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    Praise the Lord and Pass the Petition
    By Ira Chernus

Posted on Truthout

    Tuesday 28 February 2006

    If you are waiting for a religious left to emerge to offset the power of the religious right, it may already be in your own neighborhood at a local church or synagogue. I stumbled across a branch of the religious left quite by accident recently, in Texas of all places, though the folks I met would say I was guided to them by the Lord.

    On a weekend in mid-February, nearly 200 Evangelical Lutherans from all over the country came to Fort Worth for the Congregation-Based Organizing Strategy Summit or CBOSS. They talked, planned, and prayed about community organizing. They shared stories about what they had already accomplished through faith and hard political work.

    They had demanded action from public officials and corporate leaders in their communities, and they were proud of their victories. Among the local triumphs some of them claimed were: affordable housing for thousands of families; guaranteed access to health insurance for all children; treatment centers instead of prisons for criminals; a new community center where a meth house used to be; free day-care centers; water and sewer lines for 150,000 rural poor who had none before; laws requiring public contractors to pay a living wage; surveillance cameras in police cars - to watch the police themselves.

    The list of victories went on and on. In every case devout Christians, often allied with secular activists, had put enough pressure on public officials to turn empty promises into real results. These Christians did it all because they felt called by the Lord to do His work, to create justice in the world - and because they've learned the rigorous, disciplined organizing techniques pioneered by Saul Alinsky, who created the Industrial Areas Foundation in the 1940s, and Ernesto Cortez, who then sparked Alinsky-style organizations from the barrios of Texas to the valleys of Los Angeles.

    The Christians I met at CBOSS pray endlessly to Jesus, but their savior is no meek and mild turner of the other cheek. He is the Great Organizer. He agitates, builds political tension, and goes toe-to-toe with any authority who abuses power to oppress people. He is the model of a fighter for justice who won't ever quit until the wrongs of the world are righted. This Jesus has political values as radical as - maybe more radical than - yours. He offers his followers eternal life in heaven. But first He demands that they work to create justice on Earth every day by practicing the arts of tough political love that He taught so long ago.

    They call their political work "faith-based community organizing," or sometimes "congregation-based organizing" to avoid confusion with George Bush's "faith-based initiative," which is a very different thing. In Bush's approach, religion is supposed to take the sin out of the sinner. That, congregation-based community organizers will tell you, is a case of blaming the victim. The problem lies not in the supposed sins of the poor, oppressed, and marginalized. The real sin is an oppressive economic and political system that deprives people of rights, resources, and hope.

    That sinful system flourishes - as they reminded themselves many times over in the CBOSS meeting - because the powerless let the powerful get away with it. When the powerless heed the divine call to organize, they can exert enough political power to force sinners to mend their ways, and so to mend neighborhoods, schools, and social institutions that their greed has destroyed.

    I happened to meet only representatives of the Lutherans, but progressive Christians, it turns out, are everywhere. The Lutherans organize in interfaith coalitions with Catholics, other Protestants - and increasingly Jews and Unitarians. In some locales, Muslims, Buddhists, and other faith communities are joining in, too. They also work hand-in-hand with non-religious, non-believing activists - even out-and-out atheists. If you are involved in any kind of campaign for justice, these are people you want on your side. They will probably support most of the same causes you do. In fact, they may already be working for many of them.

    To be perfectly frank, all their God-and-Jesus talk may make you nervous. A whole weekend of it made a non-Christian like me kind of twitchy. If your knowledge of Christian activism comes mainly through television and radio, you probably hear words like "congregation-based" and "faith-based" and think "conservative" or even "fanatic." If you hear "baptized" and "resurrection," the words "Bush" and "right-wing" undoubtedly come quickly to mind. No wonder Christians make us nervous.

    I went to CBOSS as an outsider, accompanying my partner, the director of Interfaith Funders, a national consortium of faith-based and secular grant-makers who support faith-based community organizing. (Their website is a great resource for learning more about the nature of this community.) But at the closing session, when they called for evaluation and feedback, I decided to join in.

    I asked the Lutherans to understand how hard it is for secular activists like me to hear their talk. I said they should cut us some slack when we seem anti-Christian to them, or mistakenly lump all activist Christians together as "the religious right." I urged them to overlook our trepidation and work with us for common political goals. They gave me a rousing cheer. The spiritual godfather of their movement, Rev. John Heinemeier, a minister who transformed whole neighborhoods in the Bronx and Boston, came over to shake my hand and tell me how much they need to hear that message.

    But we need to hear their message, too. There is nothing inherently conservative in Christian language. It can point in any political direction, even the most radical. After all, it's the language of Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, and the Berrigan brothers. If all that stuff about "the power and glory of Christ" and "all praise to the Lord" makes for knots in your stomach, or even a gag in your throat, let it be. Put it in the same class as those aching feet after a long day of leafleting or your aching head from an all-night organizing meeting. It's just a price to be paid to get our political work done.

    We'll pay a much bigger price if we let the Christians' God-and-Jesus talk keep us from making alliances with people like those at CBOSS. If we want to make social change, the faith-based are the people to work with. Their organizing techniques are among the most sophisticated I've seen. They've built at least 180 ongoing organizations in cities and towns across the country, often linked in huge networks like PICO, the Gamaliel Foundation, the DART Center, and the Industrial Areas Foundation. By some estimates, they involve nearly 6,000 congregations, with a total membership of some two million or more.

    We're not talking about single-issue coalitions that win a victory and then dissolve. These are religious denominations that have been around for centuries. And they plan to stay around for centuries more. They can tap into powerful national organizations with immense resources. Most important, they have an almost inexhaustible energy. They get it from all that praying and singing and talking about God. So the next time you hear someone praise Jesus, stop and ask them about issues like health care, a living wage, affordable housing, and police brutality. You may be surprised to find an invaluable ally for your own activism.

    True, there may be some issues dear to your heart that you and some of these Christian organizers don't see eye to eye on. Their views on social issues like abortion and gay rights span the spectrum from radical to conservative. But faith-based organizers have learned a vital lesson from Saul Alinsky, one all of us should absorb: To build a broad political base, have no permanent enemies and no permanent allies. Work with anyone who shares your current goal. If there are some subjects that might create tensions, just don't talk about them, at least until the goal is won.

    At the victory party, you may discover that your Christian allies have turned into friends. You may find that now, over a beer, they are ready to listen to your views on subjects once too tense to talk about. But watch out. They'll be praising the Lord for turning the world toward justice. And their enthusiasm is infectious. You might be astonished to hear yourself praising the Lord, too.

    Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He is the author of American Nonviolence: The History of an Idea and later this year will publish Monster to Destroy: The Neoconservative War on Terror and Sin.

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    Onward Christian Organizers
    By David Hilfiker

    Tuesday 28 February 2006

    I don't always find the invisibility comforting.

    Almost any column in any progressive magazine analyzing the reactionary politics of the far right these days will at some point get around to taking a hard look at the Christian right that has given so much energy and supplied so many foot soldiers to that movement. Fair enough! It's a disturbing connection that should be teased apart. But then, it seems, the lefty columnist sometimes can't resist the temptation to lump all Christians together, as if everyone who believed in God and tried to follow Jesus cared only about preventing gay marriage and making abortion illegal.

    As a Christian - and a leftist - myself, I can take the occasional lampooning, but it makes me wonder whether you on the secular left, especially the intelligentsia, realize I'm here, realize how many of the foot soldiers of the Left are Christians (or other religious people) whose activism springs from deeply held faith. The first recorded words of the young man I do my best to follow are that he was sent to "proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free." It's not just a liberal agenda, but a radical one.

    I don't have much in common with Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Jr, or Cesar Chavez, except this: We all are (or were) Christian, and we've each spent much of our adult lives in the trenches of the movement for peace and justice. Most of those who have gone to prison for long sentences for hammering on nuclear warheads, or stopping nuclear trains, or crossing the line at military bases have been Christians, and they have often submitted to those long sentences because they believed their faith gave them no other option and would sustain them in the dark months of prison.

    The four members of the Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT), kidnapped and still in captivity in Iraq, went to that country fully cognizant of the dangers of abduction but believing that their faith called them to peacemaking. Indeed, CPT is one of the few western non-governmental agencies left in Iraq, having been there almost continuously since before the 2003 invasion. Within three months of the fall of Baghdad to American troops, long before the Abu Ghraib photos surfaced, Christian Peacemakers were actively documenting and reporting the ways in which Iraqi detainees were being abused in prison. All because of their Christian convictions.

    We're not (mostly) looking for accolades or more attention, but perhaps you should understand that not all religious people are your enemies or ascribe to us imperialist or conquering missionary visions. As a physician and writer, I've been working in the inner city of Washington D.C. for more than two decades as part of a network of institutions initiated and maintained by people from one church with less than 150 members. As part of those efforts:

  • Jubilee Housing has offered low-cost housing to hundreds of low-income residents for over thirty years.

  • Columbia Road Health Services has provided medical care for homeless people and other low-income people from around the city for almost thirty years.

  • Jubilee Jobs helps place over 1,000 people a year in entry-level jobs and then returns a year later to assist them in obtaining living-wage jobs. It's active in the District's living-wage campaign.

  • Christ House is a 34-bed infirmary for homeless men and women too sick to be on the streets yet not sick enough to be in the hospital.

  • Joseph's House and Miriam's House offer home, community, and hospice care to homeless men and women with AIDS and cancer.

  • Samaritan Inns provides intensive in-patient recovery for men and women with addictions and then 6-month follow-up programs and long-term housing for hundreds.

  • Manna has built close to 1,000 houses for very low-income people to purchase.

  • Academy of Hope is one of the largest adult education programs in the city.

    All of these organizations hire and serve religious and non-religious people without distinction; all began well before anyone talked about "faith-based initiatives." And that's just a very partial list. And from only one faith community. Indeed, take away the institutions in Washington DC that have been initiated and largely maintained by people of faith and there's not much left in the way of non-governmental services specifically for the poor. I doubt it's strikingly different in other cities around the country.

    And it's not only in charity work but also in activism for justice that we're present. Bread for the World organizes churches politically to speak out on issues of world hunger. While the Children's Defense Fund isn't overtly religious, its founder and director Marian Wright Edelman is a deeply spiritual Christian as are many of its workers. Most of the liberal churches have offices in Washington, lobbying for peace and justice.

    We're your friends.

    You may not have noticed us because most of us don't proselytize for our faith; we hope to be the body of Jesus, not talk about it. And we aren't actually out to convert you to our religion, although we will try to convert others to our work for the poor and the oppressed. In fact, the only time Jesus is recorded as having said anything about who is going to be rewarded and who punished, he gave the good word to anyone who saw the poorest of the hungry and gave them something to eat, the thirsty and gave them something to drink, strangers and invited them in, those needing clothes and clothed them, those who were sick and looked after them, those in prison and came to visit them. It doesn't really matter whether you "praise the Lord" or, in fact, what you say about what you believe. What counts for us is what you do for the poor and oppressed.

    I'm as frustrated as you by the Christian right. Any Christian who believes that homosexuality is a more important issue than justice for the poor just hasn't read his Bible straight. But religion (of any stripe) has always been hijacked to support the Establishment; God is made captive to the King, and the poor have to approach God on the King's terms. That's not the faith that Jesus proclaimed.

    So, give us a break. Not all Christians are alike, and more of us, I suspect, are on your side than on the other.

    David Hilfiker spent his medical career as a physician with low-income people in rural Minnesota and inner-city Washington DC. No longer in active practice, he is the Finance Director for Joseph's House, a ten-bed home and community for formerly homeless men with AIDS. Along with numerous articles, he is the author of three books, Healing the Wounds: A Physician Looks at His Work, Not All of Us Are Saints, and most recently, Urban Injustice: How Ghettos Happen (Seven Stories Press).