The Common Good
November-December 2001

Self-Interest, Solidarity, and Power

by Bill Wylie-Kellermann | November-December 2001

For organizers: Theology 101.

These days all four of the big Alinsky-style associations are doing some version of church-based organizing, and yet there is very little theological reflection engaging this effort. Hence, Dennis Jacobsen's interesting-and probably important-Doing Justice: Congregations and Community Organizing is a book wanted and long overdue.

Jacobsen, director of the Gamaliel National Clergy Caucus (one of those four associations) is himself an extraordinary urban pastor, tough to the powers and vulnerable to the pain in his own Milwaukee neighborhood. The illustrative stories are personal, even pastoral and confessional, populated with lives and faces from his own parish. Hence interesting.

However, the theological illustrations are populated by the likes of Merton, Dorothy Day, William Stringfellow and the Berrigans, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Oscar Romero, Martin King, and Francis of Assisi-not the ordinary pantheon of heroes for an Alinsky organizer. Something very interesting is going on with this book. One wonders if it isn't actually as much a conversation with organizers as it is a theological manual for church people becoming such. On a certain level the conversation is framed between two towering figures.

Congregation-based community organizing joins the values and principles of Dr. King with the methodology of Saul Alinsky (undisputed founder of American community organizing). Here we have a creative, often uneasy tension between faithfulness and effectiveness, morality and expediency, conscience and compromise, the prophetic and the practical, the world as it should be and the world as it is. There are those who cannot handle this tension. It seems to be an unholy alliance. Fine on the face of it. The issues are named and joined, but add the caveat that King would admit no separation of principles and methodology-the unity of ends and means being fundamental to nonviolent love.

The table of contents for Doing Justice (Augsburg Fortress) reads like the agenda for a Gamaliel training. (Jacobsen himself teaches regularly at these.) Two really striking chapters are those on "Agitation" and "One on Ones"-both important methods of the approach. He comes at these biblically, straight from discipleship stories in the gospel of John. This is great stuff. It will preach-and clearly already has.

There are also two striking omissions from the book. One is an effort, organized a couple years back by Jacobsen himself, to circulate a statement on "Jubilee economics," which garnered wide support. This book would be improved with a Jubilee chapter and the only reason I can figure for not including it is that perhaps Jubilee has yet to make it into the central training agenda of Gamaliel. The other omission is Walter Wink's provocative work on the Sermon on the Mount, where he rereads "turning the other cheek" (and the related admonitions) not as milquetoast doormat principles but uppity imperial challenges-and then interprets them in the light of Alinsky's work. Including them here would only seem a natural.

The most crucial chapters, however, are those on "Self-Interest" and "Power," the twin foundations of community organizing. Interpreting these two biblically yields some astonishing twists. Jacobsen, having invoked Bonhoeffer in an argument for engaging the public arena ("the church is the church only when it exists for others"), concludes that "Self-preservation is antithetical to the cross of Christ." This puts him on a very different footing for considering self-interest. He does well, as organizers often do, to identify self-interest as a relational concept, as one having both short and long-term dimensions, and being concerned finally with meaning, with discovery of one's authentic identity. Already a twist, but well and good. However, the crux of his chapter is, well, the crux-the way of cross. Authentic self-interest, he argues, is to deny oneself (that is one's false self), take up the cross, and follow Jesus into engagement with the powers. I agree. But questions arise: Has he so deepened the meaning of "self-interest" as to turn it inside out and upside down? Has the cross in the end rendered self-interest a less than useful term? Or is Jacobsen just trying to make it palatable to people of faith?

Essentially the same questions arise in connection with his treatment of power. It's one thing to say that YHWH is a God of history and transformation, drowning Pharaoh's tribe, or to count the terms and usages of the word power in your concordance, and quite another to assert that "Spirit Power" (ethically divergent from that exercised by earthly rulers) is characterized by healing, humility, shared wealth, nonviolence, and radical community. Inside out and upside down. It's one thing to argue that power is neutral and that the refusal to exercise it a sign of the fall, and something quite different to quote William Stringfellow to the effect that all institutions, all corporations, all movements are fallen. It's one thing to identify Nebuchadnezzar's sin as imagining himself god, and quite another to imply that his wealth and empire would be fine if he'd just acknowledge the true source of power and give God the glory. It's one thing to identify God as a powerful liberator, another to point to that "power" being in the kenosis/solidarity of Jesus, emptying himself out and taking the form of a slave. It's one thing to organize around "winnable issues" and another to conclude that "victory may take the form of tentative triumphs within history or it may take the form of courageous faithfulness in the face of the cross." It is one thing to live in the paradox of uneasy tensions and another to see them stretched into outright contradictions.

The four Alinsky-based networks are actually in a struggle, sometimes quite bitter, with one another for turf. There have been repeated attempts on the basis of self-interest and solidarity to get them together at table, but without success. Jacobsen is quite deferential in Doing Justice to identify the compatible and good work of the other three. Same abiding question: Is this an overt attempt at reconciliation (bad word in the Alinsky lexicon) or is it a masking of their patent contradictions?

Dennis Jacobsen is an iconographer, a slow and patient painter of icons. He is at his best in explaining in a chapter on "Spirituality for the Long Haul" why this is no contradiction at all with being an organizer, but a wondrous and crucial paradox. This counsel is much needed not only by pastors, but by workaholic organizers who run themselves into the ground. It is for all who "need to unleash the contemplative springs within," as Dan Berrigan put it.

Church-based organizing is already affecting and changing the church. Question is: Will it also affect the organizations? This book will surely function as a summons to pastors and church folk. Will it also be an edifying summons to organizers? If yes, it may prove a truly important book.

Bill Wylie-Kellermann, a Sojourners contributing editor, is a United Methodist pastor, community activist, and director of graduate theological urban studies for SCUPE (the Seminary Consortium for Urban Pastoral Education) in Chicago.

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