Revolution” had on my generation. The “Revolution” (and God how I hate to use that word with that man’s name) was more about putting a generation to sleep than activating it – getting us to live comfortably with the discomfort and utter pain our spending and obsession with national security caused millions of others throughout the world through the economic and foreign policies that favored the affluent few over the poor and oppressed masses.
It was in Amnesty that my voice for justice first was given shape and grounding – not the church. I worked with incredibly dedicated people – some of whose voices and words remain with me to this day. We fought against apartheid in South Africa, against the death penalty in Texas, and on behalf of prisoners of conscience throughout the world. The thing that surprised me so much was that the main core group of Amnesty activists during my time were people who openly opposed Christianity and professed to be either agnostic or atheistic in their beliefs.
But yet, as much as I felt welcomed at the many prayer meetings I went to (and led), the Bible studies I attended, the worship services I was present at, and the accountability groups I belonged to, I felt welcomed and valued at our Amnesty meetings. Even more than that, I felt like I had a purpose for being there – a purpose greater than myself. A purpose that could have impact on the wider world. Being part of Amnesty was exhilarating and I never could understand why my Christian friends never caught that same exhilaration. I still don’t.
Up until I read Bradford Martin’s book, I had always looked upon my college time with Amnesty as valuable mostly for the experience it has given me later in life. But I realized as I read Martin’s book, that we actually made a difference during the 80s as well, remarkably so. Yes, the Reagan Revolution was not as complete as many in the media believe it to be so – praises be to God!
When I look back I see that apartheid did end in the early 90s. The death penalty, though still very much alive and kicking in Texas (thanks to supposed Christian Governors “W” and The Rick), has been used much less often and there is a growing movement of abolitionists in the state. Our little group of Amnesty activists in Abilene, TX in the 80s had a small – probably very small – part to play in that. But we had a part to play! To be able to stand before Jesus and know that I can answer the question as to where I was when a White South African government was toppled by the strength of love and justice gives me such indescribable joy.
Yes, the place for justice-oriented ministries still gets kicked to the curbside by many if not most Christians today (and by entire denominations including my own all too often), but younger Christians are growing less comfortable with the bifurcation between discipleship and justice that was so rampant when I was in college.
I am thankful I went to McMurry, I am more thankful that McMurry had a campus chapter of Amnesty International, but I am most thankful that God did not skip over my generation to get to the next. His Kingdom was alive and well then and is now. We made a difference then and we can now. So, let’s make this generation count; God knows we need it.