Some Great Cause, God’s New Messiah

Early this past summer, I came across a certain quotation opening an essay by Mary Elizabeth King—now a columnist for Waging Nonviolence and a friend. This was right about the time I first got the idea in my head that I needed to learn how to tell the stories of how great resistance movements are planned, during a conference where I was meeting revolutionaries from around the world. The quotation was from “The Present Crisis,” penned by nineteenth-century poet James Russell Lowell, and which became a hymn popular during the civil rights era:

Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of Truth with Falsehood, for the good or evil side;
Some great cause, God’s new Messiah, offering each the bloom or blight,
Parts the goats upon the left hand, and the sheep upon the right,
And the choice goes by forever ‘twixt that darkness and that light.

Those words seemed to capture what any revolution must be, especially when it remains just an idea: “Some great cause, God’s new Messiah.” It’s unimaginably gigantic, impossibly messianic. Yet somehow, there comes “the moment to decide,” despite “the bloom or blight” that might arise in the course of a movement, and its inevitable, incarnate shortcomings. One has no choice but to choose, for inaction also is a choice.

These were the lines I kept in my head while I attended the early planning meetings of what would become Occupy Wall Street—“Some great cause, God’s new Messiah” if there ever was one. What I experienced in those meetings is now the subject of my article in the February issue of Harper’s Magazine, “Some Assembly Required” (subscription necessary, or get it at your local newsstand). It follows the incipient movement from the third planning meeting until September 16, the night before the occupation began. Where it leaves off, my articles at Waging Nonviolence and The Nation pick up. (There was also one snippet about the planning at Killing the Buddha.) The chance to do this Harper’s story, though, was the opportunity I was really hoping for; something with the space and support to delve more deeply than I elsewhere could into “that darkness and that light” of a movement that has changed and is changing the world.

Nathan Schneider is an editor of Killing the Buddha and writes about religion, reason, and violence for a variety of publications. He is also a founding editor of Waging Nonviolence. His first two books, published by University of California Press in 2013, are God in Proof: The Story of a Search from the Ancients to the Internet and Thank You, Anarchy: Notes from the Occupy Apocalypse. Visit his website at The Row Boat.