The post below comes from Scarry Thoughts, the blog of Joe Scarry. Joe refers to Alinsky. For those unfamiliar with the life and work of Saul Alinsky and his seminal work in organising communities, please go to:
Saturday, January 17, 2015
How Shall We Live in the Face of Empire? (Reading Mitri Raheb)
I'm excited to be headed to Israel/Palestine in March, to participate in a study trip lead by Pastor Mitri Raheb of Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem.
I preparation for the trip, I'm reading Pastor Raheb's book, Faith in the Face of Empire: The Bible Through Palestinian Eyes. It's raised some challenging questions for me.
The obvious context is Empire and its power
Pastor Raheb emphasizes that people who are Christians, and people who care about Palestine, and people who fall into both categories, all need to care about the problem of Empire -- because that is the context in which Jesus found himself and because that is the context of Palestine.
"Just another day in [insert city name here]."
He emphasizes, moreover, due to geographic factors Empire is and has always been the context in Palestine.
As someone who became a full-time peace and justice activist in the context of Chicago's preparation for the 2012 NATO Summit, I would add that Empire is the context in the U.S., too. (We just do a better job of averting our eyes from it here, in the new Rome.)
That's not a reason to give up on confronting Empire. It's just one of the key facts with which we need to prepare ourselves.
But start where the power isn't
The rather startling thing that Pastor Raheb points out is the way Jesus dealt with that context. We are invited to notice that Jesus did not trek to Rome to take on the power holders. In fact, although he ended up in Jerusalem, the local capital of Empire, that's not where he spent most of his time.
Jesus spent the vast majority of his time in Galilee, and he spent it with a diverse array of ordinary people. Galilee is not a fancy place. It's not where you go if you want to hobnob with the rich and powerful set. The "social network" that you might be able to build in Galilee is . . . well . . . what is it, exactly?
Pastor Raheb challenges us to think about people on the "margins" -- which is simply a way of saying where the power isn't.
Members of the coalition to shut down Guantanamo join hands in Chicago.
For somebody like me in who is part of the activist community in Chicago, this is a difficult challenge indeed.
One of Chicago's great traditions is "Alinsky-style" community organizing, that is, community organizing designed to get results, with a no-nonsense focus on power relations and achievable victories, based on the principles of pioneering activist Saul Alinsky.
("Alinsky-style" community organizing is great -- but some of us (for instance, members of the Logan Square Ecumenical Alliance) have been examining whether it is enough. We've been talking about a more "faith-rooted" kind of organizing, one that is less single-mindedly built around "power.")
Another of Chicago's other great traditions is pragmatism. The Chicago apostle of pragmatism, John Dewey, reminded us that we simply can't lose sight of the results we are trying to achieve. In fact, Dewey said, an idea is a function of action and results -- in effect, a "bet" that you place on what is going to work in the real world.
So . . . doesn't everything we do need to serve the struggle? Especially the relationships we build? Isn't it all about power? Isn't it all about results? How can it make sense to keep returning to the margins?
In other words, if the determinant of who you give attention to is not "those with a high likelihood of aiding the struggle," then how can we be confident or hopeful? How can we have faith?
(What's the true context, anyway?)
How is it be possible that we can confront Empire without being forever and always calculating about the potential impact of each and every one of our actions? Is it worth doing anything that isn't aimed at the heart of Empire?
I wonder if that is what Jesus was struggling with as he sought to wrestle control of the words like "kingdom" and phrases like "good news" away from those who had come to believe that the only context in which those words made sense was power and violence.
Certainly fidelity to a Creator God requires that we see that our true context extends much farther and much deeper than the bounds of any Empire (though it is inherent in the conduct of Empire that this truth be denied at every turn).
Listening and being heard
Can we sense that the denseness of the field of human experience and of relationships between people, and the infinitude of possibilities raised thereby, is something we can only begin to plumb, and something that all too easily recedes from consciousness?
I think particularly of Jesus at the well in Samaria. Instead of living out the conventional wisdom, which would lead him to shun anyone he encountered there, Jesus spent the time to listen to the woman at the well. She was taken aback that he could see her, that he could hear her. (In fact, she was so shocked that he was hearing her that she couldn't stop telling others about it.)
I wonder if what Jesus believed was that God's wish for humankind is for us to dwell in this true context, in its entirety.
"Yes, free from the oppression of Empire; but a whole lot more, too."
I wonder if this invites us to undertake a different kind of work. Listening instead of speaking.
I wonder where our "well" is . . . !
(1) Is this analysis borne out in scripture? Really?
(2) If this understanding of Jesus is true, what might it lead you to do differently?
(3) Why, in the end, did Jesus go to Jerusalem?
(4) Where does this lead us relative to the conflicts in Israel/Palestine today?