Thursday, July 1, 2010

Alinsky, Gandhi, King, and Jesus

One of the reasons that community organizing schtuff appeals so much to progressive Christians is that it reminds us of the great and noble movements of the 20th century. We recall Gandhi's radical call to the people of India to peacefully liberate themselves through nonviolence. We recall Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and how he applied those same nonviolent techniques during the civil rights movement. In those memories, Christian communities find significant inspiration. Both of those movements were defined by an ethic that is fundamentally sympatico with the central teachings of Jesus.

Whether you describe it as nonviolence or satyagraha or "soul force," the assumption of those movements was that violence begets violence. The only way for a powerless community to liberate itself from oppression was to abandon the violence that underlies all oppression. Instead of violence, the communities would aggressively apply nonviolence. That didn't mean inaction, but rather direct action that intentionally assumed that the opposing side was human, and capable of grace if confronted by grace. It's the whole "loving your enemies" thing, applied to the challenge of injustice.

As Rules for Radicals was written in 1971, I was curious to see just how Alinsky would deal with nonviolence as a central ethic for transformative community organizing. The answer was interesting. In his recounting of the movement for Indian independence and the civil rights movement, Alinsky makes it clear that he views nonviolence as a tactic, and not an ethic.

This is unsurprising. When he uses the words "morals" or "morality" in Rules for Radicals, he almost invariably "puts them in quotes." Ethics are, for Alinsky, imaginary things. If a moral code helps you effectuate change and articulate power in a community, then great. Stick with that moral code. If that moral code gets in the way of your goal, then to hell with it. All that matters is what works to move you closer to your goal of change.

From that worldview, Alinsky argues that when Gandhi used nonviolence, he only did so because it was a tactic that had a chance of working. Had the Indian people been able to throw off British rule with force of arms, then Gandhi would have told them to take up their rifles. Or so Alinsky suggests.

Similarly, the use of nonviolence by the civil rights movement was just a tactic that matched the needs at the time. If African Americans had the numbers and the clout to rise up in violent revolution and succeed, then they would have. He suggests, looking at where race relations were in 1971, that eventually such a path might be taken. By Any Means Necessary, as some used to say.

There is some truth in Alinsky's assessment of nonviolence. As he points out, nonviolence only works as a political instrument if your opposition is willing to accept a shared humanity. Nonviolent resistance would have worked rather badly against the Nazis. Then again, it did prove itself rather impressively in Imperial Rome during the first and second centuries.

Yet by claiming that nonviolence is just a tool in the organizer's toolbox, a tactic to be whipped out or packed away depending on the circumstance, Alinsky shows he really doesn't quite understand it. To successfully practice nonviolence, it has to be a defining ethic, both the ultimate goal and the value that suffuses and defines every moment of life.

Particularly the hard ones.