Kent State and the Next Generation

Kent State is my American Jerusalem. Ever since I stopped at the campus on a whim while driving across Ohio in 1993, I have made yearly pilgrimages to this sacred-secular ground of antiwar activity, where four students died and nine were injured. But I’m no nostalgic baby boomer, no former radical, no graduate of the counterculture. I was only one year old on May 4, 1970.

As I attended the 30th-anniversary commemoration of the shootings recently, I struggled to understand my tractor-beam-like spiritual attraction to this place. And I wondered whether my own generation can still learn from this canonical event in baby-boomer (and American) history. I left the commemoration convinced that Kent State offers us a compelling invitation to activism, clarifies the nature of Generation-X political paralysis and, surprisingly, indicates a clear direction for formation in Catholic identity today.


Those of us in the first post-Kent State generation, born between the early 1960’s and the late 1970’s, have yet to accept fully the invitation to political activism that Kent extends. As a generation, we have never risked ourselves en masse for a national political cause, as so many baby boomers did for or against Vietnam (or civil rights or feminism). Every major political issue with any traction in my generation, whether preserving the environment, fighting global corporate exploitation or defending the dignity of various sexual identities, has been a series of local, tactical actions. Politics in my generation has tended to focus more on changing our immediate relationships than on lobbying, marching, national organizingor even voting.

There are sound reasons for this difference in approach to politics between generations. Many young adults attempt to stake their claim to adulthood economically rather than politically. Most of us have never known a major war, massive economic downturn or profound cultural crisis. As a post-60’s, post-Watergate, post-Vietnam, post-Vatican II generation, we are often skeptical that any large-scale revolution is worth the effort. After all, every gain can be reversed, and all secular or religious politics is, sooner or later, manipulation.

Yet in the self-satisfaction of our honorable attempt to avoid becoming humorless, resentful, burned-out activists, the memory of Kent State indicts our entire generation. Too often, younger generations think the lesson of the 60’s is: Every attempt at large-scale change will fail. But the dignity of the antiwar movement remembered and mourned even today at Kent State forces us to add: Yet it must be risked.

Dignified protest, especially for Christians, is not carried out by the perfect, but by the brave. And it should not be measured in absolute terms, such as Did the revolution succeed or fail? but in relative terms, such as Was our limited Christian political action more faithful to Jesus than no action at all?

The memory of Kent State may yet serve to inspire the next generation to shift our emphasis in virtues: a little less prudence; a little more fortitude. In this way, a sign of the baby-boomer times still reverberates with the distant din of protest, forcing my own generation to confront the absence of signs of political activism in our own times.

I see only one genuine opening for us to respond to the risk of Kent State’s invitation and to accept culpability for our political paralysis. That opening is our passion for spirituality, so often visible today in the desire for a rich interior life and a practical commitment to serving those in need. This desire and commitment deserve to be taken very seriously by all who theologize about or minister to younger generations today, in writing and speaking, worshiping and preaching. They are signs of hope for the church, evidence of the Spirit’s fecund presence in younger generations.

Yet they are ambiguous signs. Often we are tempted to treat our spirituality as one more identity that we are free to don or discard at will, borrowing various elements from the world supermarket of religions; a cut-and-paste spirituality, a laissez-faire religiosity. Likewise, many of us retreat into the seductive pseudo-certainties of fundamentalism, longing for a book, a guru, a pope to save us from the complexities of our pluralist society.

What do these two approaches have in common? A consumer mentality. For laissez-faire relativism what matters most is one’s freely chosen satisfaction. (A consumer-choice spirituality, glorifying the right to choose from any tradition.) For fundamentalism what matters most is submitting to a dictator of desires. (A couch-potato spirituality, passively consuming the religious advertising of one’s tradition.) Both, in their own way, are types of slacker spirituality.

If we are honest with ourselves, whether liberal or conservative, our volunteerism is often restricted to local do-goodism, where positive results are immediately observable and our commitment is short-term and rarely linked to a larger political identity or longer-term national political movement. If it had been up to my generation, the civil rights movement might never have happened. We don’t have much patience for slow-burning, national political work that can endure reversals, setbacks and disappointments over the long haul.

If we have to move beyond mere volunteerism and milquetoast spirituality, if we are to rise to the challenge that Kent State yet offers us, this is precisely the place for the specific human faces of the Catholic tradition to be made known. Catholicism bears a pantheon of modern saints who balanced spirituality with political action. Dorothy Day and Oscar Romero are just two whose lives are waiting for retrieval as modern, believable, accessible narratives of Catholic Christian ways of life. Having intermingled the spiritual and the political, they stand with many more as possible Catholic heroes for a generation still on the watch for heroes. It is time for a communal decision to lift up our spiritual-political saints as explicit models for young Catholics today.

For those of us born in the 1960’s and 70’s, this is the time for political and spiritual fortitude, for a way of being spiritual that resists consumerism and a way of being political that trades prudence for risk. For those of us who care about serving as stewards of Catholic identity for a new generation, this is our time to invite this generation to experience how spirituality and political work, union with Christ and social reconciliation, are two sides of the eucharistic identity to which Jesus invites us.

Thirty years after Kent State, it is time for Catholics to attend to what this receding sign of the times may yet teach us, and to respond in a Catholic way.

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