“I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” – John 16:33
Every year is 50 years from something, but this year we are “blessed” by an unfortunate number of traumatic anniversaries. The year 1968 was a busy one. You could easily be forgiven for thinking that human history was approaching its endgame. It seemed that the ties that bound society together were fraying and coming undone. Over the course of its twelve months, the world at large and American society were wracked by a series of events which left us shaken. What we lost that year was the naïve optimism of the Modern Age. We lost the expectation that things were going to be okay. The Christian consensus that Francis Schaeffer spoke about had long lost its power, and the Modernist pretension to create a better world showed no way forward.
April 4th marks 50 years since the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. His death at the hands of James Earl Ray was a tragic turning point in American history. In and of itself, his murder was a crime against him as an individual and against his family, but it was more than this. It was a crime against the millions of African Americans he inspired to believe that second-rate status was not their eternal destiny. It was a crime against the American society he challenged to live up to its best principles. It was a crime against the Christian church which, after generations of ignoring it, was forced to remember that the Imago Dei applied to all of Adam’s helpless race.
King’s murder in Memphis not only ended his life but it also symbolized the end to an era in America life. In many ways his slaying left Americans in a world without hope. A deep and abiding cynicism crept into our thinking and, perhaps more importantly, our feeling about the Land of the Free. Yes, a decade and a half later, President Reagan could say with good cause that it was morning again in America, but something of our youthful optimism was lost when Dr. King was cut down.
We despair about our world when we think about King’s murder for the same reason that Boomers were crushed when JFK was killed, and Gen-Xers, like myself, were scarred by the Challenger explosion, and we all lost hope when 9/11 crashed into our consciousness. We despaired at these times because our innocence was lost. Kennedy’s Camelot was as ephemeral as the kingdom of Arthur, space travel was not safe enough for “ordinary” people like teachers, and the end of the Cold War had not led to the dawn of perpetual peace. Each of these reminded us of what we claimed we always knew: Life is hard, and the good guys don’t always win. Sometimes Goliaths smash Davids into the ground, and a moment which shows great promise can harden into the polarized world we know today.
As world-altering as Dr. King’s murder was by itself, it was not the only crisis to afflict society that year. Like a line of waves hitting an already languishing ship, a series of blows slammed into the collective psyche of the Western world. From this constellation of traumas, our civilization has not yet recovered, if it ever will. Any one of these events would be memorable enough for the history books, with Dr. King’s assassination being the most significant, yet the repetition was sufficent to turn the hope of the Modern Age into a sense of despair. The Age of Aquarius gave way to the ages of self-indulgence and self-righteousness.
Think about some of the cataclysms the world faced within that single calendar year. The first came in January on the other side of the world with the Tet Offensive. After three years of war and being assured that it was going well and that US involvement could soon taper off, Americans were shocked at the news of a major Communist offensive in Vietnam. Nearly 100,000 insurgents and North Vietnamese military units attacked all across South Vietnam, with even the American Embassy besieged. While this battle was still ongoing, Americans were faced with another shock as the My Lai Massacre in March forced them to wonder if they were the good guys after all. Or worse, what if there were no good guys?
Remember also the other assassinations that year. King’s death looms so large in our historical memory that we often forget that his was not the only life ended too soon that year. In June 1968, just two months and one day after King’s murder and less than five years after the assassination of his brother, President Kennedy, Senator Robert F. Kennedy was struck down right after winning the California Democratic primary. In itself, it may not seem as significant to us today, but consider what it felt like to those at the time. Two major assassinations in as many months. The trauma of this moment was exacerbated in August at the Democratic Party National Convention in Chicago, as 10,000 protestors faced off against police and tear gas. The political order of America seemed to be dissolving on live TV.
It was not only the United States which experienced psychological earthquakes. Granted, Paris has so many riots that it’s almost the city’s official pastime. But the May 1968 riots were big enough that they effectively shut down the nation for a time and ended the post-war order of Charles De Gaulle. At the same time in Prague, there was a great glimmer of hope as the totalitarian regime of Czechoslovakia temporarily liberalized, allowing the freedom of speech, religion, association, and the possibility of free elections. However, these hopes were dashed in August 1968. In what must have seemed a horrible reincarnation of events thirty years before, Russian forces and their Communist allies invaded, crushing the Prague Spring, leaving over 100 dead and the dreams of progress and freedom in their wake. The world seemed to be ending.
There were dark times before 1968, and happy days would follow, but there’s something about that year which seems to encapsulate and reinforce the lesson that ours is a world with devils filled, and a lot of those devils walk among us. The presumption of the Modern Age in all its forms came crashing down. No matter their surface differences, the secular capitalist, the atheistic Communist, and the pantheistic hippy shared the thought that we lived in a Fall-less world, that all we had to do was rid ourselves of a few bad apples, and the Garden of Eden could be restored. We were wrong, and 1968 shows us why. It showed us the Fall.
We don’t live in the Creational Garden of Eden, but we live with reality of the Fall every moment of our lives. Left there, we would be right to live in our Postmodern cynicism which sees no truth and no real reason for hope. But that is not the whole story. It is not yet finished. The story does not end with the Fall, for after the Fall comes the rest of the biblical story. On our own, 1968 is our fate: death, destruction, and despair. But God has not left us to our fate. He has interfered in our story to write His Story. After the Creation came the Fall, but after the Fall came God’s Redemption in Christ and His Church. And one day, on that great Day, God will bring about His full Restoration. God, in Christ, has overcome the world and He is making all things new.
Timothy D Padgett, PhD, is the author of the forthcoming book, Swords and Plowshares: American Evangelicals on War, 1937-1973, and is the Managing Editor of BreakPoint.org
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