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Tomgram/Chernus and Hilfiker on the Other Christian Activities

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  • George Hamilton
    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
    Message 1 of 1 , Mar 1, 2006
      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
      the Lord.

      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
      political work.

      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
      at chernus@....

      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
      to purchase.

      * 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
      Stories Press).

      Copyright 2006 David Hilfiker
      - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
      posted February 28, 2006 at 3:52 pm


      Tomdispatch.com is researched, written and edited by Tom Engelhardt
      (bio), a fellow at the Nation Institute, for anyone in despair over
      post-September 11th US mainstream media coverage of our world and
      ourselves. The service is intended to introduce you to voices from
      elsewhere (even when the elsewhere is here) who might offer a clearer
      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.
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