Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Tectonic Social Change
distributed 6/26/15 - ©2015

Just over a week ago, a horrific incident of racist domestic terrorism shocked the US and the world. A young man walked into Emanuel AME church in Charleston, South Carolina, and spent an hour in a Bible study class. Only then did he pull out a gun, and kill nine African American members of the church.

I grieve the death, the violence, and the hatred. I am moved and challenged by the quick and deep forgiveness of the church community. And I see in the events of the past few days a lesson about the mechanisms of social change which reach beyond this one event.

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While the shooter in Charleston apparently acted alone, his racial hatred and social delusions are expressions of an old and strong current in this country. As Timothy B. Tyson documents, "These ideas did not just percolate up inside of his mind; this is not ordinary 'bias' or suspicion of people different from him; someone had to teach him these elaborated historical traditions." The language and symbols used by the shooter show the influence of white supremacist institutions such as the Ku Klux Klan. (The Klan, by the way, has stepped up their recruiting in Alabama and Georgia after the church shooting.)

One image in particular has provoked a strong response. A photo, posted on a white supremacist website, shows the shooter holding a Confederate flag and a handgun. Other pictures of him also have ties to the Confederate flag.

That flag, of course, has been controversial for a long time. Especially in South Carolina, there have been long and heated arguments whether that flag is a proud expression of the state's southern heritage, or a historic emblem of racial intolerance. But after the massacre, the linkage between the flag and the violence broke out with fresh passion and specificity. When South Carolina NAACP President Lonnie Randolph was asked to explain the shooting, he replied, "This is a state that feels that it is OK to fly the Confederate flag in front of our State House."

Within days, politicians who had been strong supporters of the flag -- including the SC Governor -- were joining in demands to remove the flag from the Capitol grounds. The call to disavow the flag has spread rapidly beyond South Carolina, with other states already acting, many businesses pulling any such flag images from their merchandise, and the Dean of the National Cathedral in Washington, DC, urging the removal of two stained glass windows that show the flag.

Over the weekend, a friend commented on this amazing shift in position. "Nobody has learned anything new about the flag in the last four days," he said. Changing opinions and political positions didn't come from new information. What changed within a matter of hours was the cultural reality. The picture of a mass murderer with that flag made the framing of hatred and violence the dominant and inescapable one. Suddenly, it became much, much harder to see that flag as a neutral symbol of history (although at least eight SC legislators are still doing so).

The rapid and widespread change related to the Confederate flag is an example of what I'll call "Tectonic Social Change" (a term that has been used superficially in a few academic articles). The tectonic reference is to the geologic forces that shift enormous plates of Earth's crust, reshaping continents. When those plates rub against each other, they don't slip easily and smoothly. They bind and snag, building up stress until so much pressure accumulates that obstacles break free. The result is an earthquake, a sudden release of stress that changes the landscape.

Some instances of social and political change are tectonic -- a sudden and dramatic release of long-standing tensions that reshape the public geography. As with the geological case, the sudden shock of social change may demolish what had seemed secure and stable. And there may be a string of aftershocks which continue -- or reverse -- the initial movement.

Tectonic change is a different image than the common one of gradual, incremental change. Some social movements have brought about transformation through years and decades of patient effort and small accomplishments. Persistent work at education, lobbying, and service leads to shifting awareness, modified opinions, and new laws. The long flow is carefully planned, strategically implemented, and reasonably predictable.

But sometimes, there's an unpredictable social earthquake. With a single jolt, the familiar lay of the land becomes completely different. Long-standing conflicts and tensions, which had seemed insurmountable, are suddenly transformed.

In the last eight days, we've seen that tectonic change. Several factors seem to be at play in breaking loose this huge jolt. (1) The massacre at Mother Emanuel was so brutal, so calculated, that it was impossible to dismiss. (2) A nation fed up with mass murders and pervasive gun violence feels a need for action of some kind, and it has become clear that the US will not deal with guns directly. (3) A year of high-profile tragedies, starting with Ferguson, with police killings of black men, has raised the stakes much higher in terms of anger about race and violence. (4) South Carolina has been fighting about the state's official affirmation of the Confederate flag for a long time; it is a visible, definite issue with a vocal and engaged constituency.

Many kinds of tension have built up. Some of them are very old, some have built in recent months, and overwhelming new pressures cropped up this week. And suddenly, the plates of public opinion are jolted into new configurations. Powerful figures who had stood firmly in one place are knocked to the other side. Other institutions who hadn't been part of the conversation -- Walmart and the National Cathedral -- find themselves caught up, and are moved to rapid action. Something had to be done as a response to the murders, and the confederate flag provided an outlet for outrage and action.

Our folklore knows that change isn't always smooth and incremental. "The straw that broke the camel's back" is a proverbial form of that truth. Or, as I wrote a long time ago about sudden change, it can be like "the ketchup ditty" -- "Shake and shake and shake the bottle. First none comes, and then a lot'l."

The possibility of tectonic change gives me hope. Some of our struggles to embody the realm of God, to bring about justice and peace for all creation, can feel stuck and unmoving. We work and we organize and we educate and nothing seems to happen, except for increasing tensions and polarization. But sometimes, those tensions converge in surprisingly powerful ways, and things break loose. Especially if we are attentive and creative, those moments of sudden shift provide an opportunity to reframe the issues, to tell our story in a new way, to form new coalitions, and achieve what had seemed impossible.

We can't predict when those jolts of tectonic change will come, but we can imagine the possibility, and we can respond to that moment with vision and leadership. We are most faithful and effective in our work for transformation when we add tectonic change to our strategic toolbox.

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A few quick pointers to follow-up opportunities to the environmental encyclical from Pope Francis which was discussed in last week's Notes. (And I'm sorry to be late with these -- I'm trying to do a semi-Sabbatical this summer with greatly reduced office hours, and our family has been dealing with Denver's recent series of hailstorms and flooding deluges.)

This Sunday, June 28, at noon local time, faith communities around the world will thank Pope Francis for his encyclical and will call for climate action by world leaders. I encourage you to join a local event, or to bring some element of this witness into your congregation's worship or fellowship on Sunday (however briefly!) Learn more from the coordinators of One Earth, One Human Family.

Longer term, you can support the religious climate movement in a couple of ways.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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