Thursday, July 13, 2006

You Better Work it!*

*[am I the only one who remembers RuPaul’s dance floor classic?]

Let’s talk about work. (Since this week at the office has exploded all over me like a flaming bag of poo, I thought Work would be an appropriate subject for this go-round.) And let’s think about the work that doesn’t get done when we try to say that ‘values’ and ‘faith’ is the same thing. The two aren’t interchangeable, though they are related; this is the problem I have with the way these two terms are used in our public political discourse because I think that while Faith and Values are good in themselves they may not be the best way to create social change or solve a problem. Rather, I think the solution rests in Work.

When I say Work, I mean the difficult labor of making change. It is the process (be it small or large, on a local or national level) through which a discernible difference can be made in someone’s material circumstance. Does this mean that a person’s spiritual change can't also manifest in social change? Brian McLaren doesn't think so; he posits that Christ’s gospel is really so revolutionary, it has immediate and radical implications for both private and public life – a truth that has been tamed in our church tradition so that the Gospel resembles nothing more than nicey-nice verses telling us all to love one another.

(Full disclosure: I’m only on page 40 of McLaren’s book. Sigh. I keep putting it aside to read my new serial killer thriller.)

Let’s back up. Last week I posted about Obama’s speech on the Democrats' need to engage more people of faith in an authentic way and not to shy away from issues of faith. While I agreed faintly, I disagreed, strongly, that we should be concentrating on Faith as Electoral Strategy. Instead, I wanted us to start looking at their Work, not as an Electoral Strategy (which puts a box around progressive work), but because it’s what has to happen.

Lately, the ‘religious left’ story has popped up in all sorts of places. Here , here , and here . And, even here . Adele Stan, in the American Prospect piece, writes:
At the root of all of the great faiths are fundamental beliefs in compassion, justice, love, and charity. We have the right -- dare I say the duty? -- to express ourselves as moral agents without the imprimatur of ecclesiastical authority.

Spoken the right way, arguments for the embodiment of these values in our civic life can ring with the divine provenance granted to them by believers. And indeed, religious activists -- especially our ministers, priests, rabbis, and imams -- are vital to our movement. But to expect them alone to create a moral counterforce to the destructive fear mongering of the right is not only unrealistic, it’s an expectation rooted in abdication of our own role as moral agents.


I want to concentrate on the word ‘movement.’ It’s a political word. It’s a word that brings to mind force, power (both of the people behind it and that which it is battling), and largeness – the largeness of the idea behind the movement and the largeness of the goal of the movement. For me, it’s a much more relevant and piercing call than one to Faith and Values. Yes, I have faith in Christ and through Him all things are possible; yes, I want to evangelize an ideology (which is what ‘values’ are) of equality, tolerance and grace. But to what end and do I really believe all that?

I am reminded of a church song that says “They will know us by our love.” For me, being progressive has always been about the fundamentals of love writ large. There is grace for everyone. We care for our fellow man, our fellow worker, our fellow struggler because they matter. They are not insignificant and they are not here simply as chaff for the fiery destruction of the world – nor are they meant to be soulless fodder for a corporate war machine.

But I’m suspicious of Faith and Values language because I don’t tend to believe the person who’s using it. The conservatives use it to hide their power and the left is using it to hide our rage. So let’s use a different language. Let’s use a language that was just fading from use when I was born – the language of a revolutionary love. Let’s start getting real about identifying who has power in this society, and who doesn’t. Let’s start being real honest about whose interests are behind which policies and who’s getting screwed by those policies – and how all of that must change. Let’s start thinking about a movement that’s less ‘Can’t we all get along?’ and more James Cone (as quoted in Sharlet’s piece in The Revealer):
‘authentic love is not ‘help’ — not giving Christmas baskets — but working for political, social, and economic justice, which always means a redistribution of power. It is a kind of power which enables [the oppressed] to fight their own battles and thus keep their dignity.’ [emphasis mine]


But since redistributing power means that those with privilege – class, race, and gender privilege - must confront it and then willfully step away from it, (thus personifying the whole ‘first shall be last’ thing in the Beatitudes), I have little hope such justice will occur any time soon.

We of the left seem to have forgotten that the personal is political – and that all politics are local. Instead let's forget electoral strategies. We already know that nothing trickles down, least of all change. Let’s get mucky on the bottom, on the street, in those grassroots we theoretically love. Understanding and evangelizing the ideological behind the ordinary is how we must affect change; it is how we must create a cultural shift. It’s not trendy, clean, or easy. It’s fracking hard. It means actually penetrating the communities we want to change; it means actually educating people about and implementing real, tangible, meaningful social change while transcending shallow election tactics that are only relevant every four years. It means ORGANIZING.

I do not accept the answer ‘it’s too much work’. It’s not Work when you mean it.

5 comments:

Molly Malone said...

"But I’m suspicious of Faith and Values language because I don’t tend to believe the person who’s using it. The conservatives use it to hide their power and the left is using it to hide our rage."

... amen, sister. But what disconcerts me more is that that language, for whatever it hides, is ultimately fearmongering and demagogurey.

I have felt for darned nigh two decades now that if the Republican party spent half as much time actually DOING some of the Gospel instead of just jawing on about it, my fellow countrymen would be in better shape. And frankly, I'm just as concerned about religious rhetoric coming from the Left degrading into so much theatrical piety as well.

During the '04 campaign, a church friend of mine worked on Kerry's religious communication and outreach committee. I remember asking her how the Democrats can appeal to people's faithfulness without stooping to the phariseeical pigeonholing ("you can't be a liberal AND a Christian!" as if God makes those distinctions) that I've seen coming from the religious right for years. She said she felt that was the biggest challenge.

I think that's what scares me most about the Democratic party, and organized liberal political groups waking up to the faithful Christians (among others) in their midst: it would be so easy to slip into the mode of "God likes my dove better than your dove."

I think ultimately I agree with you. Change the language to WORK. Enact a vernacular. Physicalize the grammar, don't just yadda yadda. Notice Jesus said, "Let you light so shine before men that they will see your GOOD WORKS and glorify your father who is in heaven." Not, "hey, God loves lip service; why don't you all just ramble on?"

JustMe said...

i agree with you completely, ding!

‘authentic love is not ‘help’ — not giving Christmas baskets — but working for political, social, and economic justice, which always means a redistribution of power.

yes, YES.

greg said...

Excellent post that dovetails quite nicely with the sermon today at my church, that was all about the relationship between religion and politics.

But first, I gotta say that molly malone's "hey, God loves lip service; why don't you all just ramble on?" really struck my funny bone. I'm still grinnin'.

Our sermon today was all about how God cannot be "domesticated," by which my pastor meant "put on a leash" in the service of this or that political party or agenda. Do we need to work to see our values, inspired by our religious traditions, realized in the workings of our government? Absolutely. Does doing this mean that we can claim God is on our side? Absolutely not. Or at least, God is not any more on our side than God is on anybody else's. It seems so obvious as to hardly merit mention that God loves all of God's creation, and yet all of us (maybe especially liberals) have a hard time remembering this. The kind of work that you talk about involves getting out and talking to, and working with, other people. There is no better way to remind ourselves that those "others" are just as much a part of God's creation as we ourselves. Sure, the religious right has a big problem in this area, but given the great big log in my own liberal eye I suspect my energies would be best spent just getting to work.

ding said...

precisely.

i think this religious left/right conversation would change significantly if we took a look at it from those terms - not from the POV of 'who's way is better' - but through the lens of 'how can we work for social justice'?

this is a goal that encompasses more than salvation, i think. i don't think that salvation is a poor goal, in itself. by no means.

but it would be nice if we concentrated on the work of it, rather than how it's going to play down in peoria with the religious folk.

ding said...

Does doing this mean that we can claim God is on our side? Absolutely not. Or at least, God is not any more on our side than God is on anybody else's.

i wish i had time to unpack this right now. (damn this office!)

but this is a provocative statement and one that needs more attention, when it comes to how we use God in public or to bolster whatever positions we have.