A Model for Deep Change
As usual when some half-baked ideas get jumbling around in my head, I recently wound up trying to draw a picture on the back of a napkin over coffee with a rabbi friend.
We were talking about change. About where it starts, where it goes, and the multiple forces involved in getting it there. Before long I drew something that looked vaguely like the diagram above.
I've said before that people working for social justice -- or really any type of change effort -- have to answer four questions:
- What are things like?
- Why are they like that?
- What else should they be like?
- How do we get there?
Around here, it's pretty obvious that I think the oversimplified answer to question three is shalom. My thoughts on the others hopefully come through in bits and pieces. If I can ever get a book written, who knows, maybe I'll be able to say more in one place.
This diagram is a partial working response to question four. It's not so much a "how to" as much as an answer to "what needs to change for real change to occur."
It lines up pretty well with the theory that society has four basic, interrelated strata: the intra-personal, interpersonal, institutional/communal, and structural/systemic. These roughly correspond to the terms (respectively) Story & the Self, History, Future, and Rules. But I don't want to collapse the two into one another.
I'm not ready to christen this my official theory of change, but it's getting awfully close. Here's a brief summary of each part...
Neither oppression nor justice, alienation nor communion, exploitation nor cultivation happen in the abstract. People, institutions, and our systems are unavoidably placed somewhere specific -- as are violence and love, death and life. Poverty is concentrated into or gentrified out of specific neighborhoods with names and stories. Community takes root at an address.
The world we dream of can't be built in the non-existent land of the abstract. And it can't be built generally or from afar. It begins where the marginalized live, and starts construction right there. We need to work on this level of particularity if we're going to create something genuinely fresh. Our journey is always located and passionately local.
Lopsided distributions of power are at the heart of all injustice. The reordering of these dynamics begins when the margins become the new center for discourse, diagnosing root problems, imagining an alternative future, and leading the process of transformation. The incarnation of God as a marginal Jew in Nazareth under Roman Imperial rule offers the prototypical example of the center of power being re-established among and as the marginalized.
There's at least one more major reason why "marginality" is such a crucial starting point. Oppressed people receive less validation, ego-boosting, and material benefit from the present order. This ironically opens the possibility for a more liberated mind than those whose livelihood depends on things staying the same. A mind not beholden to the old ways opens an imagination more apt to see new possibilities, new paths, and new forms of community.
Story & The Self
These two got combined partially because five arrows looked crappy and partially because they are two sides of the same coin.
Systems and cultures -- as I repeat probably way to often -- are built on stories. Change the story and the whole complex that's built on it has to change. It has to seek new goals, follow new values, and rewrite rules. These are the effects at the macro-structural level, but stories don't exist out there somewhere: they live in our minds and hearts. Story change has widespread repercussions, but the change happens first in a person's interior. As peoples' worldviews transform, we grasp a fresh vision that compels us to transform the world. For what it's worth, I think most Americans (of all stripes, but in very different ways) have a worldview shaped largely by three interrelated stories: modernity/coloniality, capitalism, and whiteness. Next to these, the stories of the gospel and God's project of shalom-building stand in sharp contrast.
Coupled closely with adopting a new story, is the broader interior project of adopting a new "self." The development of a person's self-concept and the journey away from a self built on social pressures, anxieties, and trauma is way beyond my pay-grade. But I know that many white Americans need to recognize the ways their self is built on privilege and the falsities of "whiteness." Entering into the Kingdom of God demands a far more radical "dying to self" than we have previously considered. I also know that many People of Color and others who have been marginalized have a self whose worth and value has been stolen. These brothers and sisters will have to rebuild their selfs and rediscover that to be human includes their whole selves.
It's in this space that I have rediscovered the inherent link between social justice and spirituality. Our fears of the other and compulsions to possess are exorcised through the long, dark night of the contemplative life. Only through this self-emptying journey can we receive a new identity rooted in Christ who empowers us through the Spirit to love. Thomas Merton describes it like this:
"The only full and authentic purification is that which turns a man completely inside out, so that he no longer has a self to defend, no longer an intimate heritage to protect against inroads and dilapidations...the full maturity of the spiritual life cannot be reached unless we first pass through the dread, anguish, trouble, and fear that necessarily accompany the inner crisis of 'spiritual death' in which we finally abandon our attachment to our exterior self and surrender completely to Christ."
A new identity (which neccessarily includes an altered story) is the taproot from which we can "be the change we want to see in the world." Said another way, a new identity implants new values that produce new behaviors. And certainly a new world depends on each of us behaving differently.
As I've been relearning from Dr. King, Grace Lee Boggs, and others -- revolutionary work asks us to transform ourselves as we transform the world.
One of my favorite quotes comes from the Native American historian Jack Forbes. He said that "while living persons are not responsible for what their ancestors did, they are responsible for the society they live in, which is a product of that past." By approaching the competing versions of the past from the margins, we consciously root ourselves in what liberation theologians called the "underside of history."
In sum, the patterns of power and oppression, wealth and poverty, relationship and alienation that mark the present are rooted in a long history. Unless we are willing to take direct actions that offset the inequalities and evil our history established, we cannot expect to arrive at a genuinely new place.
I list three possible ways to disassemble oppressive histories and build the Beloved Community, but there are likely more. First, we must actively repair the damage done, whether this was to watersheds trashed by mining operations or Native American communities displaced from their land. Second, we need to redistribute wealth and other assets that were plundered (to use Ta-Nehisi Coates's word) through oppressive systems. Yes, I'm talking about reparations. Third, we ultimately have to reconcile segregated communities across all lines of alienation. It should be noted, however, that true reconciliation cannot happen in the midst of on-going exploitation or violence.
For alternative, just systems to 'work' there have to be institutions in place that are designed to fit into and support those new systems. By 'future,' I mean that we have to bring our eschatological vision into the present. We must build our dreams.
For example, if financial markets and corporate ownership are primary vehicles driving economic inequality, then we will need new investment tools that are accessible to all and circulate money locally. We will need new business models where ownership and its fruits are shared by all employees.
If the goal of continuous GDP growth, the industrial food system, and our dependence on fossil fuels are primary drivers of climate change, we will need businesses and retirement plans not dependent on growth for their effectiveness, we will need local and sustainable farms, and we will need new forms of energy.
If the hierarchical alignment of power in present institutions continually threatens or actively does violence to the well-being of the marginalized, then we will need more democratically structured institutions.
Entrepreneurs who built the first hydraulic-powered factories on the banks of English rivers established the infrastructure for mercantile capitalism while feudalism was still the dominant system. In the same way, we have to begin building the bones of a new system that can supplant neoliberal capitalism even while it still appears to hold all the power.
Rules & Resistance
Government policy sets the parameters for its people on what's possible and what gets serious investment. Policy was also designed in the unscrupulous and discriminatory past. So it's riddled with racism, sexism, homophobia, disregard for the environment and all other manner of destructive bias that's led to structural violence. We get the outcomes our systems are designed for.
There's one important distinction between my point of view and the dominant liberal stream. I do not simply want the current game to be played more fairly. I want a new game. And if we're going to play a new game, we're going to need a whole new set of rules.
Or as Ed Whitfield puts it, we don't just want a better supply of butter. We want our cow back.
Restructuring the game will only happen on the shoulders of a powerful people movement that's gumming up the gears of injustice and demanding transformations. No strategy for justice is competent or capable of deep level success without grassroots community organizing that empowers the marginalized to lead.
Community & Solidarity
In Leadership & the New Science, Margarett Wheatley argues that deep and widespread change is not primarily an outcome of critical mass but of critical connections.
If story is the fulcrum of change and place is somewhere to stand, then relationship is the lever.
Community and solidarity are both the ends and the means of the transformation we seek. The deeper into the work we move, the more precariously into community and solidarity we must lean. Both are devastatingly hard. Particularly for those of us forged in the fire of individualism who worship at the idol of personal success. But the "world as it should be" is a land of mutuality and interdependence. The only road in is through the valley of self-relinquishment and over the narrow pass of covenantal love.
Solidarity in particular is not a word to throw around lightly. I'll close with Paulo Freire's insight into the true nature of this radical relationship.
True solidarity with the oppressed means fighting at their side to transform the objective reality which has made them these "beings for another." The oppressor is solidary with the oppressed only when he stops regarding the oppressed as an abstract category and sees them as persons who have been unjustly dealt with, deprived of their voice, cheated in the sale of their labor -- when he stops making pious, sentimental and individualistic gestures and risks an act of love. True solidarity is found only in the plentitude of this act of love, in its existentiality, in its praxis. To affirm that men and women are persons and as persons should be free, and yet to do nothing tangible to make this affirmation a reality, is a farce.