Lessons for the church from activism
If our lives as Christians, as churches, as diocese and as a whole Communion is to be 'mission shaped', as some Bishops have suggested, then I would have to draw on my time as a Community Organiser as being the most formative and radical missionary discipleship I have encountered. If we are doing Jesus mission, then where better to look than Acts 10 vv 34-43 and how Luke tells us that He 'went around doing good.' (vs 38)
I think we have become very timid about the importance of this, because it became wrongly synonymous with being a 'do-gooder'. A busy body seeking brownie points. Or that it is incompatible with justification by faith alone – too 'works' focused.
But this Gospel imperative can be told in a different way: 'taking action together for the common good'? Roman Catholic's in their Social Teaching can tell you more about the Common Good than I can usefully do here. What I can talk about is the 'taking action together', and the transformative and missionary effect this can have.
Working as, and training others to be, a community organiser, taught me a great deal about power. We broke that term 'power' down and separated the negatives: dominion, coercion, over-rule – from the neutrals – the ability to act, a force for change, a flourishing of self. We taught that (just like the state and the market) civil society could have power too. It's all about organising our people and organising our money. Churches are strong, small pockets of organised people and money. Bring them together with other churches, mosques, schools, trade unions – and soon you have a greater ability to act.
So now, in relationship with one another, conversations can start about the issues that are affecting the neighbourhood, and through these conversations common threads are established and strengthened. Things start to go from the eternal 'Love thy neighbour' to the human 'because we both struggle to re-pay bad debt and want to be able to have a dignified family life'. So the Gospel becomes a cause, and cause becomes a campaign. But now even if the campaign goes away, through victory or through loss, the two things that remain are the Gospel and the relationships you formed – 'the power'.
Organising, when done effectively and broadcast well, has a resonant power beyond those who are directly involved. Unlike the private and personal conversion in Christ, it offers a swelling confidence to the wider church. It encourages others to speak with just authority in the public square. This is what happens when you put the building of power before the pursuit of principle.
Organising is just a vehicle – it doesn't have to be Gospel-centric. It's just that experience proves that it can be extremely powerful when used well by faith communities, and that it thrives when fuelled by the Gospel. When Rosa Parks took her seat on the bus in Birmingham it was the result of a lot of church organising, not the spark for it, and for her it was an act based on Gospel imperative. Her organised action that day was just as St Francis taught "Proclaim the gospel everyday and if necessary use words"
I always encouraged churches to organise to develop leaders, build neighbourly relations and join action because of their Gospel imperative, not because it made expedient or ecumenical sense.
Societal transformation can directly lead to personal spiritual transformation. As an alliance we sought to respond to the financial crisis of 2008; in front of 2,500 people and the Mayor of London one lady came forward to give testimony of crippling personal debt. The power of her quiet words exploded the room. Her witness transformed our campaign into a plight. And her honesty brought forward those who could help her need in real terms.
But her strength and victory also changed her for those around her. By working with her closely in the following months, by organising people and opportunities around her, she went from being a person of need to a person of talent. The effect her talent then had on her son, her fiancée, her Priest and her leafy Thames-side parish church was phenomenal.
What happened through her was a upending of expectations. Gospel can be proclaimed through life story; you can still learn to be a Christian even if you are one already; tending to need can become a flourishing of talent; and taking action for justice is like oxygen for our churches.
If the Gospel is about broken relationships being won back, then our mission on earth as it is in heaven is to reweave the fabric of a broken society.