This week our cohort is discussing Saul Alinksy’s Rules for Radicals which is a standard in grassroots organizing. My colleague, Andrew Bloemker has done a great job recapping the “rules” in his post “Do you want a Revolution? Or a Revolt?” Reaction to Alinksy by my colleagues has been broad and varied. For some his blatant secular humanism and moral relativism tempered any good that might come from his writing. Others were bothered by his development of tactics that seemed too close to those used in failed communist revolutions. What everyone seemed to agree on, however, was Alinsky’s brazen pragmatism. Love him or hate him, his rules and many of his tactics are still foundational to a broad range of groups – from Greenpeace to the Tea Party – and utilized by influential leaders across the political spectrum – from President Obama to Glenn Beck.As I was reading the book, I was alternately inspired and made to squirm. To be sure, Alinksy and I differ on some very foundational issues: the meaning of life, where hope is found, and why justice is important, to name a few. Yet for all those differences, I could see myself working side-by-side with Alinksy to achieve common goals, even though we might vehemently disagree about why the ends are important. In the book one of the themes that most captured me relates to his ideology of change. He writes, “The basic requirement for the understanding of the politics of change is to recognize the world as it is. We must work with it one its terms if we are to change it to the kind of world we would like it to be. We must first see the world as it is and not as we would like it to be” (Kindle location 340, emphasis added). Many of us in the church (myself included) miss this crucial first step. We jump right to the hope, the Promised Land, the Pearl of Great Price, without first understanding where we actually are. Evangelicals have paved the path to personal salvation by starting at individual sinfulness, moving to the necessity of Christ for redemption and the promise of forgiveness and eternal bliss. Why do we not do this when looking at broader injustice? In August of 2010 during the opening session of Willow Creek Association’s Global Leadership Summit, Bill Hybels, pastor of Willow Creek Community Church, remarked that leaders “move people from here to there” and that the “first play” in any movement of people from one place to another is not to cast a vision for how wonderful “there” is, but to make “here” sound awful. Consider Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech:
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
I have a dream today.
I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.
I have a dream today.
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.
This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.
As eloquent as this vision of “there” is, it has little weight without this passage from his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail“:
Or consider the Biblical example of Nehemiah who, upon touring the burned gates and toppled walls that surrounded Jerusalem, organized the remaining residents to rise up and rebuild. They were the daily residents, living without the security of a wall. Yet it took an outsider pointing that out to them, reminding them of their perilous situation, and then casting vision for what ought to be.Most of the Old Testament Prophetic books are grounded in dire warnings about why “here” is awful before ever outlining the “there” God promises his people. For Isaiah there is no beating of swords into plowshares, spears into pruning hooks (2:4) without first describing a people who are “a sinful nation, a people loaded with guilt, a brood of evildoers, children given to corruption” (1:4) nor is there power in looking to a time when God “will create Jerusalem to be a delight and tis people a joy. [He] will rejoice over Jerusalem and take delight in [his] people; the sound of weeping and crying will be heard in it no more” (65:18b-19) without understanding the current predicament in which God’s “sacred cities have become a desert, Jerusalem a desolation. Our holy and glorious temple, where our fathers praised you, has been burned with fire, and all that we treasured lies in ruins” (64:10-11). This principle is key to Alinksy’s manner of organizing people. One must start from where one finds himself. It is only from that vantage point that one can chart a course toward the Promised Land. It is key to us as Christian organizers also. Just as the richness of God’s grace is magnified by a right understanding of our sin (Romans 5:20-21) so too is the vision of hope made all the more compelling by a right understanding of present circumstances. Rather than jumping right to the end of the story, we need to begin where we are. Bryant Myers would add that we should also put our story in the context of the larger Biblical story. God’s activity in the world, his presence in communities suffering injustice, did not begin with our advent. Rather, we must take time to not only see where we are, but also where our community’s story is in relation to God’s story. In that respect, James Hunter‘s “faithful presence” offers a hopeful synthesis of Alinksy and Myers, urging Christians to “seek the shalom of the city.” Both Hunter and Alinksy argue for developing some credibility among communities in need of change. While Alinsky tends toward polarization–it is, after all, one of his “rules”–and Christians may disagree with his ethics–“To me ethics is doing what is best for the most” (loc. 654)–his contributions to organization and leadership cannot be dismissed out of hand. Near the end of the book he describe the role of an organizer as being “a job first of bringing hope and doing what every organizer must do with all people, all classes, places, and times–communicate the means or tactics whereby the people can feel that they have the power to do this and that and on” (loc. 2,865). On that, at least, I think we find common ground.