This November marks 50 years since President John F. Kennedy was assassinated while riding in a motorcade in Dallas, Texas. The news stunned the nation and the world. November 22, 1963, marked a turning point for America. Those who remember the day are still trying to understand what it meant.
I remember the moment and where I was when I heard the news. I remember what the weather was like that day. I remember who told me, and I can still hear the shock and anxious tone in her voice: "Did you hear that President Kennedy was killed?"
I was a 12-year-old junior high school student, and it was the last thing I ever expected to hear. Presidential assassinations were something you read about in a history book. Yes, Abraham Lincoln had been assassinated long ago, but surely not someone of our time and place.
What did this mean for our country—and what would it mean for our future?
A long, sad weekend
We began to watch a piece of living history play out that weekend. Gradually details become known. It was the first big news event of the time that caused us to hang on every word of the news commentators. We stared at the fuzzy black-and-white images of first Dallas, and then the arrival in Washington that night of Air Force One, which carried the body of the slain president as well as his successor, now President Lyndon Johnson. The coffin, the widow, the grieving family—all were confirmations the grisly event had indeed occurred.
A horse-drawn caisson bearing the flag-draped coffin made its way from the White House to the Capitol to Arlington Cemetery over the next three days. The steady muffled drum beat moved the world's dignitaries through the streets of the capital. We were stunned when we heard on that Sunday that accused assassin Lee Harvey Oswald was shot and killed in Dallas while being transferred between jails—another seemingly senseless act that was not fully understood.
Finally, on the sunny Monday afternoon, the body was laid to rest, and Jacqueline Kennedy lit the eternal flame that still burns today at the grave site. Those four days were a blur as I look back from a perspective of 50 years. As the dust settled and we learned more, we sometimes discovered we understood even less.
A special government commission concluded Kennedy's death was the act of one man acting alone. Ideas that there was a larger tangled web of conspiracy behind the assassination quickly sprang to life. The suspicion that others, even other gunmen, were involved has never been fully resolved for some. Perhaps it matters little now. Most of the main characters in that drama are dead. So much has happened since that day. So much has changed.
A 50-year assessment
But, again, what did this mean for America? Why is it important to remember and learn? A 50-year span in the Bible would mark a time of the year of Jubilee, a year of complete release of debts and a resetting of the economics of the nation. Fifty years is a good place to take an assessment and mark some key generational lessons from one time to another.
For the baby boomer generation, the killing of John Kennedy seems to mark a period of social change that defines our life. There was the America before November 22 and the America after November 22. This singular event marks a moment when comfortable assumptions about the world and life were altered just enough to allow the changes hanging around the fringes of society to come full center, ushering in the sweeping social changes of the 1960s.
If the young charismatic president could be killed in the streets of a major American city, what did that mean for our lives? If life could be ended so tragically, so suddenly—the leader of the free world gunned down—then anything could happen to anyone. All things could change randomly without purpose. Life, many came to conclude, should be lived for the moment without thought for tomorrow.
Looking back, we can mark a number of features that changed the social landscape. One was the sexual revolution of the 1960s. The birth control pill had been around for a few years. This easy-to-use and reliable contraceptive pretty well prevented pregnancy. Its availability underlay the new sexual revolution, the period of "free love" that spawned a whole subculture of promiscuity.
Barriers went down. Behavior that was at least tempered by a moral code became open, accepted and a part of the fabric of life. And the problem was exacerbated by two landmark Supreme Court decisions in 1962 and 1963 to ban prayer and Bible reading in public schools.
Following the expulsion of God from American classrooms, the push for sexual freedom eventually led to abortion rights and then on to the politicizing of sexual orientation with the gay rights agendas of today. Where was the tipping point? It's hard to say. But looking back at a 50-year period, one can trace the thread of change and see its faint origins. The state of morality in America today was not always what we see. Many of us have lived long enough to see the change.
My comment to today's young generation that does not have the perspective of the past 50 years is this:
Look at why past generations tried to lift society to high levels by teaching and publicly endorsing a standard of behavior based on a Christian biblical code. It was to protect families and individuals from the effects of destructive personal behavior.
Society is better when families are intact. Families are better when the father is in the home supporting and honoring the mother. This makes the children secure and gives them better chances for success in life.
Every family study of the past 50 years shows the detrimental impact of divorce, one-parent families and children born out of wedlock. Every perspective of the family the past 50 years has seen a decline from the model God set in place in Scripture to guide the family in creating a strong, stable society.
Decline in government
I have lived long enough to see another major shift. It is the plummeting respect for governing institutions, laws and people who serve in high office.
The youthful and charismatic John Kennedy, despite his failings, was viewed as a bold, inspiring and visionary leader. His successor upon his death, Lyndon Johnson, lacked the same persona and air about him. Johnson embroiled America in the Vietnam War, and public backlash kept him from seeking a second term in office. The next president, Richard Nixon, had to resign in disgrace after lying to cover up his knowledge of the tawdry affair called Watergate.
Government in America today has reached a level of mediocrity that imperils its standing as the leading nation in the world. Massive government debt accumulated over 50 years threatens not only the nation's role as the preeminent economic power but its role as the leading military power in the world.
Politicians are unable or unwilling to effectively deal with the economic troubles that impact health care, retirement and economic stability. Confidence in leadership in 2013 seems at such a low point that it would take many years and a new level of competence to erase the effect of recent decades.
Fifty years later the leadership of this great nation is in a sad condition. Problems of debt, immigration, gender politics and social breakdown stare us in the face, and no one in leadership can sound a clear call to action that would lead us from the brink of collapse back to a position of stability with positive hope for the future.
All this did not begin on or because of November 22, 1963. No single event can always tag the problem or the solution. What arises is a zeitgeist or spirit of an age, defining how people are and think during a period. If it's ultimately self-destructive, this can, if not reversed, eventually kill a people.
Just as population levels can reach such a low point that it becomes impossible to recover and decline is inevitable, so a spiritual condition can arise and become so deeply ingrained that a collapse will occur unless deep change—on the order of national repentance as called for in the Bible—takes place. Fifty years on from the assassination of John F. Kennedy, we are at that place.
Why pick this event?
Choosing President Kennedy's assassination as marking a turning point in time is not done at random. This event defines a period in American history that will be studied by future generations as the time when seeds of a bitter harvest were sown. It will be seen as the time when the singular great nation of history, the United States of America, began to falter and fail under a growing burden of sin.
Like the ancient nation of Israel, which broke covenant with God and rejected what was good, we have sown the seeds of our destruction. We have erected idols of status, celebrity, fame and self in place of the laws and teachings of God the Creator. On that day in Dallas we lost our innocence and embarked on our own paths of destruction. It has taken us five decades of further stumbling to get to this point.
The prophet Hosea spoke God's words to the people of Israel at a similar moment in their story:
"Sound the alarm! The enemy descends like an eagle on the people of the Lord, for they have broken my covenant and revolted against my law. Now Israel pleads with me, 'Help us, for you are our God!' But it is too late. The people of Israel have rejected what is good, and now their enemies will chase after them" (Hosea:8:1-3, New Living Translation).
Today, America's enemies hover around our fortified walls and call for our downfall. That is what the war on terror is all about. Terrorists plot to kill our citizens, whether on our soil or in our foreign embassies. They wish us ill. Whether out of envy, fear or ignorance of who we are and what we stand for, they plot our demise. Like a predator from the sky, they swoop down and inflict another wound. And God says it's because we have revolted against His law.
These are strong words to consider. These words define the core of our problem—we have broken and defied the law of God. So we call out for help, but the answers don't come.
Hosea continues: "They have planted the wind and will harvest the whirlwind. The stalks of grain wither and produce nothing to eat. And even if there is any grain, foreigners will eat it. The people of Israel have been swallowed up; they lie among the nations like an old discarded pot. Like a wild donkey looking for a mate, they have gone up to Assyria.
"The people of Israel have sold themselves —sold themselves to many lovers. But though they have sold themselves to many allies, I will now gather them together for judgment. Then they will writhe under the burden of the great king" (verses 7-10, NLT).
Most people in America today would scoff at the idea of this generation being called to account in a judgment from God. Yet could it be possible that this generation has "planted the wind" and will "harvest the whirlwind," eating the bitter stalks of withered grain?
What does it mean?
Fifty years on from the killing of President Kennedy, what can we learn? Here is what you should consider. America, and for that matter the English-speaking nations of Great Britain, Australia and Canada, face a defining moment with their place in the world. Their time in history is changing. They "lie among the nations" discarded and discounted by the measurements that matter—godly righteousness and obedience to the Ten Commandments.
While our affluent lifestyle continues—and only God knows how long that will continue—there is still time for you to consider your life before Him and turn to Him in heartfelt change, what the Bible calls repentance.
Use this time yet before you to consider what you read here in The Good News. Prove what we teach and say. Compare it with the Bible. Take this message personally and ask what God is saying to you as you read this article in this magazine at this point in your life.
And to see the fact of societal decline even more clearly, take an honest look at the quality and condition of your community and your world. Things are getting worse, and the worst is yet to come.
But you can improve your life. You can learn the lessons of recent history and make decisions in your life that will reverse the decline you may be experiencing. You are responsible for your life, and you alone can change!