The Common Good
September-October 2000

Communities of Character

by George Schultze-Grijalva | September-October 2000

Organizing around common values

When faced with contemporary social justice questions, churches are called to reflection and action based upon their Christian story. The Christian community is necessarily a body politic that is marked by Jesus Christ and is not a community that identifies itself with any particular socio-political philosophy or culture.

When faced with ethical dilemmas, a danger therefore lies in silent submission to activist voices laden with political ideology. A reasonable believer may appropriately feel uncomfortable when "activist" colleagues strain to gain the communal acceptance of their perspective by masking it as the only Christian thing to do. Rather than taking up the issues of the day as social causes, we are called as communities to witness lives of hope and love in Christ.

Broad-based organizing is one way to address ethical issues without falling prey to inaction or divisive activism. Broad-based organizing recreates a public by bringing together a mix of ethnicities, faith communities, and social classes—an infrequent achievement in our nation. People respond to this organizing because it does not equate Christianity or any faith tradition with the liberal democratic social system but instead organizes people around common values.

In a society where dominant ethics perspectives have focused mostly on means (rights-talk, for example), this developing model is helping people to discover ends (goods in common). While many activists’ demands for action on political identity issues often lead to immediate polarization and dissension, broad-based organizing raises up common values and virtues that communities embrace by their faith stories (Christian love of neighbor, for instance).

Broad-based organizing for social justice has sprung from a lineage that began in the heyday of John L. Lewis, passed through the era of Saul Alinsky, Fred Ross, César Chávez, and Dolores Huerta, and now continues in the work of Ernie Cortes and Mike Clements of the Industrial Areas Foundation and Eliseo Medina of the Service Employees International Union. These people represent a generation of organizers who are receptive to the idea of theology and spirituality being part of their profession. Alinsky told his protégés to read Reinhold Niebuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society as well as his own biography of Lewis. Chávez and Huerta, trained by Alinsky and Ross, organized farmworkers with the help of Protestant ministers educated at Union Theological Seminary by Niebuhrian stalwarts.

Public conflict and tension are part of any organizing that benefits the poor, weak, and forgotten, but sheer activism without the organized hearts and minds of communities is ultimately fruitless.

COMMUNITIES IN Los Angeles have recently participated in broad-based organizing to promote amnesty for undocumented immigrants in the United States. The church, as a community of character, is an international body that identifies with the foreigner in any nation/state, and the LA organizing has united religious groups and other mediating institutions—including schools, labor unions, and immigrant groups—to welcome the proverbial stranger in their midst. Clearly, it is an example of witnessing one’s faith found in the biblical tradition.

Cardinal Roger Mahony and other pastors heard the needs of immigrants voiced in their congregations, reflected on alternatives with their people, and responded in communal action. More than 15,000 Angelenos participated in a one-day organizing event for amnesty. One might contrast this approach with that of activist leaders who have not fully observed and reflected upon a politically charged and media-focused issue with their communities and have entered into public discourse as Lone Ecclesiastical Rangers.

Living one’s Christian faith as a body politic, however, requires vigilance. Churches need to be faithful to their stories. For instance, Christians welcoming the foreigner in the foreign land is not any more important than welcoming children in their communal and family lives (i.e. rejecting abortion). Any faith community needs to be true to itself to ask what lies under the mantle of "justice" that a multitude of nonprofits, advocacy groups, foundations, mediating institutions, and political parties espouse—"Which justice?" is a valid question.

How a community responds to ethical issues in a wider non-believing world requires keen observation, prayerful reflection, and committed action. While broad-based organizing that builds power for the powerless is an encouraging development, the ongoing study of one’s faith and an openness to God’s direction form the ethical bedrock for right living. –George E. Schultze-Grijalva

GEORGE E. SCHULTZE-GRIJALVA, SJ, teaches social ethics and is the assistant for multicultural affairs to the president of the University of San Francisco. Glen Stassen, the Lewis B. Smedes Professor of Christian Ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, serves as consultant and adviser for this Ethics page.

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