Wednesday, June 07, 2006

A Conversation on Christian Social Ethics

OK, I promised something worth reading. Below is an e-mail exchange among several of my colleagues on the social justice committee of National Capital Presbytery. This is as good a brief exchange on key concerns of Christian social ethics as you're likely to find in just a few brief e-mails. The primary voices are the Rev. John Wimberly of Western Presbyterian Church, and the Rev. Jeff Krehbiel of Church of the Pilgrims. The Rev. Roger Gench of New York Avenue puts in his two-cents and the final note (so far) is from Gayraud Wilmore. All of them are stalwart progressives and thoughtful leaders. It's a bit long, but worth it. Enjoy.

Dear All: I apologize for not being able to stay yesterday for the rest of our meeting. I was looking forward to the discussion about WIN. As Jeff and I have discussed, I have serious questions about WIN's strategy. While their accomplishments are significant and worthy, I have great difficulty with the idea that all the mayoral candidates come to hear demands from the church then move on to hear demands from labor unions then move on to hear demands from neighborhood associations then move on to hear demands from the business community, etc. The candidates make promises to each group, oftentimes conflicting promises. In this process, the church becomes one more interest group in a plethora of interest groups in this city. But the church isn't an interest group per se. We have a much broader agenda than any interest group.

In yesterday's District section of the Post, their was an article about WIN in which the reporter expressed reservations about WIN's style, saying it was certainly not "pastoral." The reporter wrote the text below in reference to Martin Trimble, WIN's lead organizer:

Trimble, who is trying to put together a similar group in Northern Virginia, tells potential acolytes to go to Union Station and study the quote inscribed on the statue of A. Philip Randolph , the late labor leader who helped organize the 1963 March on Washington.

"At the banquet table of life, there are no reserved seats. You get what you can take and keep what you can hold," it says. "If you can't take anything, you won't get anything. And if you can't hold anything, you won't keep anything. And you can't take anything without organization."

Trimble said the nonprofit group is "not Pollyannaish about the promises made Monday night. What all those candidates were thinking is: 'I don't want anyone talking negatively about me on their doorstep.' But I don't care what the promises are. You have to hold them accountable. And you have to have the power to do that."

While I absolutely adore A. Philip Randolph as a labor organizer, he is one of my heroes, his is a model for unions, not churches. I really wonder how WIN can harmonize the philosophy in this quote with the way Jesus went about organizing or how Dr. King and the civil rights movement went about making significant political gains. Dr. King spoke about love not power or, more accurately, the power of love. Preaching love not power, he gained more power than any politician of his time. I prefer the model of Dr. King to WIN's Alinsky model. Thanks for considering my thoughts. john

John: I think you seriously misread the Civil Rights Movement, and King in particular. King, who was acutely aware of the dynamics of power, said famously,

" the ability to achieve purpose. It is the strength required to bring about social, political or economic changes. In this sense power is not only desirable but necessary in order to implement the demands of love and justice. One of the greatest problems of history is that the concepts of love and power are usually contrasted as polar opposites. Love is identified with a resignation of power and power with a denial of love... What is needed is a realisation that power without love is reckless and abusive and that love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice. Justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love."

So when Sojourners lobby's at the Capitol for the budget, they aren't concerned with power? They aren't interested in rallying citizens who will vote for candidates that support their agenda? When you joined other clergy to press the mayor on DC General, there was no implied threat if he ignored you? Please. Of course there was. The mayor didn't meet with you because you had good ideas. He met with you because you represented a constituency that had the capacity to punish him. (And by his calculation, the determined that your constituency was not sufficiently organized to worry about, which is why, in part, he ignored you.)

Moreover, WIN's agenda is not "narrow." We developed our "agenda" over years of patient organizing in every city in the neighborhood, through thousands of one on one meetings and house meetings and strategy sessions. And I believe our platform on May 22 captured the soul of the city and the best pastoral concerns of the church. There was nothing narrow about it. Too bad you weren't there, but the post covered it well (see links below). In the Post article you referenced, Martin was responding to activist critics who accuse WIN of being naive, that the politicians just made to us a bunch of empty promises. We intend to continue our organizing to ensure that those promises are fulfilled.

As for Jesus and Alinsky: see Walter Wink’s piece.

-- Jeff

Jeff: Thanks for the thoughtful response. I didn't say Dr. King denounced power. He said that Christian effectiveness flows from focusing on love, not by focusing on power itself. For me, the key in the quote you cite from Dr. King is the line "power is not only desirable but necessary in order to implement the demands of love and justice." It is love that is generally missing from the language of Alinsky-based organizing and strikingly missing from Martin's articulation of the WIN vision. When I went to the first big organizing meeting at Metropolitan way back when, I heard a consistent message: We will win over our opponents with power. Dr. King never, ever would have said that. One pick out a few lines of a speech here or there that sound like he was focused on power. But anyone who was around then or has read extensively about his life knows that power was not his focus. It is why even his enemies came to respected him. He said that we win over opponents with love and the power of God. Obviously, he organized people into a powerful movement. But the organizing principle was love, love and more love. The focus on power rather than love is why I dropped out of WIN then. It is why I continue to question its methodology today.

As for my protests against the closing of D.C. General, you write, "When you joined other clergy to press the mayor on DC General, there was no implied threat if he ignored you? Please." In fact, there was no threat, implied or stated. That isn't the way I operate. I don't think it is consistent with the Gospel. I feel my responsibility is to speak truth (as I understand it) to power, not seize or accumulate power. If the principalities and powers listen, I am happy. If they don't, I intensify my efforts to gain their ear. If that doesn't work, I know the history of powers that don't listen to the truth---they disintegrate and disappear. And, of course, their is the infinitely remote chance that I am wrong!

The accomplishments of WIN are significant. However, the methodology is flawed, in my opinion, and leads the church into a role in society that has led to the church being diminished and discredited whenever it happens. Whenever we become perceived as a political interest group to whom the principalities and powers bow, the separation of religion and state is damaged. And when that happens, both religion and state are damaged. john

First, let's be clear about one thing. WIN is not the church. It is a citizen's organization organized through institutions, primarily but not exclusively churches. It is not the church's only voice, it does not pretend to be. It is certainly not my only voice, nor Pilgrim's only voice, and it does not prevent me, or the church, or any of our members from being involved in any number of ways in the world.

Back to your comments: To make no threat, implied or otherwise, may have been on your mind when you met with the mayor, but not with those who met with you. The accompanying newspaper articles make that clear enough. And it was not what King did in his organizing. To simply "speak the truth" with no concern for the effect or consequence is to be indifferent to justice, which is what King's quote points to. King did not want to just speak about love or justice, he wanted it enacted, which requires power. It makes no difference to you that DC General closed? Well, it makes a lot of
difference to a lot of other folks. So which would be better, to say, "Let's work to keep DC General open, by organizing effectively so that the political leaders of the city hear our voice," or, "What we're going to say won't really make a difference, and we aren't concerned with outcomes, just in speaking the truth."

I would contend that those actions were all about power, just poorly executed. And when you go with your church to your City Councilman and he promises to build a shelter for the homeless, and then he doesn't, but votes to give some big tax cut to the Corcoran Gallery instead, there should be no consequence for that? You would not encourage your members to vote for a candidate with other priorities? (The vote, as King's biographer Taylor Branch notes, being the most important tool of nonviolent social change. Branch, by the way, has been involved with WIN's sister organization in the IAF in Baltimore, BUILD.)

Did you not participate in the South African divestment campaign? Withdrawing financial support was not a coercive use of power in the cause of justice? Of course it was. It was an effort to punish the South African government, and to punish corporations that did business with them.

One of the reasons I got involved in organizing with the IAF was out of frustration with clergy who were content to simply "speak the truth" without doing any of the hard work for justice. So we would light a candle at Rodney Square in downtown Wilmington against the death penalty, but do nothing to actually get the death penalty changed. But boy, did we speak about truth and love! I'm sure the people on death row were impressed.

To say WIN or the IAF, or Alinsky for that matter, is ONLY concerned about power is to distort our actions. Alinsky talked, and the IAF talk, a lot about power because they want to help people get things done, and have constantly to help good church people understanding that love and truth without power will never achieve justice. So yes, we talk about power. But to say that we ONLY focus on power is just false, and I don't know how you could sit through a WIN action and come to that conclusion. The moral voice of the churches in WIN lack no shortage of focus on love or justice. That has been abundantly clear in everything WIN has worked on to date. (And Alinsky too. He started organizing in Back of the Yard, then in Woodlawn, Buffalo, Rochester, always among the poor and disenfranchised. If he had been interested in power for power's sake, he would have worked someplace else. He was interested in power for those with no place at the table-- as the Randolph quote points to.)

-- Jeff

Lest we continue to clog up everyone's inbox, maybe we should just agree that we disagree: profoundly, respectfully. John

I am hesitant to join this discussion because I have not been attending these meetings, but the discussion between Jeff and John is key to Christian Social witness and ministry. So for whatever its worth, here are my two cents. The gospels do, in fact, talk about Jesus in terms of power. In Mark, when folk say of Jesus "what is this -- a new teaching with authority." "Authority" here can be translated "power." It is also said of Jesus in the gospel that he did works of "power." Power is a perfectly legitimate understanding of the gospel in the world -- note Reinhold Niebuhr's translation of love into justice which is the balance of power. Indeed, Niebuhr's social ethic would be vacuous without "power" that is in dialectical tension with the love. The two -- power and love -- are not antithetical, but must be held in tension. I have worked with the IAF for over 15 years now, and the IAF organizations I have participated in are very conversant with Niebuhr's understanding of love and justice. I don't know what "justice" would mean without power, just as justice without love is brittle. Much thanks to Jeff and John for engaging this discussion.

Roger Gench

Since one or two of you seem to be actually reading these, I'll go one more round. (It's my day off. Keeps me for having to work on the lawn.)

I guess I'm still not entirely sure, John, what the issue really is here. In the old PCUS there as a doctrine that the church should not be involved at all in civic affairs (which allowed the church to ignore Jim Crow for 100 years). Is it just the rhetoric? You can exercise power, just not talk about it? Not acknowledge it? Not teach about it? Not be strategic in its use? While this does not make your argument wrong, I will say, that in all my years of organizing, the only colleagues who have ever raised issue with the IAF's talk of power have been white male clergy. I have yet to have an African American or female colleague raise such concerns. That does not mean your concerns have no merit, but it does raise the question if at least some of this arises from discomfort on the part of some with their own relative position of power and privilege.

You concede that King did not denounce power, but that seems to be what you are doing. When you attended the WIN event back in '98, you were disturbed when Joe Daniels said, "we are organizing for power." But of course, that wasn't all that was said. Many things were said that night about WIN's purposes, things about love and justice, things which I imagine you support. In addition to those things, it was also said, "We are organizing for power," something you allege neither King nor Jesus ever would have said. I won't speak for Jesus, but I disagree about King. The quote about power I referenced earlier says exactly that.

WIN has never said, as you well know, that we are organizing ONLY for power (that would be absurd). We have said that, in the pursuit of justice, working in the most disenfranchised areas of our city, we are intentionally and strategically organizing for power. That is, unlike myriad previous efforts (whose numbers are legion) that have organized with similar aims and lofty goals but have quickly petered out or fallen short of their goals, we intend WIN to be effective over the long haul, and we are not so naive as to believe that we will be effective just because we have love and truth on our side. We will also need power, power in the real world.

The IAF teaches that in the world of politics, power has two sources: organized people and organized money. We don't have much organized money (though we have some, which WIN has used for good purpose, as have our sister organizations in the IAF, which collectively have built over 5,000 units of low income housing, in part by organizing millions of dollars of church money to provide 0% construction loan financing). We do have the capacity to organize people, consistently and over time, which is WIN's source of power. When we sit down across from the mayor, or members of city council, or leaders of the Federal City Council, they don't listen to us because we have good ideas (though we do have good ideas, just not good ideas alone), but because we have numbers. This is what the IAF teaches. We organize relationally, building relationships one by one over time based on common self-interest. We don't have power because we attract high profile celebrities, or because we contribute large sums of cash to campaigns. We have power because of organized people. It's as simple as that. And in the process we teach our people how to use that power to accomplish our aims.

So, yes, is a city-- in a world-- in which ordinary citizens-- especially poor citizens, are shown everyday who has power-- the corporations, political leaders, the wealthy-- the IAF says to its members, "You also have power, but to use it you have to work for it, organize for it, and use it strategically." The IAF teaches that we organize in the "world as it is" on behalf of "the world as it should be." In the world as it should be, the concerns of the poor would be central, and ordinary citizens would have the same voice as the chair of the Federal City Council. In the world as it is, that is not the case. WIN understand that, and teaches it.

While the IAF organizes differently than the Civil Rights Movement, on this I see no difference. When King called for clergy to join the march to Selma, it was because he understood strength in numbers (power.) Of course he also believed that the marchers had truth and righteousness (and dare we say God) on their side. But the more marchers the better! Not because more marchers made their cause any more "true," but because more marchers made their march more powerful. The March on Washington was nothing if not a show of power. Every march has an implied threat! (Kennedy certainly understood that.) And, again, when you joined other clergy at the Mayor's office to press about DC General, you also understood there was strength in numbers. That's why the organizers called you and asked you to join them. They wanted as many people there as possible, as many clergy as possible (not because you are more righteous, but because you are presumed to represent a constituency), and I imagine they were especially keen to have you there as a White clergyperson not from Ward 8, to demonstrate that this was not just an east-of-the-Anacostia concern (that is, they were strategic). You think the mayor would have met with you had you come alone? Not a chance. (He would have if you were the Cardinal. He also understands power.) And if you believe there was really no implied threat in showing up in numbers, you are either being disingenuous or naive. The mayor certainly understood the implied threat. You may not like the coarseness of Martin's language about "punishing" those who ignore WIN's demands, but I imagine you might share, from time to time, such stories in your sermons about political leaders who ignore the concerns of the poor and cater only to the interests of the rich, and I also imagine that your congregants might pay attention to such stories, and perhaps even vote for someone else the next time around. Their vote is also punishment, whether you call it that or not. (Which is what voters did in the last election, when they turned Harold Brazil, Kevin Chavous and Sandy Allen out of office to "punish" them for ignoring their concerns, especially on the baseball stadium.)

I write so passionately about this because when the 800 members of WIN gathered at Asbury United Methodist Church on May 22, from such diverse constituency as St. Albans Episcopal Church in Ward 3 to Anacostia Bible Church in Ward 8, in common cause around an agenda to invest $1 billion dollars in neglected neighborhoods, build and preserve 10,000 units of affordable housing (including not only low income housing but transitional housing for homeless families), and create a $350 million fund for youth services, it was for me a glimpse of what the Kingdom may be like. I don't know of any organization in the city that has achieved anything like that. And we were able to do so because we are also willing to talk, teach, and organize around power.

-- Jeff

Again, I'd like to have this debate in person. But two quick points:

1) If you don't think there is widespread and deep opposition to/questioning of WIN's tactics in the African American community, we live in different cities.

2) A quote with which I will begin our debate when it resumes:

"The church must be reminded that it is not the master or servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, not the tool of the state." Dr. King Strength to Love


John, I sort of regret that I've not been able to participate in the on-line discussion of the issues raised by your exchange with Jeff. I thought that my hospitalization and rehab experience was over for the present (thanks to the many well-wishes and prayers of friends and family members), but I learned just today that I've got to go back in for another spell of tests and procedures having to do with a recurring heart disease. So I'm not going to try to put more than my two-cents in at this stage of the game.

I really think that your idea of two short working papers that could be distributed at Presbytery and discussed at various times and places would be a modest but reasonable way of encouraging brothers and sisters to share in unpacking and solving old but always timely problems in Christian social ethics. But it's also possible, unfortunately, to get so excessively bogged down searching for an infallible verbal solution for problems like the love/power conundrum that urgent action on some pressing issue at the end of our noses gets passed over out of sheer exhaustion. That's a disease especially known to afflict highly educated and verbose Presbyterians. I hope our social justice committee will learn to always be wary of it.

I remember that the debate between African American Christian activists and the Maulana Karenga-wing of the Black Power movement on the west coast covered much of the waterfront on agape and dunamis. And most of the people involved never went to seminary! That discussion was most vehement (if not always enlightening) between 1967 and 1969 and, if anybody is interested, it can be revisited in the opening pages of the first volume of "Black Theology: A Documentary History," edited by Cone and Wilmore and published by Orbis in 1993. It may be helpful to the current discussion to see how the issues were framed in the Black community between the followers of Martin and Malcolm, between the religious mugs and the secular thugs, during the waning years of the church-led civil rights movement.

In any case, there is doubtless some benefit in re-opening the debate. Only the issues are so madly contextual and existential that the argument really needs to be joined by real live combatants on the actual field of battle--that is to say, in the historical moment--than hypothetically around mahogany tables in nicely appointed church parlors. But I don't mean to be flippant. It really does involve matters of life and death and too few of us seem ready to die.

Gay Wilmore

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