Mercy and Truth Will Meet
What It Takes To Be a Movement That Matters
Georgia, Atlanta October 11, 2008
I begin with the obvious, based on the economic news of recent days. The ground beneath our feet is starting to shake mightily. Fear leaches into our spirits. Confidence, the true underlying currency of any functioning marketplace, is rapidly being shattered. The questions on everyone’s lips: “Now what?” and “How much worse can it get?”
Harsh as it sounds, from a Christian perspective this isn’t all bad. It isn’t all bad IF it means that some of our false gods might now finally be exposed and rejected.
False gods and misplaced reverence. As in our reverencing of wealth, and (worse) our worship of the wealth-y. As in acquisitive individualism as the real functional creed of most Americans, regardless of the ostensible faiths we may claim. As in our culture’s obsession with personal and national security. As in the imperial presumption almost all Americans tend to make: the presumption that the rest of the world is meant to work and do our bidding in order to ensure our comfort. And behind that: as in the very-much-alive notion that God intends a special destiny, a special providence, for the U.S. of A.
With the markets melting down and with all that we assumed to be solid now melting into air, we arrive at last at a moment of truth. But it only becomes a moment of truth if some truth tellers are willing to step up. If those required “truthtellers” do NOT appear (and this is always a possibility) we then find ourselves in the murky world of Isaiah 59-a world where “we grope like the blind along a wall,” a world where “justice is turned back, and righteousness stands at a distance”; where “truth stumbles in the public square, and uprightness cannot enter.”
We should certainly not expect very much “truthtelling” from the corporate media. For some years now their job has been to keep the circus going, to conceal large and small inconvenient truths and distract us from sensing what is profoundly amiss.
Let us not look either to what I sometimes call the priestly church, to the well-meaning moderates who have already begun to call for an exclusively pastoral response to the economic turmoil. These pastoral types get one part of it right. They get the mercy part right. But it’s the truth part that escapes them, in part because they cannot or will not see that the system itself is broken.
What we need, of course, is a prophetic response-a response that decodes and deconstructs the signs of these times and points toward a human future beyond these ruins. That points toward the still-undimmed promise of community and solidarity available to us after this deluge-that points to the rainbow sign, if you will.
In an authentic prophetic moment, mercy and truth do finally meet, and new growth can begin. New hope can take root, even from badly scorched earth.
So, for example, in relation to the tens of millions now losing their savings, their homes, their college loans, their retirement dreams-a prophetic response to this would acknowledge the hurt, acknowledge the pain, but also say very clearly (and even rudely, if necessary): This is not just the normal ebb and flow of the market mechanism. This mechanism was rigged to the advantage of a few; this system was jiggered to set the rest of us up for disaster. And the people who rigged it, the thieves who jiggered it, are now preparing to do the same thing all over again in the guise of the rescue squad. And yes, righteous anger is an appropriate response. Righteous anger is actually required if the temple is to be cleansed and if an economy that serves ordinary people is to be properly imagined and actively developed and pursued for the sake of those who will come after.
I said I would talk about what it takes to be a movement that matters. In my own organization, we are trying out a kind of mantra to guide the next phase of our life. We say, “As our movement succeeds, individuals and communities grow in faith, find strength in one another, see the world clearly, and liberate themselves and others for social transformation.”
Let me break these elements down to see whether a movement that enables all of theses things to happen does, in fact, have what it takes to be a movement that matters.
The “grow in faith” part and the “see the world clearly” part go together. We need to get our theology right, no doubt about it. But we will never get our theology right unless we are also engaged in mortal and moral combat with the powers and principalities out there. We’ll never get our theology right unless we see the world clearly through the lens of a powerful social critique.
Some examples. I spoke a little while ago about the “greed heads” who jiggered the system. But what about all the rest of us dutiful workers and dutiful investors for whom the phrase, “like sheep to the slaughter,” now seems eerily appropriate? Why have we behaved that way? What’s that about?
With the benefit of some analysis and social critique, I think we can see how passivity and resignation have been nurtured by an iron triangle of consumerism, debt, and overwork that for the past quarter-century have increasingly characterized life in these United States. What might it then take to begin to break this iron triangle? Here we need to shift to the theological side and rediscover the hugely important but largely neglected teachings of what is appropriately called “Sabbath economics”-the biblical motifs of Sabbath and jubilee, where rest and re-distribution and restoration of community all converge, and where exploitation and overwork and intimidation are exposed and rejected in favor of a more godly and more human way.
Now let me suggest a second example of social critique and good theology in fruitful interaction. We have all these wonderful high-minded church folk out there who can see that overt homophobia is wrong. But as yet they don’t have a critique OR a theological frame to help them change the story and change the conversation.
First, the social critique: go search out the connection-or rather, the many connections-between persistent patriarchal thinking and the fear and loathing of same-gender relations. Then to a possible theological frame: go search out biblical images and examples of equal-justice love, of non-exploitative and non-procreative love-the kind of love celebrated in First Corinthians 13, a passage that is often read at straight weddings but not routinely practiced in straight patriarchal marriage. But it is the kind of love that the partners in a successful same-sex marriage know how to model for the rest of us.
In both of these examples I hope you can see how seeing the world clearly and growing in faith can begin to reinforce each other in movement building.
The other elements I mentioned are less about engendering awareness than they are about engendering a movement ethic. Recall what those other elements are: finding strength in each other and liberating ourselves and others for the sake of social transformation. Of course, neither set of elements can really be separated from the other set. Finding strength in each other is theologically significant, just as liberating ourselves and liberating others for the sake of social transformation might be seen as the cutting edge of a growing social critique.
My immediate point, however, is this: Take any powerful social movement and you will certainly find a coherent social vision and set of ideas, but you will also find a sustaining culture underpinning that vision and those ideas. You will find a precious social interaction, a higher everyday conversation that challenges people to give of their best selves. You will find real friendship and solidarity. You will find singing and sharing and “testifying.”
And here I have to say, and I say this partly in the confessional mode: We really have created nothing like that kind of sustaining culture in our progressive Christian circles today, which is why we are not yet a movement. (I hope y’all down here in Atlanta will put some of the needed community and conversation and solidarity and celebration into the mix and show us frozen chosen how it’s done.)
In a word, we need to mix it up and interact with each other a whole lot more than we do. We need to meet and greet one another along the highways and byways and shout encouragement to sisters and brothers united in struggle in every part of the country.
The great Quaker teacher-activist Parker Palmer once said that “we don’t think ourselves into a new way of acting; we live into a new way of thinking.” Bill Coffin said much the same thing. Liberal Christianity, or what we today call progressive Christianity and what some call “seminar room Christianity,” has until now had a really unhelpful taint of elitism around it. We need to change that.
And lest I sound too much like Sarah Palin in my use of that word “elitism,” let me be clear that it is not our progressive theology as such that poses a problem. The problem is in what we do with it; the problem is in how we use it.
Again, I will give an example. Progressive theology understands that vital Christian faith is a verb, not a noun. But then how pointless, even counterproductive, it becomes to proclaim this important insight from an ivory tower or from an immaculate high-end pulpit rather than in the way we live our lives.
Saint Francis said long ago that “it is no use walking anywhere to preach unless our walking is our preaching.”
All right, then. Some final practical observations about how we might organize ourselves for real movement work. And here I will use some organic images that don’t need too much unpacking.
It seems to me that we should create lots of hives and incubators. By “hives” I mean busy arenas of focused activities. These arenas can shift depending on what’s going on in society at any given time. But we also need some more stable leadership training centers and idea-generating centers. These are the incubators. For our younger activists in particular, we need to create intentional communities in a number of cities that will help sustain these activists against the siren song of conventional careerism as they move into their late twenties. Dorothee Soelle tried to teach us about the relation between mysticism and social resistance, but it’s a lesson we still haven’t really absorbed. We need better ways of grounding people deeply for lifelong radical discipleship.
As part of this, we need to see that seminaries as we once knew them, and even congregations as we once understood them, are today rather like that famous grass in Psalm 90: “in the morning it flourishes and is renewed; in the evening it fades and withers.” Our seminaries and congregations are now fading into their evening time, and we had better be thinking about what comes after.
We also need to propagate lots of filaments and networks. That is to say, we need to create the means, online and elsewhere, to keep talking and keep disseminating what is coming out of our idea shops once we get those up and running.
Finally, it does seem to me that we need to work toward some consensus on a limited set of public issues in respect to which bringing to bear a strong progressive Christian voice and witness could make a measurable difference. Equality and inclusion for LGBT people is clearly one. Banning torture is another. Stopping the blanket criminalization and demonization of our youth of color is another. And I feel strongly that taking a prophetic stance against all aspects of modern day debt peonage should be another: I mean organizing to shut down the payday loan operators that prey on poor communities and really challenging a system that now says undergraduates should routinely take on $100,000 in debt before walking forward to receive their degree.
But now I’m getting ahead of myself. And I’m precluding conversation by prescribing what the program should be.
So let’s just agree to get the conversation started. Let’s begin to grow in faith. Find strength in one another. See the world more clearly. And in and through all this, liberate ourselves and liberate one another for the sake of social transformation.
If we ourselves can become the first fruits of the change we seek, then change itself-real change-cannot be far behind.
May God speed this change.
And may God bless the work of our hands and hearts and voices on this day, and in all the days that come after.