Power

Church Power!

In any genuine community ... self-interest and public interest are not at odds, but are two names for the same thing. —Andrew Delbanco

COMMUNITY ORGANIZING has been around for a long time—certainly long before 2008, when it became a household word during Barack Obama's rise to the presidency. Not that it is understood nowadays any more than before.

I thought I knew what community organizing was when I served as the pastor of First Congregational United Church of Christ and was introduced to a newly formed faith-based organizing project called Inland Congregations United for Change (ICUC) in San Bernardino, California. But I soon learned that community organizing had a different starting point, as well as a different methodology, than I thought.

As a pastor, I had always been concerned about challenging injustice. However, I came to understand that community organizing is less about taking on yet another good cause and more about the important work of building human community.

As such, community organizing is a perfect fit for religious congregations and clergy. It addresses social justice concerns in the larger community, putting democracy to work by giving voice to ordinary families. But more important, community organizing can strengthen the life of the congregation. And it can bring power to the vocation of the religious leader.

There are four building blocks to community organizing—values, relationships, power analysis, and self-interest.

Values. As I was being introduced to ICUC, I was also taking a continuing education course taught by Ched Myers on discipleship in the gospel of Mark. When he learned what our church was getting into, he threw out a challenge with an implied warning. You have no business getting into community organizing, he proposed, unless you ground everything you do in Bible study.

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Multiplying Loaves

"WE DON'T WORK toward justice; we bring about justice through systemic change," says Rev. Cindy Weber, with a fierce and loving smile, when asked how her congregation, Jeff Street Baptist Community at Liberty, seeks justice through reaching out to the community. There is no pride or bravado in her statement, but a firmness that comes from more than 20 years of pastoring a small, community church that actively helps bring about God's peace on earth.

Jeff Street, located in Louisville, Ky., has an active membership of approximately 100 people—a David-sized congregation compared to many mainline or mega-churches. However, the creativity, dedication, and passion of the church's members, manifested in hospitality programs for and with the homeless, have made a giant-sized impact on local economic justice issues. And the congregation didn't stop there; as part of a coalition of area churches, Citizens of Louisville Organized and United Together (CLOUT), the church has made an impression with policy work and community organizing on the state level as well. Jeff Street's commitment to empower poor people has even reached internationally: Members have invested in Oikocredit micro-lending programs to the tune of $180,000.

"We are a church that knows the difference between justice and charity, and also between charity and hospitality," says Weber.

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Why Powerful Men Get In Trouble (And Why We Care)

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
CIA Director Gen. David Petraeus (L) and Marine Corps Gen. John Allen in 2011. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

First, we had CIA Director David Petraeus being held over the fire for a possible affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell. Then General John Allen, the top-ranking U.S. Commander in Afghanistan, drawn into the drama as allegations of indiscretions of his own with Jill Kelly (the credibility and severity of which remains to be determined), who also is linked to Ms. Broadwell and the related Petraeus drama. Then there’s rumor of FBI agents sending shirtless pictures of themselves to women and … anyway, you get the idea.

As if all of that wasn’t weird enough, now there’s the matter of Kevin Clash, inventor of and voice for Sesame Street’s Elmo, being accused by a young man of having an illicit relationship while the accuser was underage. The man has since recanted his claim, but not before Clash admitted to a consensual encounter with the accuser when he was of legal age, if just barely.

Why do they do it?

Battles for Self

Philip Seymour Hoffman, center, in The Master.

THE MASTER, Paul Thomas Anderson’s stomach-punching, fingernails-down-a-chalkboard psychological thriller loosely based on the founding of Scientology, might be more deeply understood as a tale of two egos. We witness a titanic battle for self-control by a man who knows nothing of it (Joaquin Phoenix’s Freddie Quell), while another struggles to distinguish imagination from delusion, his simmering rage emanating perhaps from the terror that the truth he has found may not be enough (Philip Seymour Hoffman’s L. Ron Hubbard surrogate, Lancaster Dodd). Neither of them knows how to love; both are desperate to be loved. They find in each other a conversation partner, a patient, an unrequited lover. They are two of the most human characters the movies have brought us in a long time; their power trips are terrifying, because they may remind us of our own.

There are many key moments: The first meeting between the war veteran and new religious leader, the dictator bonding with his subject over mutual substance abuse; the master holding court in New York society, first offering tender words of potential healing to a grand dame, then exploding at a guest who dares question the source of his “knowledge”; the protégé being experimented with, commanded to walk up and down between a wall and a window until he is both capable of imagining unbridled freedom and driven nearly mad in the process; a science-fictionesque digging for buried treasure on Arizona flatlands that could pass for Mars.

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Keeping it Real

EVEN IN AN age of ever-faster news cycles and shorter word counts, some journalists still find ways to dig deep into research and reporting to bring history to life and lift up voices that might otherwise be unheard. Here is an eclectic mix of nonfiction works on issues and people that matter.

Can those who commit violent crimes ever truly be rehabilitated? What happens to them once they’re out of prison? In Life After Murder: Five Men in Search of Redemption (PublicAffairs, 2012), Nancy Mullane follows her subjects from prison to welcome-home parties and beyond. While never minimizing the crimes her subjects have committed, she portrays their full, complicated humanity. Moving insights about the ongoing spiritual, emotional, and practical work of accepting responsibility for great wrongs and rebuilding a life after prison are framed by reporting on the convoluted, expensive prison and parole policies of California.

You might not expect gripping drama from a writer specializing in U.S. Supreme Court history, but that’s what Gilbert King’s Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America (Harper, 2012) delivers. Long before he became a Supreme Court Justice, Thurgood Marshall was an NAACP lawyer who risked his life travelling to the Jim Crow South to defend African Americans accused of capital crimes. Devil in the Grove describes his efforts to save a black citrus picker from the electric chair in a Florida county where the Klan and law enforcement were brutally intertwined—and brings alive an era of domestic terrorism against people of color in the not-distant-enough past.

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Dynamics of Ordinary Time

Listening to the scriptures requires a gentle determination to remove the filters that tend, in our religious culture, to allow in only what serves individual solace or personal edification. The scriptures probe the realities of power, how it is cornered, monopolized, deployed, lost, and regained at every level—in societies, in institutions, in families—as well as in the dynamics of our own lives. Even the best Bible study groups and sermons often surrender to the bias exerted unconsciously by our own individual neediness. Perhaps a conscious policy is needed to heed the word of God as it dissects the social body, lays bare its anatomy, and reveals its diseases. This approach may have a greater impact on our personal lives than conventional piety.

Far from reducing the spirituality of our engagement with scripture, learning its hermeneutic of power is likely to intensify our appreciation of its relevance to our own immediate issues and needs. As persons, we internalize and encapsulate the forces at work on a larger scale in a struggling world. God is wholly present as redemptive, suffering, hope-engendering love at every level of existence—from the inner dynamics of the soul to couples, families, neighborhoods, nations, the planet, and the entire universe. One of the most ancient religious instincts of humanity gave rise to the concept of the human person as a microcosm, a world in miniature. Scripture’s word is addressed to us in our unique personhood, and to the churches, communities, and nations in which we are embedded.

Martin L. Smith is an Episcopal priest serving at St. Columba’s Church in Washington, D.C.

[ July 1 ]
'Thou Shalt Share'
2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27; Psalm 30;
2 Corinthians 8:7-15; Mark 5:21-43

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Embracing the Powers that Be

God’s saving power is for all people across time and space. God wills us to believe in divine power, to call upon it, and to respond in faith when we perceive it at work around or within us. We get so lost in our own limited realities that we forget the reality of what is possible with God. We put human power above God, forgetting that God called all creation into being. Power begins and ends with God. And God cares about the details of God’s creation, from the awe-inspiring placing of the stars in the universe to domestic care for ailing mothers-in-law. Continually God uses God’s power to draw us to fullness.

We endure and continue in faith only because of God’s sustaining Spirit—yet we still have responsibilities. What do we do with the invitations to belief, discipline, commitment, perseverance, witness, and proclamation? How do we remain open to God’s transforming power, allowing our lives be a light that breaks through the darkness of fear, hunger, sickness, poverty, oppression, enslavement, and captivity? The first three Sundays this month steep us in the reality of God’s power and presence. We are reminded who God is, of what God is capable, and how we are called to follow. The month closes with the first Sunday of Lent. We know what the coming weeks will bring. The reality of Lent could not be endured without the reality of God’s power and presence offered in these initial weeks.

Enuma Okoro, of Durham, North Carolina, is the author of Reluctant Pilgrim and co-author of Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals.

[ February 5 ]
Wonder-Working Power
Isaiah 40:21-31; Psalm 147:1-11,20c;
1 Corinthians 9:16-23; Mark 1:29-39

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Racism, Moral Law and the Penn State Abuse Scandal

I made myself read the Grand Jury report about Sandusky's alleged crimes and it was 23 pages of vile and inhuman behavior not only by the predator but by those who actually saw it, heard of it, or received reports about it across their desk. 

Then to also learn that all these children were black deepens my sadness.

I am forced to ask some really hard questions.

Are black people that expendable?

Was the fact that they were black, poor and powerless the reason it was overlooked?

Is football, a school, and personal reputation so important that a 10-year-old black boy being raped in a bathroom can be covered up? 

I had an idea that power was corrupt, but this is much more than simply corrupt. It is pure evil.

WARNING: No Compassion. Proceed with Caution.

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Where is the compassion in our economy and our politics? It says much of the economic system that Sojourners even needs to campaign for a "moral budget." How do we, as Christians, challenge structures that allow billions of dollars to be wasted via tax loopholes while 1 in 6 Americans live in poverty?

Will we, as Sachs hopes,

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