Monday, 7 April 2014

Changing stuff: Reclaim the Streets, Desmond Tutu & the DWP

How do we make things change? Beyond the work of community-building in our neighbourhoods - nurturing places of encounter, building relationships of trust and friendship, connecting people together through their passions, gifts and skills - how do we engage in movements, networks, flows that stand any chance of changing the bigger stuff - systems, governments, widespread prejudices and attitudes, 'the powers that be'...?

I realise it's a big question. But it's one that a lot of people seem to be asking, reflecting on, writing about, talking about at the moment - and it feels urgent, exciting, and more than a little heady to try and enter that conversation.

I've recently been re-reading a quite brilliant book on 'Christianity and Contemporary Politics' by Luke Bretherton, in which he describes politics, within a 'Christian cosmopolitan vision', as involving:
"the formation of a common world of meaning and action within particular places. The formation of such a world entails, on the one hand, the breaking down of those structures and patterns of relationship that exclude vulnerable strangers from this common world and, on the other, the upholding of those structures and patterns of relationship that maintain this world as a common one."
We grow up, says Bretherton, within "concentric circles of relationship", with neighbours near and distant, and, from a Christian perspective, as we seek to love those neighbours we are orienting our relationships towards an "eschatological horizon of fulfillment" - the image is of "the gathering of all peoples to the messianic banquet that has already begun amid the fallen structures of the earthly city". And this "horizon of fulfillment", Bretherton suggests, "both draws in and constantly interrupts all attempts" to make a particular place either "idolatrously self-sufficient" or "totally encompassing" in terms of our "economic, political, and social relationships". So on the one hand, "various forms of nationalism and identity politics overvalue the particularity of a place (be it cultural or geographic)", while on the other hand, "liberal cosmopolitan, global conceptions of citizenship, and the reductive universalism of capitalism" undervalue the particularity of place. [Bretherton, Christianity & Contemporary Politics, p.211]

I find Bretherton's reflections really helpful here, for a number of reasons: he refuses any simplistic polarities like 'now, bad; future, good'; he values and focuses on the importance of place; he embraces difference and seeks not sameness or unity but places where we can 'be-in-common'; and he holds on to an ultimate hope that isn't deferred indefinitely, but is already breaking into the here and now.

Into this 'frame', I find a lot of things beginning to 'fit'. I've blogged here and here at length on my suspicion of 'community resilience' language, as disabling our imagination, desire and agency to change things beyond the local. I'm also more and more persuaded that while 'resistance' language is helpful, to a point, the fact that it is inescapably defined by - even dependent on - the thing it is 'resisting', very quickly becomes problematic, again limiting the possibilities of our imagination, our desire, and our agency.

From an eschatological perspective, instead, we can turn things around and see what currently seems like the 'status quo' (e.g. global capitalism) as in fact 'resisting' that which is coming (i.e. in Christian terms, the peaceful and just kingdom of God). This is what I'm finding all over the place, in non-Christian language, in the writings around 'post-capitalist politics' (see e.g. J-K Gibson-Graham) and the Occupy movement, to name but two. And the resonances between these streams of thought and action, and those of the Christian tradition, intrigue and excite me.

Take, for example, Gibson-Graham's reflection on the 'Reclaim the Streets' (RTS) movement - 'short-lived', 'embodying the political value of interruption (as distinct from endurance)', but 'producing an affective shock wave that reverberates through the brittle architecture of established forms' of political agency and spatial governance. Quoting Rebecca Solnit, they cite RTS's 'incendiary carnival spirit, global Internet communications, and tactics of temporary victory [my italics]' as creating 'part of the vocabulary of what came next'.

I like the idea of RTS's 'tactics of temporary victory'. It reminds me of one of the most profound stories (for me) from the anti-apartheid movement, as told by Jim Wallis, veteran American Christian campaigner for social justice, about the great Archbishop Desmond Tutu:
"A political rally had just been canceled by the white government, so Bishop Tutu called for a worship service instead, inside the beautiful cathedral [of St George's, Cape Town]. The  power of apartheid was frighteningly evident in the numbers of riot police and armed soldiers massing outside the church. Inside, all along the cathedral walls, stood more police openly taping and writing down every comment made from the pulpit. When Tutu rose to speak, the atmosphere was tense indeed. He confidently proclaimed that the 'evil' and 'oppression' of the system of apartheid 'cannot prevail.' At that moment, the South African archbishop was probably one of the few people on the planet who actually believed that. 
"Archbishop Tutu point[ed] his finger right at the police who were recording his words. 'You may be powerful, indeed very powerful, but you are not God!' And the God whom we serve, said Tutu, 'cannot be mocked!' 'You have already lost!' the diminutive preacher thundered. Then he came out from behind the pulpit and seemed to soften, flashing that signature Desmond Tutu smile. So - since they had already lost, as had just been made clear - South African's spiritual leader shouted with glee, 'We are inviting you to come and join the winning side!' The whole place erupted, the police seemed to scurry out, and the congregation rose up in triumphal dancing..." (Jim Wallis God's Politics)
What Bretherton calls the 'eschatological horizon' puts Reclaim the Streets' 'tactics of temporary victory' into hopeful, transformative perspective. Even 'short-lived interruptions' can be glimpses of the triumphal celebrations of Desmond Tutu's 'winning side', especially when the place of those 'interruptions' is hospitable enough to invite oppressors to 'cross the floor' and join those they have been oppressing, glimpses of the 'common world' which Bretherton describes as both real possibility and ongoing task.

Our work locally in Hodge Hill is rather more mundane than the confrontation in Cape Town cathedral, or the 'incendiary carnival spirit' of Reclaim the Streets. But if change doesn't begin where we are, then it doesn't happen, full stop. One of our dilemmas in the last little while has been how closely we associate our twice-weekly Open Door drop-in with the local JobCentrePlus, and the whole oppressively punitive DWP system within which JCP staff have to operate. We have, since we opened Open Door, welcomed quite a number of people who've been referred our way by JCP. And then, more recently, we've discovered that some people coming to us have been told their attendance is compulsory - in other words, if they don't come to us, they risk getting sanctioned.

What do we do with this? Nothing of what we're about wants to collude with the vicious, dehumanising system over which the DWP presides. But we'd rather people came to us than to some of the other places people get sent - one of our regulars contrasts us to a rather more corporate work club where, he says, "you're treated like dirt", pointed to a computer with barely an acknowledgement of your existence, let alone your humanity. We have been very intentional about trying to create a space where relationships work differently, where people are honoured and respected in their complexity and vulnerability, where people's gifts are celebrated and connected together as well as their needs met, and so on...

Resonances come from conversations with other people and places. We've heard recently of a Christian organisation that employs 'relational youth workers' in school settings, often taking 'referrals' of young people struggling within the school system, but seeking to create a very different kind of environment, where young people can be welcomed as gifts, rather than problems, and where friendships can be nurtured, rather than targets striven for. "In the system, but not of the system," is how the organisation describes their role, echoing an old formula from Christian theology.

And food banks too, while deeply ambivalent, are proving, in some places at least, to be the openings to relationships of mutual respect, friendship and reciprocity, and functioning to 'conscientize' often white, middle-class, naturally-Tory-leaning volunteers into an angry disgust at a political system that forces people into a desperate dependency on emergency food supplies.

What we're edging towards, I think, is a description of places, spaces, environments however temporary or fragile, where, to quote RS Thomas' wonderful poem, The Kingdom, "there are quite different things going on". Not separate from everyday, compromised, ambivalently messy reality, but in the midst of it - but "in the system and not of it" - 'threshold spaces', we might call them, from one world into another. This is language with which Christians are relatively familiar. We have been used to talking about it in relation to church buildings, and Christian worship. I want to suggest, picking up on the kind of messiness I tried to describe in my previous blogpost, that it's much less tidy than that. It is happening in spaces unrecognisable as 'church', in canvas encampments and midnight street-walking. It is happening among people who claim 'faith' and many, many who don't. But there is something profoundly eschatological, profoundly hopeful, about what is happening. And it is changing stuff - slowly, perhaps, but it's still changing stuff: one encounter, one relationship, one place at a time.

1 comment:

  1. Lovely Al.

    I studied under Archbishop Tutu in 1999 a and gained internal and external insight beyond anything I could have imagined.

    Systems Thinking and Acting profoundly influence my endeavors to join in God's shalom-making.


    Dave Cooper