Faith-Rooted Organizing: Mobilizing the Church in Service to the World
Sometime early in the last century, Evangelicalism removed itself from social justice.
Thankfully, some gradually re-entered the realm of charity as our theology became less reactive. And, slowly, a smaller subset entered into community development.
As privileged people reconnect with the poor and we learn to view the world from the margins, we're forced to recognize how the systems that form our society are unjust and in need of transformation.
To reframe the old adage: what good is teaching a person to fish if political policies allowed a corporation built a wall around the lake and drain the water?
In this trajectory, Alexia Salvatierra and Peter Heltzel are the kind of wise guides the 21st century Church needs. They are experienced practitioners steeped in scripture who help us discern the unexpected ways Christian theology and spirituality can inform community organizing and advocacy for justice.
Faith-Rooted Organizing is in many ways written in conversation with Saul Alinsky’s (the "father of organizing") traditional organizing techniques. It's a work of contextual missiology that creatively critiques and affirms what the world has already offered (a modern day effort, perhaps, to transform the radical Saul into a redeemed Paul?).
My favorite section (no big surprise) is the author’s exploration of shalom justice. The blend of theologian and activist make Heltzel and Salvetierra the perfect pair to address the subject in both its biblical and contemporary settings.
Organizing must be directed toward some end. The authors believe, for Christians, that end is the biblical vision of shalom which characterizes the just systems and reconciled relationships of the Kingdom of God. Shalom is the marriage of “justice to peace and love” (34). As such, our methods for achieving justice must be consistent with our goals. Violence and self-interested power grabbing are not adequate Kingdom strategies for justice. Rather, we are to achieve transformation through creativity, relinquishing power to the “least of these,” standing together as a community which embodies our yearnings for the broader world and by loving our enemies.
For example, they critique traditional organizing language that focuses on identifying self-interests and targets (the leader an advocacy campaign is trying to sway). Shalom is not predicated on self-interest, but on a community that seeks the wellbeing of all. Nor does a just peace emerge from an adversarial posture that views others as a target to attack -- in the Kingdom we love our enemies and speak to the imago Dei alive within them.
Salvatierra and Heltzel humbled me with poignant reminders that the power of prayer matters when we try to influence structural change. And these are not simply prayers lobbed from a distance toward the halls of power. Valid as those are, the authors provide example after example of recalcitrant Christian leaders who were convicted to repent after movement leaders prayed with them or asked their priests to pray with them.
Unfortunately, this is not an organizing text that can stand by itself. The strength of the book is its reconsideration of organizing tactics through the prism of the Christian faith. However, precisely because it is a ‘reconsideration’ it largely skips on providing basic how to’s. For example, the authors mention “power mapping” in passing but do not equip the reader to power map before moving on to explore power from a Kingdom lens. Though some practical advice bleeds through their stories, the lack of concrete processes is an unfortunate oversight that could have been easily corrected.
Faith-Rooted Organizing is a testament to the power of solidarity and a beacon of hope in the midst of politically unstable times. Read it in conjunction with this downloadable introduction to traditional organizing or a more in-depth text like Smock's Democracy in Action. Then make go make an impact for God's Kingdom.