Seeing the World As It Is

January 27, 2011 — 6 Comments


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 say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

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“:

We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”–then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair.

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.

Anderson Campbell


  • Bill Westfall

    Thoughtful post. I also appreciated the connection that can be made to Hunter and Myers. I love the way Alinsky closes the book…his passion for caring for others is revealed. I also had to chuckle a bit at his disdain for Christians. It seemed almost every reference to them (us) could have been concluded with the bold remark, “hypocrite!”At any rate, there is much to be learned from Alinsky in the ways of the world, and the need for us to find ways to stand up for the rights of the poor and oppressed.

  • Chris Marshall

    1. great comic 2. good stuff as always. Alinsky lacks the metanarrative that Hunter and Myers coceptualize with. Alinsky, perhaps as the secular humanist, seem to have his hope that when balance occured there would be a kind of harmony between haves and have nots. He assumed with a balanced society that humankind would find a kind of “shalom”. I think philosophically, that’s where his view is humanistic and naive. Without a real story of redemption of self and soul, of transformation and of a coming hope, humans will suffer.

  • Rodger McEachern

    Eddie – with you I believe Alinsky has many thingsto teach us., You mentioned Myers and Hunter…I think Myers would accomodate himself more to Alinsky’s rules of organization then Hunter. If Alinsky were a Christian Hunter would see him as attemting to change the world through politics and ressentiment…yet in this Hunter shows his anabaptist roots tending towards separtion. Myers is much more willing to challenge the ‘powers’ that oppress and create unjust situations…a reflection of the theological tradition he comes from I would think. Thanks guys for a lot of good stuff to think about!((tags:dmingml)) #dmingml

  • Russ Pierson

    Eddie, “you had me at hello.” I very much resonated with this statement: “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.” That is absolutely the sense I leave Alinsky’s book with–we could get along, him and me.Your insight into Dr, Martin Luther King Jr was also well worth the price of admission. I have had occasion to travel to Memphis four different times through the years, and every time I have felt compelled to make pilgrimage to the National Civil Rights Museum, built at the site of the Lorraine Motel where King was slain. There I remember and I weep and I dream big dreams.P.S.–Love, love the comic! πŸ™‚

  • MIchael Hearn

    Rodger – I agree with that Myers would identify with Alinsky more than Hunter…I also think at the grass roots level Hunter and Alinsky view the genesis of change differently. Eddie – You write (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”) at first glance I agree with this but something inside me says even if we recognize the world as it is if we do not view it from the proper lens our perception will never be accurate. If the lens is not that of Christ we will never really see the truth and the world will become like we want it to be and not how Christ desires it to be. I always enjoy your writings thank you for forcing me to think through so many things. #dmingml

  • Anderson Campbell

    Michael – I appreciate you bringing “lenses” into the discussion. You are right when you assert that we must see the world through the lens of Christ. It does color how we see what we see now. I think, though, that too often we put on the lenses of Christ and then look to the sky instead of looking around us.