Saturday, 20 April 2013

Re-imagining & insurrection: starting from the local

Many of the pieces of 'grit' that for me challenge, nurture and inspire the pearls of bright ideas begin in conversation with my great friend Tim. He's a CEO of a great little charity called Worth Unlimited, that works with some of the most marginalised young people in some of the most marginalised communities around the country, 'building hope, unlocking potential, realising worth' as their strapline puts it. He also happens to be a member of my congregation, and one of my local Labour councillors. We're both enmeshed in national, historical 'institutions', and although we might place ourselves somewhere in the uncomfortable edges, borderlands, of each other's, neither of us can quite get away from them entirely.

Last night we were wrestling with the challenge and possibility of 'reimagining' our society, something I began to explore in my last blog post. Tim suggested that where the Occupy movement fell down was that they were asking exactly the right question at exactly the right time, but weren't able to clearly and coherently articulate an alternative to the neoliberal capitalist system that seemed - at least for a moment - to be crumbling around us. And then, it seemed, the moment passed, and the system continued on its merrily ruthless way, sustaining the wealth-amassing of the richest and slashing the incomes, the opportunities, the resources and the safety nets for the poorest. By contrast, Tim pointed out, the Amish communities in North America have, we suspect, sustained their simple way of life, barely touched by the global financial crises of the last few years. There are alternatives to the apparently all-consuming system - we just need to look for them, and have the imaginative courage to contemplate them.

'We need a new kind of Opposition', I argued in my last blog post. And Community Organising and widespread Time Banking, I suggested, are two key ways of finding it, and bridging the 'empathy deficit' which so poisons 'professional' and 'mass media' politics today. But there is more...

Before 'organising', there needs to be 'community'.

As a Christian theologian, I am reminded of the work of Stanley Hauerwas and those who have associated closely with him. Hauerwas, in a simplistic nutshell, argues long and hard that the Christian community - 'the church' in its local form - should be the location of an 'alternative society', where human beings are formed (from birth upwards) in a different way, with a different kind of imagination, speaking a different kind of language, and acting in a different kind of way, to that of those 'outside'. Hauerwas writes persuasively - and he could never be labelled 'conservative' in any conventional sense: he warmly embraces same-sex relationships, for example, he is unambiguously anti-capitalist, and he would give his life in non-violent resistance to the militarist violence of the world.

But there is more. As important as Hauerwas' 'turn to community' is, highlighting as it does the kind of 'ideal' that the Amish communities we've already mentioned might almost embody, the danger of Hauerwas' rhetoric is that encourages Christians to retreat into their enclaves, away from 'engagement' with their non-Christian neighbours. And also, in fact, it simply doesn't do justice to the way Christians are shaped both by their participation in church communities and also by their participation in neighbourly relationships, in other (non-'Christian') organisations, in economic exchange, democratic politics, and so on. What one of Hauerwas' friends and critics Romand Coles calls the 'radical insufficiency' of each of our traditions, organisations and communities, Hauerwas will never quite acknowledge about the church.

From 'church' to 'neighbourhood'

What we're trying to do in Hodge Hill is a bit different. Shaped and driven by the values of compassion, generosity, trust, friendship and hope we Christians have learnt within our faith tradition, we are committed to being present and active in our local neighbourhood, seeking out and celebrating those values in our neighbours and other local organisations, of other faiths and of none, and finding common ground in those values to work together to re-imagine and experiment with 'growing loving community' in this place. It's untidy, messy even. It's often fragile. It's certainly not always 'successful', in any conventional sense. It relies both on using the power we have (sometimes), and just as often - if not more - on giving it away, or simply letting it go. It sometimes involves taking the initiative, but often involves waiting for others to do so, or responding creatively ('overaccepting', I have called it) to those things that are already underway or just beginning.

We have a long way to go here before we could even begin to claim to be comprehensively re-imagining what 'community', let alone 'society', might look like. The 'Transition Towns' network is an inspiration to me, and I know other friends and neighbours round here, as to the kind of direction we might find we're heading in: a holistic approach to community that includes, centres itself on, the earth itself, that seeks a high level of self-sufficiency - not as individuals, but as a neighbourhood - and that dares to say, loud and clear, 'enough is enough'. But even 'transition towns' are on a journey, rather than 'got there' - and are far from a comprehensive, or clearly-heard, voice in national political conversations. They are good on 'green issues' - but what are 'transition towns' doing about welfare, or adult social care, for example? It would be good to hear, and see, what the possibilities might be, when you start the journey from somewhere radically different.

Insurrection: 'change the system by ignoring it'

With all these thoughts buzzing around my head from last night to this morning, my much-longed-for Saturday morning lie-in didn't really happen. Instead, I reached for one of the books on the 'to read' pile beside my bed, and dipped into Peter Rollins' challenging, provocative Insurrection: To Believe is Human; To Doubt, Divine. In the chapter entitled 'I Believe in the Insurrection', he reminds us, via readings of Batman (The Dark Knight) and The Matrix trilogy, why 'trying to change the system' (the 'token gesture') and 'attacking the system' (the 'perverse protest') both ensure that the system never changes. The 'token gesture' (giving to someone in need, volunteering at a homeless shelter, channelling millions of pounds from Wayne Industries into fighting Gotham City's baddies) might give us a sense of meaning, but can simply mask the oppressive structures and systems that create the needs. Our 'direct and passionate protests' against the system, however, can be just as 'perverse', enabling us to feel like rebels for a while, but often simply turning out to be 'release valves in the system, opportunities for people to resist in a way that [is] ultimately authorized by those in control'.

Rollins suggests a different way, a way with echoes of Hauerwas, but pushing further than Hauerwas would want to go. 'The way of Resurrection life', says Rollins, is 'a way of living that is able to short-circuit the present social, spiritual, or political order' - that is able to 'change the system by ignoring it'. He cites Mother Teresa as an embodiment of this different way: 'who no more protested against the caste system in Calcutta than she affirmed it. She simply lived a different reality.' For Rollins, in fact, Mother Teresa embodies the bigger argument of his book: in committing to her work with passion, while holding a 'deep inner agony and emptiness', Rollins sees her as someone who undertakes a journey, shaped by the story of Jesus, on which all Christians are called to embark: beginning with 'giving up everything for God (Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane), through the act of giving up everything including God (Christ on the Cross) to the point at which we become the very site of God (Resurrection life).'

In the UK today, and perhaps in the world more widely, we urgently need to find a way beyond the 'token gesture' and the 'perverse protest' which allow the system to 'go on' as if there really is no serious alternative. While Rollins helpfully calls me back to my faith, and my faith community, in 'changing the system by ignoring it', he doesn't immediately seem to allow for the messy experimentation within a neighbourhood, to which we're passionately committed in Hodge Hill, and in which we are glimpsing real signs of hope, and alternative possibility. But the kind of 'a/theistic' journey that Rollins sees embodied in the life of Mother Teresa is, I suspect, the kind of journey on which we all need to embark in our neighbourhoods, and our country, for the world to really be changed. We need to come face to face with the impossibility of community: with its inherent brokenness, because of the fragile, broken human beings that make it up - and we need to be able to lament this, with anger and deep sorrow, without clinging to a facade of innocence, but in a way that goes beyond 'perverse protest' or violent scapegoating - in a way rooted in what theologian Andrew Shanks calls the 'solidarity of the shaken'.

This might, if people like me are very lucky, turn out to be a valuable contribution that the Christian church could make to wider society - a witness to that brokenness and impossibility, held together with a witness to hope and possibility; a witness to the possibility of facing up to the brokenness in ways that don't do violence, and don't fall into despair or cynicism. It should, both locally and nationally, be a cause for the Christian church to engage in tactics - opportunistic openings - rather than strategies - those 'grand visions' so beloved of politicians, managers and - at times - bishops and priests (as I have, boringly often, suggested here before).

But ultimately, it is the calling for all of us, as human beings together. To embark on a journey where we find ourselves 'giving up everything for community', through the shock of 'giving up everything including community', to discovering a radically new way of life in which everything has changed, our human brokenness has not been eradicated, and yet love and justice reign. On that journey of re-imagining, of resurrection, of insurrection, we are best of starting the only place we can: exactly where we are - on our street, in our neighbourhood. But it will lead us to the ends of the earth.

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