(Note: This was written during the run-up to the 2016 presidential election.)
A number of commentators have mentioned the impracticality of Bernie Sanders’ ideas and objectives for change in American society—an American revolution fueled by an animated and passionate young electorate. Given the intransigence of Republicans in Congress—these commentators often state—there is no hope that any of his radical ideas (breaking up the big banks, reversing the decline of the middle class, a living minimum wage, health care for all, free college education, addressing climate change, and making the wealthy pay their fair share) will become a reality. The commentators state that Hillary Clinton, being more practical and realistic, has a better chance to accomplish her more modest objectives. Frankly, I think that this viewpoint is as out of touch with reality as Sanders’ objectives may seem. The only difference is that if expectations are lowered, our disappointment will also be lower when Republicans inevitably continue to obstruct the plans of any Democratic president. If the Republicans hate anyone more than Barack Obama, it’s Hillary Clinton. But if all we want to accomplish is to not rock the boat of establishment politics and maintain the status quo of income inequality, then Hillary Clinton is the ideal candidate.
Change, however, requires a vision, often an extraordinary vision. Visionary leaders like Gandhi and King were able to mobilize dedicated movements for change because they each held out a vision of a better and more just society based on the impracticalities of love and nonviolence. They were widely criticized for being too ambitious, too radical, and much too impractical. Jesus was also an impractical visionary. Who would give any credibility to his vision of the kingdom of God that proposed a new community based on loving your neighbor and enemies, forgiving offenses repeatedly, lending to those in need without expectation of return, welcoming the immigrant, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, being compassionate toward prisoners, and turning the other cheek?
In each of these movements for a better tomorrow, change came from inspiring and organizing people at the bottom of society—the poor, the dispossessed, the marginalized, the outcast. The U.S. Congress was pushed and prodded into giving women and minorities the vote and expanding civil rights in this country. It wasn’t their idea. It was considered too impractical, too threatening to the comfortable status quo, and far too much too soon. Mobilized people willing to stand up, to protest, to march, to be beaten, to be arrested, and to be killed made all the difference.
Many theologians have failed to see the kingdom of God as a vision. The power of a vision is that while it describes the future state to be achieved, it begins to immediately shape the present. A community or organization doesn’t wait for a vision to magically happen, the group works together to make it a reality. A vision is only an idea or image of a more desirable future for the organization, but the right vision is an idea so energizing that it in effect jump-starts the future by calling forth the skills, talents, and resources to make it happen. A vision is like a seed that is planted in the hearts and minds of people. When it takes root and is nourished it can grow to accomplish astounding results. When people embrace a vision of the future, they begin to live it out in the present.
Jesus chose to take the long awaited dream of God’s new society, and by acting on it, make it a vision that would lead to the transformation of the world. The reality is that the final consummation of the vision may never come about completely in human history. Both Gandhi’s and King’s dreams for their societies remain unfulfilled. Jesus’ vision of the kingdom of God remains unfulfilled after 2,000 years. And it may never arrive, as many imagine, at the end of human history. We have no indication that the vision of Jesus will ever be fulfilled. But the dream is that it could be fulfilled through the power of transforming love, compassion, and nonviolence—and it is worth struggling to achieve. The reality is that if no one acts upon a vision, it only remains a dream. The proclamation of the reign of God by Jesus is a call to action. The vision of God’s new order is an invitation to a journey. The destination is hoped for, but not assured. If we choose to follow Jesus, and contribute to making the kingdom of God a reality, we are called to spend our lives in the pursuit of this vision. Is Sanders’ vision all that different from those of Jesus, Gandhi, and King?
Hillary Clinton offers us half a dream. Bernie Sanders has a radical vision and millions of people are responding to it. Even if Bernie does not win the presidency, the vision of a better America will not go away, and people will remain dissatisfied with establishment politics and politicians controlled by the corporate class until change finally transpires. And as for Sanders’ chances as president to accomplish anything of substance—well, nothing ventured, nothing gained. If we don’t seriously try to take money out of politics, to put limits on our economic institutions, and to rebuild the middle class, we know what will result. The trajectory of decline of the middle class will be unaltered, mass incarceration of young black men will continue, the military budget will become more bloated, more jobs will be shipped overseas, and the rich will just get richer.