Dear Southern Nevada Clergy,
I write with a request – short and simple – and an explanation – not as short or simple.
The Request: that you use all means at your disposal to bring a strong contingent from your congregation to OUR FAITH IN ACTION: OUR DEMOCRACY AT WORK at the Cashman Center, May 9, 6 p.m. – the 2016 Convention of Nevadans for the Common Good.
My commitment to this broad-based community organizing effort is not a personal idiosyncrasy. Today, one has to be trained in this practice to get an M. Div. at CDSP. One has to have this training to be ordained in many dioceses from Olympia to North Carolina. This is the CPE of today. So I challenge those of us who were trained in the old style priesthood to at least check out what is happening today.
But why is it happening? Properly done, this will grow your congregation and strengthen your lay leadership to do a better job of what they already think of as Church. Michael Gecan[i], Organizing For Congregational Renewal. This is a strong tool for congregational development. But somehow we want more.
I was at a TEC task force meeting recently in which the group spoke mockingly of the idea of “getting our theology straight” before taking action. True, we often need to take action (praxis) and do theological reflection (theologica) simultaneously but the reflection is necessary. So why is the Church today so invested in broad-based community organizing?
There are several good books directly in point.
Luke Bretherton[ii], Resurrecting Democracy: Faith, Citizenship, & The Politics Of A Common Life
Luke Bretherton, Christianity & Contemporary Politics
Charles Mathewes[iii], A Theology Of Public Life.
Caveat. This is not light reading. It is academic theology. Another book is older, not quite as directly in point, and by a philosopher instead of a theologian, but is more accessible:
Jean Bethke Elshtain, Augustine And The Limits Of Politics
I want you to see and understand that this is not just a political thing. It is not something for “the outreach committee.” It is at the heart of Christian faith and spiritual practice. The resources I have given you will explain it more deeply but here is my simple take on it.
Christianity consists of participation in a network of relationship.
For Paul, salvation (which includes our becoming whole) comes from our being together “in Christ.” It is not a matter of having the right theology in our head or the right emotions flowing in our bodies. It is not doing the right ritual the right way. Salvation is effected by a particular kind of relationship with each other. Communion ritually expresses it. But the relationship is most often called being “in Christ” or being “the Body of Christ.
Eucharistic Prayer B says:
In him you have delivered us from evil and made us worthy to stand before you.
In him you have brought us out of error into truth, out of sin into righteousness, out of death into life.
After receiving the sacrament, we thank God for
. . . assuring us in these holy mysteries that we are living members of the Body of your Son . . .
As clergy, you well know that Christianity is not a private possession. It isn’t coming “to the garden alone.” It’s relationship with each other. “Anyone who says he loves God and hates his neighbor is a liar for how can he love God whom he has not seen and hate his neighbor who he has seen.” 1 John 4: 20. We find God first and foremost in the place where God has imprinted his image, in human beings. Christianity consists in our mutual relationship as the Body of Christ.
The Body Is “Of Christ” If It Lives By Christ’s Spirit
Any collection of people from a scouting organization to a bowling league could be considered a “body” in that people are working together for a common goal. The electorate is “a body politic.” But what makes a body “of Christ”?
A body is “of Christ” if it is animated by the same Spirit that animated Jesus to continue doing what Jesus did. “Christ” means anointed. We are Christians (little Christs) if we are anointed with the same Spirit that anointed Jesus to do what Jesus did. What is that? Jesus answered that question as he began his ministry.
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor, release to the captive,
recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.
-- Luke 4: 18
Bishop Curry calls that The Jesus Movement. I have been calling it The Kingdom Mission. It’s doing what Jesus did in our context – together! If we are not engaged in that Mission, if we are just doing our ritual on Sunday followed by coffee hour, that does no harm but it does not constitute the Body of Christ. It takes more than eating the bread to be the Body.
Serving Others, Sure. But Why Broad-Based Community Organizing?
The problem with politics today is that it divides people into opposing camps in which our camp winning is more important than solving problems for the common good. This year, those divisions are taking particularly hateful and sometimes violent forms. It has become a blood sport.
Issue-based organizing collects people who agree about an issue then charges to the barricades. Introducing issue-based organizing in a congregation usually divides the congregation along the same partisan lines that control their associations and disassociations outside the church.
Broad-based organizing connects people who simply live in the same community. They share stories, identify concerns, and do research to find pragmatic ways to solve problems. Nevadans For The Common Good has found allies across the political spectrum and helped them work together to solve problems for the common good. Instead of dividing people up according to their political ideologies or opinions, it brings people together, teaching them how to have relationship-building conversations – the basic process for forming the Body of Christ.
This is hard work. It requires patience, sacrifice, empathy, and flexibility. Compromise, to us, is not a four-letter word. In order to do this work, we have to grow a character. Developing the capacity for this work is a process of spiritual transformation, of spiritual growth.
Charles Mathewes writes of a political ascesis in which we engage the world for the common good, succeeding sometimes, failing sometimes, but always learning and growing. Relying heavily on St. Augustine, Mathewes emphasizes that we are not going to construct the Kingdom of God (the Heavenly City) in our lifetimes. But, still relying on Augustine, he says that this work we do in organizing is how we are prepared to “bear the weight of glory” in the age to come. Or in William Blake’s words
We are put on this earth for a little space
That we might learn to bear the beams of love.
We struggle faithfully to change the world in a godly way; but as often as not, it is we ourselves who are changed by the struggle.
Elshstain (relying on and quoting Augustine) said:
The life of the saint . . . is a social life. We are with,
and among, one another . . .. . If we are to “promote the
well-being of the common people,” we much love God
and our neighbor, and the one helps to underscore and
animate the other.
Note: our active love of neighbor drives us to God as well as vice versa. If we would love God, this is the starting place.
I know some say the Church should not concern itself with such things. It might be easier to look away. But God did not order Moses to tell the Israelites to bear their burdens patiently and hope for heaven. God sent him to Pharaoh (the government) to seek freedom and justice. God did not send Elijah to Nabob’s widow to assure her she’d get her husband back someday. God sent Elijah to King Ahab (the government) to condemn the rich plundering the poor. God did not send Martin Luther King, Jr. or Desmond Tutu to offer spiritual counsel on how to live meekly with segregation/ apartheid but to confront the principalities and powers of this present age (the government) with God’s demand for kindly and decent treatment of one another. There is no one and no sphere of power exempt from this demand.
Please look at the attachment to this letter to see the kind of work we have been doing in collaboration with churches, synagogues, mosques, and non-profits in our community.
If you are already on board with this work, I look forward to seeing you May 9. Please bring as many people as you can so that they can get a sense of what this about and make an informed decision as to whether they want to be a part of it.
If you are not already with us, please come and check it out. When you do, bring a few friends so you can learn about this together.
[i] Community Organizer in New York and Chicago
[ii] Anglican professor of theology at Duke Divinity School.
[iii] Roman Catholic theology professor at University of Virginia and advisor to the Theology Committee of the House of Bishops.