Friday, November 12, 2010

Reflecting With Scripture on Community Organizing

One of the luckiest...errr...most providentially blessed... pastors I know recently sent me something that he recently had published, and asked me to give it both a read and a shout out.  Jeff Krehbiel is blessed with a wonderful urban progressive church.  But the most unusually beneficent stroke of providence comes from his congregation's location, which is at point-blank range from one of the East Coast's most impressive and comprehensive purveyors of fine beers.   Being a good neighbor, of course, The Rev. Dr. Krehbiel has been called upon to assist them in judging fine beer during competitions

It's a cross he has to bear.

So when he pitched me his compilation of reflections on community organizing and some choice scriptures, I was happy to give it a read.  It's a practical little book, designed to be used both in personal reflection but also in small group study.  It's accessible, well written, and targeted at a lay audience.

For progressive churches that are interested in exploring how to engage with and connect with the needs of their communities, and are interested in being a catalyst for social change, I can see this short series of studies being quite helpful.

Honestly, though, I came away just a teensy bit frustrated.  Not because the bible studies weren't well-conceived, because they were.  Not because it doesn't provide some useful insights into organizing and faith, because it does. 

Rather, it's that in his introduction, Jeff establishes a profound and significant tension between the core ethos of Christian faith and the core ethos of community organizing.    As he puts it:
"Jesus is understood by many church people to be a model of self-effacing humility and powerlessness, while community organizers exult in the virtue of self-interest and the necessity of power.  For many Christians, the vocabulary of faith and the vocabulary of organizing seem to be at odds, if not in outright contradiction."  (Reflecting, p.8)
I've ruminated on this dynamic myself, particularly during my reading of Saul Alinsky's Rules for Radicals.  Jesus isn't, of course, the model of squishy passivity that he can often be made out to be.  He's not the divine doormat on which we smear our sin before we enter the Kingdom.  In Christ, there is real transforming power.  But the central ethic Christ taught and embodied is in profound tension with some of the core tenets of community organizing.  Social power and the politics of self-interest do not harmonize well with the heart of the Gospel.

Having named that highly non-trivial tension, the studies that followed just...didn't...quite...resolve it.   It seemed to get close, here and there, particularly in the fourth and final reflection on Isaiah.   But if you're going to lay out what appears to be an irresolvable tension between the thesis of the Gospel and its antithesis, political power and self-interest, then, dagflabbit, there needs to be more Hegelian dialectic intentionality in establishing a synthesis.

Ah well.   So it goes.

Perhaps that's something best further explored over a few craft-brewed beers.  I find they make dialectic so very much more entertaining.