Tomgram/Chernus and Hilfiker on the Other Christian Activities
- A very encouraging report on Christians who believe in activism and
helping the poor and disadvantaged.
And that there are more of them than most of us have suspected for a
long while. ;-)
a project of the
Nation Institute TomDispatch.com compiled and edited
by Tom Engelhardt
Tomgram: Chernus and Hilfiker on the Other Christian Activists
History can be mind-boggling. Only by reading Andrew J. Bacevich's
superb book, The New American Militarism (excerpted at Tomdispatch
last year), would I ever have known that, into the Cold War era,
Christian evangelicals still nurtured, as he puts it, a
generations-old "robust anti-war tradition." Bacevich adds, "[T]hey
had tended to take a rather dim view of soldiering, seeing the
profanity, harsh conditions, loose women, and cheap whiskey associated
with camp life in the Old Army as not especially conducive to
Christian living. Nor had they sought to engage in collective
political action or to attach themselves to a particular political
party." All that changed decisively in the Vietnam years. But even
today, while white evangelicals tend to be conservative, vote
Republican, and be militarily (or is it imperially?) gung ho, there is
nothing monolithic about them, politically-speaking.
Nor, of course, are all Christians evangelicals by any stretch of the
imagination, or conservatives, for that matter -- though you might not
know it, given the singular spotlight of media attention that, for
obvious reasons, has been shone on Christian fundamentalist supporters
of George Bush and the Republican Party. Christians who don't fall
into that category -- who weren't say, beating the drums for war in
Iraq or for Sam Alito to become a "unitary executive" of the Supreme
Court -- must feel some frustration at often being, however
implicitly, lumped into that category in what passes for our national
So I'm particularly happy that Ira Chernus, a Tomdispatch regular and
historian of religions, who has often taught the history of Judaism
and Christianity, but tells me he "specializes in studying how these
religious traditions affect secular political issues in our country,"
spent a weekend among progressive Christian organizers and decided to
write a report on the world he discovered (which you'll find below).
Perhaps a tad inspired myself, I asked an old friend, David Hilfiker,
a former poverty doctor whose books I've edited, to add his own
thoughts to this Tomdispatch package on the view from the Christian
left. Long involved in the nitty-gritty issues of urban poverty (and
its alleviation), he also wrote for Tomdispatch from Iraq, which he
visited with the Christian Peacemaker Teams both before and after the
Bush invasion. I hope that these two pieces offer at least a peek into
a world that really deserves far more space and attention. Tom
Praise the Lord and Pass the Petition
By Ira Chernus
If you are waiting for a religious left to emerge to offset the
power of the religious right, it may already be in your own
neighborhood at a local church or synagogue. I stumbled across a
branch of the religious left quite by accident recently, in Texas of
all places, though the folks I met would say I was guided to them by
On a weekend in mid-February, nearly 200 Evangelical Lutherans
from all over the country came to Fort Worth for the
Congregation-Based Organizing Strategy Summit or CBOSS. They talked,
planned, and prayed about community organizing. They shared stories
about what they had already accomplished through faith and hard
They had demanded action from public officials and corporate
leaders in their communities, and they were proud of their victories.
Among the local triumphs some of them claimed were: affordable housing
for thousands of families; guaranteed access to health insurance for
all children; treatment centers instead of prisons for criminals; a
new community center where a meth house used to be; free day-care
centers; water and sewer lines for 150,000 rural poor who had none
before; laws requiring public contractors to pay a living wage;
surveillance cameras in police cars -- to watch the police themselves.
The list of victories went on and on. In every case devout
Christians, often allied with secular activists, had put enough
pressure on public officials to turn empty promises into real results.
These Christians did it all because they felt called by the Lord to do
His work, to create justice in the world -- and because they've
learned the rigorous, disciplined organizing techniques pioneered by
Saul Alinsky, who created the Industrial Areas Foundation in the
1940s, and Ernesto Cortez, who then sparked Alinsky-style
organizations from the barrios of Texas to the valleys of Los Angeles.
The Christians I met at CBOSS pray endlessly to Jesus, but their
savior is no meek and mild turner of the other cheek. He is the Great
Organizer. He agitates, builds political tension, and goes toe-to-toe
with any authority who abuses power to oppress people. He is the model
of a fighter for justice who won't ever quit until the wrongs of the
world are righted. This Jesus has political values as radical as --
maybe more radical than -- yours. He offers his followers eternal life
in heaven. But first He demands that they work to create justice on
Earth every day by practicing the arts of tough political love that He
taught so long ago.
They call their political work "faith-based community organizing,"
or sometimes "congregation-based organizing" to avoid confusion with
George Bush's "faith-based initiative," which is a very different
thing. In Bush's approach, religion is supposed to take the sin out of
the sinner. That, congregation-based community organizers will tell
you, is a case of blaming the victim. The problem lies not in the
supposed sins of the poor, oppressed, and marginalized. The real sin
is an oppressive economic and political system that deprives people of
rights, resources, and hope.
That sinful system flourishes -- as they reminded themselves many
times over in the CBOSS meeting -- because the powerless let the
powerful get away with it. When the powerless heed the divine call to
organize, they can exert enough political power to force sinners to
mend their ways, and so to mend neighborhoods, schools, and social
institutions that their greed has destroyed.
I happened to meet only representatives of the Lutherans, but
progressive Christians, it turns out, are everywhere. The Lutherans
organize in interfaith coalitions with Catholics, other Protestants --
and increasingly Jews and Unitarians. In some locales, Muslims,
Buddhists, and other faith communities are joining in, too. They also
work hand-in-hand with non-religious, non-believing activists -- even
out-and-out atheists. If you are involved in any kind of campaign for
justice, these are people you want on your side. They will probably
support most of the same causes you do. In fact, they may already be
working for many of them.
To be perfectly frank, all their God-and-Jesus talk may make you
nervous. A whole weekend of it made a non-Christian like me kind of
twitchy. If your knowledge of Christian activism comes mainly through
television and radio, you probably hear words like
"congregation-based" and "faith-based" and think "conservative" or
even "fanatic." If you hear "baptized" and "resurrection," the words
"Bush" and "right-wing" undoubtedly come quickly to mind. No wonder
Christians make us nervous.
I went to CBOSS as an outsider, accompanying my partner, the
director of Interfaith Funders, a national consortium of faith-based
and secular grant-makers who support faith-based community organizing.
(Their website is a great resource for learning more about the nature
of this community.) But at the closing session, when they called for
evaluation and feedback, I decided to join in.
I asked the Lutherans to understand how hard it is for secular
activists like me to hear their talk. I said they should cut us some
slack when we seem anti-Christian to them, or mistakenly lump all
activist Christians together as "the religious right." I urged them to
overlook our trepidation and work with us for common political goals.
They gave me a rousing cheer. The spiritual godfather of their
movement, Rev. John Heinemeier, a minister who transformed whole
neighborhoods in the Bronx and Boston, came over to shake my hand and
tell me how much they need to hear that message.
But we need to hear their message, too. There is nothing
inherently conservative in Christian language. It can point in any
political direction, even the most radical. After all, it's the
language of Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, and the Berrigan
brothers. If all that stuff about "the power and glory of Christ" and
"all praise to the Lord" makes for knots in your stomach, or even a
gag in your throat, let it be. Put it in the same class as those
aching feet after a long day of leafletting or your aching head from
an all-night organizing meeting. It's just a price to be paid to get
our political work done.
We'll pay a much bigger price if we let the Christians'
God-and-Jesus talk keep us from making alliances with people like
those at CBOSS. If we want to make social change, the faith-based are
the people to work with. Their organizing techniques are among the
most sophisticated I've seen. They've built at least 180 ongoing
organizations in cities and towns across the country, often linked in
huge networks like PICO, the Gamaliel Foundation, the DART Center, and
the Industrial Areas Foundation. By some estimates, they involve
nearly 6,000 congregations, with a total membership of some two
million or more.
We're not talking about single-issue coalitions that win a victory
and then dissolve. These are religious denominations that have been
around for centuries. And they plan to stay around for centuries more.
They can tap into powerful national organizations with immense
resources. Most important, they have an almost inexhaustible energy.
They get it from all that praying and singing and talking about God.
So the next time you hear someone praise Jesus, stop and ask them
about issues like health care, a living wage, affordable housing, and
police brutality. You may be surprised to find an invaluable ally for
your own activism.
True, there may be some issues dear to your heart that you and
some of these Christian organizers don't see eye to eye on. Their
views on social issues like abortion and gay rights span the spectrum
from radical to conservative. But faith-based organizers have learned
a vital lesson from Saul Alinsky, one all of us should absorb: To
build a broad political base, have no permanent enemies and no
permanent allies. Work with anyone who shares your current goal. If
there are some subjects that might create tensions, just don't talk
about them, at least until the goal is won.
At the victory party, you may discover that your Christian allies
have turned into friends. You may find that now, over a beer, they are
ready to listen to your views on subjects once too tense to talk
about. But watch out. They'll be praising the Lord for turning the
world toward justice. And their enthusiasm is infectious. You might be
astonished to hear yourself praising the Lord, too.
Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of
Colorado at Boulder. He is the author of American Nonviolence: The
History of an Idea and later this year will publish Monster to
Destroy: The Neoconservative War on Terror and Sin. He can be reached
Copyright 2006 Ira Chernus
Onward Christian Organizers
By David Hilfiker
I don't always find the invisibility comforting.
Almost any column in any progressive magazine analyzing the
reactionary politics of the far right these days will at some point
get around to taking a hard look at the Christian right that has given
so much energy and supplied so many foot soldiers to that movement.
Fair enough! It's a disturbing connection that should be teased apart.
But then, it seems, the lefty columnist sometimes can't resist the
temptation to lump all Christians together, as if everyone who
believed in God and tried to follow Jesus cared only about preventing
gay marriage and making abortion illegal.
As a Christian -- and a leftist -- myself, I can take the
occasional lampooning, but it makes me wonder whether you on the
secular left, especially the intelligentsia, realize I'm here, realize
how many of the foot soldiers of the Left are Christians (or other
religious people) whose activism springs from deeply held faith. The
first recorded words of the young man I do my best to follow are that
he was sent to "proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight
to the blind, to let the oppressed go free." It's not just a liberal
agenda, but a radical one.
I don't have much in common with Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King,
Jr, or Cesar Chavez, except this: We all are (or were) Christian, and
we've each spent much of our adult lives in the trenches of the
movement for peace and justice. Most of those who have gone to prison
for long sentences for hammering on nuclear warheads, or stopping
nuclear trains, or crossing the line at military bases have been
Christians, and they have often submitted to those long sentences
because they believed their faith gave them no other option and would
sustain them in the dark months of prison.
The four members of the Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT),
kidnapped and still in captivity in Iraq, went to that country fully
cognizant of the dangers of abduction but believing that their faith
called them to peacemaking. Indeed, CPT is one of the few western
non-governmental agencies left in Iraq, having been there almost
continuously since before the 2003 invasion. Within three months of
the fall of Baghdad to American troops, long before the Abu Ghraib
photos surfaced, Christian Peacemakers were actively documenting and
reporting the ways in which Iraqi detainees were being abused in
prison. All because of their Christian convictions.
We're not (mostly) looking for accolades or more attention, but
perhaps you should understand that not all religious people are your
enemies or ascribe to us imperialist or conquering missionary visions.
As a physician and writer, I've been working in the inner city of
Washington D.C. for more than two decades as part of a network of
institutions initiated and maintained by people from one church with
less than 150 members. As part of those efforts:
* Jubilee Housing has offered low-cost housing to hundreds of
low-income residents for over thirty years.
* Columbia Road Health Services has provided medical care for
homeless people and other low-income people from around the city for
almost thirty years.
* Jubilee Jobs helps place over 1,000 people a year in entry-level
jobs and then returns a year later to assist them in obtaining
living-wage jobs. It's active in the District's living-wage campaign.
* Christ House is a 34-bed infirmary for homeless men and women
too sick to be on the streets yet not sick enough to be in the hospital.
* Joseph's House and Miriam's House offer home, community, and
hospice care to homeless men and women with AIDS and cancer.
* Samaritan Inns provides intensive in-patient recovery for men
and women with addictions and then 6-month follow-up programs and
long-term housing for hundreds.
* Manna has built close to 1,000 houses for very low-income people
* Academy of Hope is one of the largest adult education programs
in the city.
All of these organizations hire and serve religious and
non-religious people without distinction; all began well before anyone
talked about "faith-based initiatives." And that's just a very partial
list. And from only one faith community. Indeed, take away the
institutions in Washington DC that have been initiated and largely
maintained by people of faith and there's not much left in the way of
non-governmental services specifically for the poor. I doubt it's
strikingly different in other cities around the country.
And it's not only in charity work but also in activism for justice
that we're present. Bread for the World organizes churches politically
to speak out on issues of world hunger. While the Children's Defense
Fund isn't overtly religious, its founder and director Marian Wright
Edelman is a deeply spiritual Christian as are many of its workers.
Most of the liberal churches have offices in Washington, lobbying for
peace and justice.
We're your friends.
You may not have noticed us because most of us don't proselytize
for our faith; we hope to be the body of Jesus, not talk about it. And
we aren't actually out to convert you to our religion, although we
will try to convert others to our work for the poor and the oppressed.
In fact, the only time Jesus is recorded as having said anything about
who is going to be rewarded and who punished, he gave the good word to
anyone who saw the poorest of the hungry and gave them something to
eat, the thirsty and gave them something to drink, strangers and
invited them in, those needing clothes and clothed them, those who
were sick and looked after them, those in prison and came to visit
them. It doesn't really matter whether you "praise the Lord" or, in
fact, what you say about what you believe. What counts for us is what
you do for the poor and oppressed.
I'm as frustrated as you by the Christian right. Any Christian who
believes that homosexuality is a more important issue than justice for
the poor just hasn't read his Bible straight. But religion (of any
stripe) has always been hijacked to support the Establishment; God is
made captive to the King, and the poor have to approach God on the
King's terms. That's not the faith that Jesus proclaimed.
So, give us a break. Not all Christians are alike, and more of us,
I suspect, are on your side than on the other.
David Hilfiker spent his medical career as a physician with
low-income people in rural Minnesota and inner-city Washington DC. No
longer in active practice, he is the Finance Director for Joseph's
House, a ten-bed home and community for formerly homeless men with
AIDS. Along with numerous articles, he is the author of three books,
Healing the Wounds: A Physician Looks at His Work, Not All of Us Are
Saints, and most recently, Urban Injustice: How Ghettos Happen (Seven
Copyright 2006 David Hilfiker
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posted February 28, 2006 at 3:52 pm
Tomdispatch.com is researched, written and edited by Tom Engelhardt
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post-September 11th US mainstream media coverage of our world and
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sense of how this imperial globe of ours actually works.
An editor in publishing for the last 25 years, Tom is the author of
The End of Victory Culture, a history of American triumphalism in the
Cold War era. He is at present consulting editor for Metropolitan
Books, a fellow of the Nation Institute, and a teaching fellow at the
journalism school of the University of California, Berkeley.