Organising for the common good

graham_hunter_300_wide.jpg'Organising for the common good' is a sermon that Revd Graham Hunter gave at the Chapel Service of the Tulpuddle Festival in July. He encourages us to to work with Christ to ‘repave the road to Jericho’ that it may be safe for others. 

Introduction

It’s an honour to be invited to speak with you this evening at the annual Tolpuddle Festival. It’s a festival with emotional resonance for me – for although this is my first visit, and I’m not actively involved in the Trade Unions movement, I remember my step mother’s collection of political plates which adorned the walls of the living-room and stairs while I was growing up – and which included a ‘Tolpuddle Martyrs’ plate.

I’m not active in the Trade Union movement, but I am active in Citizens UK – the home of broad-based community organising in this country. I serve on the Executive Committee of my local Hackney Citizens branch, and I’m involved in delivering training for new members and organisers. I’m also an Anglican priest – a representative of a body which has not always been sympathetic to those who agitate for political reform and change. However, I’m a Vicar in Hoxton, which – situated just outside the historic City of London – has historically been a hotbed of political dissent.

I see Community Organising as a natural and necessary counterpart to the Trade Unions movement. Indeed a renewal and continuation of the tradition. It’s necessary, because many people do not identify themselves as located within one trade or sector such as are typically represented by unions. Rather, they assimilate and integrate to other institutions: schools and college, residents associations, churches, mosques, synagogues, temples and other institutional bodies for voluntary association. Natural because we share an appetite for justice and equality.

Indeed, the same things could be said of the relationship between Community Organising and the Christian church. The are natural and necessary bedfellows, and the methodologies of Community Organising actually help the Church to be the Church.

Citizens UK community organisers were behind perhaps the most notable and recognisable of its campaigns – that for a nationally recognised ‘Living Wage’ to which employers and associations could be persuaded voluntarily to subscribe. The ‘Living Wage’ is a campaign not of the market nor the state, but rather of civic society – citizens acting together for their common good.

Now, the state are hoping to get in on the act, appropriating, as we heard last week, the language of the Living Wage to meet its own rather less substantial targets. Indeed, the language itself is being debased, and Citizens UK will next week be discussing possible changes to the name so as to be differentiated from the government scheme. Irony of ironies, in a competitive market age, perhaps this civil society movement should have copyrighted or trademarked the phrase!

It seems to me that nearly two hundred years ago, something similar was happening with the Tolpuddles. Industrialisation and mechanisation causing unemployment was driving down the cost of agricultural labour in the north, and putting negative pressure on wages in the south. Then, as now, citizens organised themselves into a society, a union, a coalition to preserve, protect and promote their common goods.

Dignifying work, meaningful contributions to local society, a fair share in the resources necessary for participation in community, the protection of rest and recreation with friends and family – these are the common goods to be preserved, protected and promoted now as then.

So far so good, and if you’ll pardon the expression, I suspect that I’m preaching to the choir here! So what then of the distinctively Christian impulse towards this endeavour – this labour for the common good? Where does it come from in our tradition? Is it consonant with the Christian gospel at all? Do we not simply preach conversion to Christ? Are we not just seeking the salvation of souls for heaven?

Should we not follow the advise of Kaiser Wilhelm II, who claimed in 1896: ‘Pastors should concern themselves with the souls of their parishioners, should promote charity, and should keep out of politics’ (Kaiser Wilhelm II in a letter about Adolf Stocker in 1896, cited in Bentley, 1982, p28)

You’ll be unsurprised to learn that I disagree!

Christian Hope For A Transformed World Deep within the Christian tradition, and inherited from its Jewish forbears, is the understanding that our world is not yet as it should be – that something is wrong. It maintains a keen sense of the injustice of the world as we experience it, where the rich and powerful prosper at the expense of the poor and marginalized.

Christians express confidence that one day, God’s kingdom will be established, and that in the words of Mary: the rulers are brought down from their thrones, the humble lifted up; the hungry are fed and the rich sent away empty.’ Or in the words of the prophet Amos: ‘Let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream’.

Saul Alinksy, the pioneer of broad-based community organising, drew upon this tradition when he described the tension between the ‘world as it is, and the world as it should be’. It is our imaginative vision of a better world which brings about the hope-filled motivating force to work for a transformation of our society realized in the here and now.

For Christians, we can probably do no better than to follow the expression of FD Maurice who said: ‘the kingdom of God is a present reality which is set to renew the face of the earth.’

Christian hope not about escaping the world, but transforming the world – this is essentially a political task. Luke Bretherton, in his seminal book ‘Christianity and Contemporary Politics’, describes and follows St Augustine’s scriptural basis of his political theology. For Augustine, the key text is Jeremiah 29 that we heard read earlier, and in which we’re exhorted, even in exile, to ‘build houses and settle’, to ‘plant’, ‘marry’ and ‘increase’. Ultimately, we’re to ‘seek the peace and prosperity of the city... in its welfare you will find your welfare’

Jeremiah 29 is a profoundly influential text for the Jews in exile, in the intertestamental period, to the early Christians as they sought to interpret their place in the world, and to the Christian tradition through St Augustine’s dependence on the passage for his magnum opus ‘The City of God’.

It’s an influential text for a Christian seeking to understand a theology of Community Organising – as it points us in the direction of relationship building, coalition forming, collaborative work for the preservation of common societal goods.

The exile to Babylon in and around 587 BCE was a tremendously significant period in Israel’s history and their national consciousness. It was a period in which the temple of Solomon was destroyed and looted by their attackers, and in which they felt as though all hope of seeing God’s promises fulfilled had gone. ‘By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept’ writes the Psalmist. ‘How can we sing the songs of Zion in a foreign land’. The exile to Babylon came to represent the forces of the world opposed to God, just as slavery in Egypt had previously symbolised the 4 oppression of God’s people and his plans. Exile was also seen as a judgement upon a wayward and rebellious people – a punishment for the Jews.

However, the letter to the exiles from Jeremiah suggests a different reason for their exile. ‘This is what the Lord says: “When the seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfil my gracious promise to bring you back to this place”’ (Jer. 29:10) When the seventy years are completed for Babylon? The Jews thought their exile was a punishment for disobedience, but it seems as though in God’s plan it was the very presence of his chosen community in Babylon that was to obtain some kind of transformation of Babylon.

Build, settle, plant, marry, increase… Seek the peace, prosperity, welfare and flourishing of the city – for in that is your peace, prosperity, welfare and flourishing secured.

It’s a theme picked up in the New Testament by the apostle Paul when he described Christians as being ‘citizens of heaven’ in his letter to the Christians in Philippi. Paul knew something about holding dual-nationality – he was content to draw advantage from both his Jewish lineage and his status as a Roman citizen. But principally, he claimed, Christians find their identity in the city that is to come – the new Jerusalem.

That does not mean we live quietest lives however – far from it. Christian, Paul says to the Corinthian church, are to be ‘ambassadors’ – the ones through whom God makes his appeal for all things to be reconciled to him. The role of an ambassador is to protect, to preserve, and to promote the rule and culture of one territory or realm while sojourning in another. An ambassador for Christ bears witness to, and seeks to establish, the rule of the kingdom of heaven in the midst of a foreign land. However hard it is, we must ‘sing the songs of Zion in a foreign land’.

Christian Community Organising

What has this to do with Community Organising. Well I think the argument goes something like this: Christians recognise that the world is not as it should be, and bear witness to the coming kingdom of God by establishing its rule within their daily lives here and now. This rule has significant concern for justice, mercy, peace and love. And so the Christian seeks to establish the peace and welfare of whatever place they find themselves living – refusing a separatist ethic, but rather embracing a participative ethic of collaboration for the common good.

This is a clear line of thought in Augustine, who recognised the necessary temporality and provisionality of so much of our ethics and politics due to this inherent tension between the world as it is and the world as it should be. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither is the new Jerusalem. We labour and struggle for the justice of God’s kingdom, but recognising that it cannot be established by force or coercion – but only by gracious persuasion and collaboration as we journey with our neighbours over the ‘world’s tempestuous sea’.

There is a proper place for a Christian secularism – that is, a hospitable space in which different traditions may come together to share stories, to enter into conversation, to build relationships in which they may organise for the preservation of common societal goods. This tradition was brilliantly embodied in our former archbishop, Rowan Williams, despite being received by the popular press with some confusion. “How do you solve a problem like sharia?” was one brilliant headline. Clearly, there will be tensions to negotiate in a secular space.

The brilliance of broad-based community organising is that it has space for the institutions and traditions to which people assimilate, and through which they interpret their identity; but it also promotes space for interactions between individual people: women and men, young and old, rich, poor, black, white, gay, straight – even Tory and SNP!

121s are the building block of community organising – conversations in which we disclose to one another our passions, our commitments and our stories in a search for mutual understanding and for common concern. The campaigns promoted by Citizens UK are all ‘bottom-up’ in the sense that they all begin with a conversation in a coffee shop, at an Iftar or after a worship service. Common cause is built across dividing racial, cultural or religious lines – for we all have an interest in our common societal goods.

Just last week I spent an hour one morning with parents from our local primary school handing out lollipops to cyclists who stopped at the zebra crossing outside the school. We had realised through conversations over the past month or two that we were all worried about our children’s safety, as they cross a road used as a city cyclist commuter route. There was little we could do to enforce proper road use amongst the rush-hour professionals, but we thought that we could at the very least celebrate those who did stop.

Our ‘lollipop’ action was a way of saying thank you to those who will share our concern for people’s safety. But it also had a side effect – indeed, the canny amongst you may realise this may have actually been the principle aim – it brought a disparate and diverse group of parents together and gave them a very simple way they could act together for the common good. They were empowered and inspired – they reported afterwards that they felt ‘fantastic’ and ‘great’.

Conclusion

For a Christian, our participative ethic, our determination to make common cause with our neighbour, regardless of race, religion or culture, is rooted in the biblical injunction of Jeremiah to ‘seek the welfare of the city – for in its welfare is your welfare’. But it is primarily derived from our imitation of Christ who crosses the road to rescue us. The Good Samaritan was the religious outsider, the non-Jew, who made common cause with the man set upon by bandits.

Christian concern for our neighbour, regardless of who they are or what they stand for, is rooted in the knowledge that God did not abandon us to lie bleeding in the gutter, set upon by sin and death, suffering the consequence our alienation from God and one another. Rather, God crossed the road in the person of Jesus Christ, to rescues us, to bandage our wounds, to heal and restore us, and to commission us to labour with him for a better world, for the kingdom of God. In the words of Martin Luther King, we are to work with Christ to ‘repave the road to Jericho’ that it may be safe for others. We are to organise for the Common Good.

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