Wednesday, February 22, 2012

On power and repentance: community organizing during Lent

“Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing”
-          Joel 2:12-13

“We want to see our values in the world today. And how do we do that?” asked the trainer.

“By building power!” we responded.

“And what is power?” asked the trainer.

“The ability to act!” we responded.

“And what are the two sources of power?”

“Organized people and organized money!”

“How do we organize people?”

“Through their self-interest!”

This was an exchange that I participated in several times throughout last week at Cedar Lake, Indiana. It was probably the most intense training I’d ever done, a sort of community organizing boot camp. We came from all over the upper Midwest, and while we worked on a variety of campaigns—shutting down dirty coal power plants, fighting foreclosure of homes, divestment from the big banks—we did share a common goal that week.

We wanted to learn to build power.

The ironic part is that as I do my one-on-one meetings to identify my neighbors’ self-interest (more on that methodology here), I have ashes on my forehead. While I cut issues and do power-analyses, I contemplate my own mortality. As I plan effective meetings with my partners in the newly formed Bridgeport Alliance, I practice self-denial and penitence.

Like the season of advent, Lent is a Christian liturgical season of preparation, fasting, and penitence. It seems like an unlikely counterpoint to the community organizing that my neighbors and I are currently doing on the near South Side of Chicago. Often in organizing we tap into our anger about how the world around us is so different than the one we want desperately to see, but Lent is about seeking humility as we approach the immanent suffering of the cross of Christ.

However, Lent is also a season of repentance, or better said, metanoia, the Greek term that appears in the New Testament and for which English has no perfect, exact translation. I’ve heard that the concept goes beyond the guilt and self-correction that often goes along with repentance. Metanoia is more like a reorientation of one’s heart and mind, but it also requires action. It requires the changing of old habits so that we can begin the long sanctification process which, at least as far as I can tell, has no end.

If we look at Lent as a season of metanoia and sanctification, then really organizing for power in my South Side neighborhood is an appropriate response to the imposition of ashes. Towards what end are my neighbors and I oriented? Is this same end that the residents of the metaphorical Clout Street?
Methodists’ ancestor is faith, John Wesley, stressed how while Christians must be disciplined in our quest for personal holiness, we must also always be just as disciplined in our quest for social holiness.

I learned some things about that discipline at that powerful training in Indiana last week. After all, if I will return to the dust anyway, what will I lose by running the race to win the prize (1 Cor. 9:24)?

On the contrary, we have a pretty good shot at winning.

No comments:

Post a Comment