Populism and the Politics of Jesus
We are pleased to share this lecture by Angus Ritchie in which he exposes the fake populism in which wealth and power remains in the hands of elites. He explores fears prevalent among the churches of the ‘multitude’ and finds that the politics of Jesus places the poor at the heart of the church. In doing so he offers a way forward for the church to embrace an ‘authentic populism’ that builds up local leadership and reverses the logic of paternalistic reform. First delivered as the Annual Micah Lecture 2019 at Liverpool Cathedral, the ideas here are fleshed out further in Angus’s book, Inclusive Populism.
I want to think with you about the meaning of populism - and about the relationship between different forms of populism and the politics of Jesus Christ.
So let me quickly outline the structure I’ll be following:
- I want to begin with a little bit of east London history, to explore with the place of “the multitude” or “the mob” in the imagination of the Church of England;
- Secondly, I will make a distinction between two different kinds of populism;
- Thirdly, I will explore the politics of Jesus, and the light it casts on the practice of populism, and
- Finally, I will propose a practical way in which Christians should respond to the rise in populism in our own time.
In any discussion of populism, it is important to recognize how threatening “the mob” has often seemed to those in positions of political and religious power. As the Established Church, the Church of England offers case in point – and I want to explore this by a whistle-stop tour through the history of my own parish (St George-in-the-East, in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets).
St George’s was designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor and completed in 1729. It was one of twelve built by the Tory Government in the early eighteenth century (they planned to build fifty, but then, as now, Government announcements tended to exceed the eventual realities).
As Michael Ainsworth explains, “The agenda was as much political as pious: imposing edifices towering over the homes of the working classes as a sign of the national religion - especially needed, it was believed, in the East End where immigration was taking hold and there were many dissenting conventicles.”
Now let us fast forward a century. In 1830, the Reverend William Quekitt was serving in a rural Somerset parish when he heard that the post of Curate and Lecturer was being advertised at St George’s. Charles Dickens takes up the story, after Quekett is appointed. Quekett arrives in central London and as he is taken by coach and horses towards east London: “They passed street after street, but they were all City streets; and one after the other they grew dirtier and dirtier, until at last a climax of abominations greeted eye and nostril and well-polished shoes.”
"Surely", interposed the curate, "this cannot be the way to St. George's?" "Certainly it is", was the reply; "and this very place is in the district you are to take charge of." "This!" gasped the curate with astonishment. And he stood still as he spoke, half shuddering amidst the … thieves, rags, filth, foul smells, and wretchedness, as his mind and spirit flew back to the country scenes and country friends, he had that morning left.
"Here! I could never live here. The air seems thick with impurity. I thought St. George's meant St. George's, Hanover Square." (Even if you are unfamiliar with the detailed geography of London, those of you who have played Monopoly will get the point: Quekett literally thought he would have a house in Mayfair, whereas in fact he was to live in Whitechapel.)
To his credit, Quekett threw himself into parish life, and in particular to provision for the poorest of the area. Indeed, it was through this work that he came to Dickens’ attention as an exemplary social reformer.
Quekett – son of a schoolmaster, graduate of St John’s College Cambridge, would-be Curate of a Mayfair church – exemplifies a second vision of the Church’s relationship to “the multitude.” Unlike the Tory government of 1711, Quekett overcame his terror of the masses. Yet his energetic ministry created a Church which was for, but not yet truly of the poorest.
This distinction – the distinction between a Church for the poorest and a Church of the poorest - will be crucial to tonight’s lecture. It’s one made by Alvaro Quiroz Magana, who writes about the understanding of the Church which has developed in the Latin American church. It has, he writes “a more concrete understanding of the church as people of God… as a people especially of the poor – those who answer the call of faith from out of their poverty – as well as of those who make an option for the poor, entering into solidarity with their suffering and their pathways of emancipation.”
The prepositions here are hugely significant. While there is space here for an “option for the poor” taken by those who enter into solidarity with them in their suffering, the Church is first and foremost conceived by Magana as a Body of the poorest.
But let us return to St George-in-the-East, and go forward another century to 1936 – when Father Jack Boggis was its Curate. In that same year, Oswald Moseley declared that his British Union of Fascists was going to march through the heart of his parish, intimidating its large Jewish community. This was the catalyst for the Battle of Cable Street – in which a crowd local people stood side by side to prevent the fascists from passing. Rather than being fearful of the multitude, or acting on their behalf, the ministry of Fr Boggis shows us a different vision of Anglican social engagement – as he stood at the heart of the crowd, and had his nose broken while resisting Moseley’s fascists.
These three snapshots of a single inner-city parish offer us, if you like three archetypes: three ways in which the Church might relate to “the masses” – that great body of citizens who have the most direct experience of economic and political exclusion.
We have the architecture of Nicholas Hawksmoor, designed to keep them subservient, and assert the power of religious and political elites. We have the charity of William Quekett, concerned about their wellbeing, but understanding the Church as a body for but not of the poorest. And we have the populism of Jack Boggis: standing at the heart of organized local people, as a multitude of Irish Catholics, Anglicans and atheists stood alongside their Jewish neighbours.
This solidarity did not emerge spontaneously, in response to Moseley’s decision to march. It had been woven over many years. For example, Jewish organisations had cooked meals for Irish dockers and their families when they went on strike in protest at their poverty wages. The neighbourhood’s united resistance to fascism was the fruit of earlier action on common interests – on pay and also on the need for decent and affordable housing.
As Pope Francis explains, populism has more than one meaning. “In Latin America, it means that the people —for instance, people's movements— are the protagonists. They are self-organized.”
Francis contrasts a populism in which the people are the protagonists with the debased version which emerged in Europe in the 1930s, in which people did not organise themselves but rather sought refuge from their fears in a “charismatic leader.”
What we see in the organised resistance to fascism at the Battle of Cable Street is an authentic, inclusive populism – a populism which builds relationships across difference, so that ordinary citizens can be active in promoting their common interests, discerning a common good, and shaping and tending a common life.
By contrast, in the debased populism of the far right (and indeed the far left) – what I will call “fake populism” – the great mass of ordinary people are not the protagonists, but seek refuge from their fears in a charismatic leader.
This is a crucial point: what I call “fake populism” renders ordinary people largely passive. In Luke Bretherton’s words, such populism “circumvents the need for deliberative processes and the representation of multiple interests in the formation of political judgments.” A charismatic leader “rules by direct consent without the hindrance of democratic checks and balances or the representation of different interests… The throwing off of established authority structures is the prelude to the giving over of authority to the one and the giving up of responsibility for the many.”
“Fake populism” is on the rise today in western democracies – in ways that would have been unimaginable twenty years ago. The rise of Vladimir Putin from 1999 onwards; the place of Jean-Marie Le Pen in 2002, and Marine Le Pen in 2017 as runners-up in the French Presidential Election; the election of Donald Trump as US president, and the rise of Nigel Farage are disturbing and interconnected phenomena. (I think it is important to make a very sharp distinction here between Faragism and support for leaving the EU: and indeed one of the most dangerous developments in contemporary British politics is the tendency to suggest that wanting to leave the EU is intrinsically connected to some wider, nativist project).
All of these various forms of “fake populism” – in our own day, and in previous generations – share three defining characteristics.
- Firstly in fake populism, wealth and power remains in the hands of elites. For all that fake populism harnesses the anger of a mass of citizens who feel disenfranchised and disempowered, it does not redistribute either wealth or power in their direction.
Trump has slashed taxes for the rich and sought to undermine affordable healthcare in the US, and Trump’s political movement has concentrated all power on him as an individual .
In a similar manner, Farage’s Brexit Party is (to my knowledge, at least) an unprecedented phenomenon in British politics: a party with no members (only supporters), in which the leader is responsible for the appointment of all other officers.
It is important to recognize that all four so-called populists are members of the very elites they decry: Donald Trump was a property magnate, Nigel Farage a City trader, and Vladimir Putin a leading figure in the Soviet security services. Marine Le Pen is the daughter of a politician.
- Secondly, fake populism involves a politics of grievance which seeks scapegoats. This is one of its most inevitable, and most dangerous, features. Because it harnesses the anger of people who are disenfranchised and economically insecure – and yet it does not in fact redistribute any wealth and power – there is an inherent instability in fake populism. It will never deal with the root causes of the (often justifiable) popular anger which it feeds off. So it must provide scapegoats: ethnic minorities, refugees, migrants, Muslims…and all too often Jews. The place of anti-semitism in fake populism (on the left as well as the right) is deeply significant.
Most groups who are on the receiving end of discrimination are reviled for their perceived inferiority. Jews are unusual in being seen as sinister manipulators of hidden financial and political power.
In times of economic hardship and political turmoil, they function as handy scapegoats, featuring in the demonology of far–right and far–left alike.
Thirdly, in fake populism, the people remain passive and isolated individuals. As Bretherton explains, the rise of a charismatic individual leader – a “one” such as Trump or Putin – involves “the many” casting off their responsibility for discerning a common good and building a common life. In his words, the goal of the process is “personal withdrawal from public life so as to be free to pursue private self-interests rather than public mutual interests.”
Let us take stock. We have explored three different archetypes of the Church of England’s relationship to “the multitude,” through the lens of a single east London parish: the masses as a threat (in the architecture of Hawksmoor), the masses as the object of charity (in the ministry of Quekett) and the very different approach of Fr Boggis, in which the Church stood at the heart of a great mass of organized local people. And we have distinguished two very different kinds of populism: a “fake populism” (in which wealth and power remain with the elites, and the anger of the people is directed at scapegoats) and an “inclusive populism” (in which the people are the protagonists, organising across difference around their common interests).
Earlier, I drew out three features of “fake populism,” and each one of them is contradicted by the politics of Jesus in the Gospels.
- Where fake populism leaves wealth and power in the hands of the elites, Jesus places the poorest at the heart of his mission.
- Where fake populism foments grievance and seeks scapegoats, the politics of Jesus is provocative and yet ultimately peaceful
- Where fake populism leaves the people as passive, isolated individuals, Jesus draws them together, into one Body – building a people of power.
A people of power
Let’s explore each of these features of Jesus’ practice in more detail.
Firstly, Jesus places the poorest at the heart of his mission. We often hear talk of the Church having a “heart for the poor” but this is something different: Jesus founds a Church with the poor at its heart. For Jesus himself was poor, and the disciples he gathers to be the foundations of his Church were, by and large, also poor.
As Ken Leech observes, in the first-century “Ninety per cent of the population of Galilee were peasants. These oppressed peasants were ‘the people’ who, according to the gospels, heard Jesus gladly. The burden of taxation was the central economic fact of life, and led to class conflict with the priestly aristocracies, so much so that in AD 66 rebels burnt the record of debts in the Temple. There was high unemployment, with many looking for work, and the violence went far beyond Herod’s slaughter of innocent children. It was out of this deeply disturbed climate of alienation, upheaval and resistance that the ‘marginal Jew’ called Jesus came. The climate of colonial rule, oppressive taxation, accumulating debt and bankruptcy, forced migration and revolutionary uprisings, formed the background to Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom of God. “
Too often in theology, we move focus entirely on what Jesus and his disciples taught, without noticing this extraordinary fact about who and where they actually were. How the world looks depends on where you are standing, and Jesus stood with, among – not merely for – the poorest of his age. Where he stood is part of what he reveals. No other books of the time are so focused on the ‘multitude.’ The Gospels are written from a unique social perspective, precisely because the world looks different from the perspective of the poorest and most vulnerable.
It is worth stressing how huge a leap this is for much of the Church: and how often, whatever our intentions, those of us who are not among the poor and vulnerable imagine ourselves to be the true heart of the Church. A striking example of this is our persistent misreading of the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25: a passage in which Jesus tells his disciples the nations will be gathered before the throne of God and judged by the way they have treated Jesus in the hungry, the naked, the homeless and the prisoner. Reading the text, most of us (myself included) immediately imagine ourselves among “the nations” who are being judged for their treatment of the poor. Our conclusion is that the Church must feed the hungry, clothe the naked, give shelter to the homeless and visit those in prison.
Now, I am sure we should do all those things – but that is not the point of this particular passage. As Douglas Harnik points out “this text is not (directly) about Christian discipleship, nor is it directed to the Christian community. Jesus is clear that he is speaking of the “nations” gathered before the throne of the Son of Man.
“It is they—rather than Christians, or just people in general—who are separated one from another in the judgment, and the criterion of their judgment is how they have received “these my brothers” disciples—in their midst. For Christ’s disciples are sent—sown—among the nations in exilic vulnerability—without money, without food, without extra clothing, without protection...”
This is just one small example of the shift in imagination which the politics of Jesus demands: from a Church which primarily imagines itself as a servant of the poorest, to a Church which places the poorest and most vulnerable at the heart of its life.
Fear of the multitude
At the start of this lecture, we thought about the fear of the “multitude” – the “mob” – which led to the building of Hawksmoor’s imposing edifice at St George-in-the-East. And perhaps, as Christians, we share the anxiety –that mobs can be a dangerous thing, can get out of hand. Perhaps, somewhere in our imagination, are the events of Holy Week, in which an angry mob shouts “Crucify him!” leading Pliate, reluctantly, to give up Christ for execution.
So let us look at those texts in a little more detail. The crowds - the multitude - are in fact the last group to turn on Jesus. From his infancy, the religious and political elites have sought to kill him, which is why his family was forced to flee to Egypt. In Jesus’ public ministry, he comes into repeated conflict with those elites, and on a number of occasions it is only the fact that he is surrounded by the crowds that prevents those leaders from seizing and executing him before his appointed time.
Why, then, do the crowd abandon Jesus at the end of his public ministry? To answer that question, we must turn to the second feature of his politics: while they are provocative, they are ultimately peaceful.
On Palm Sunday, the crowd welcome Jesus as messiah, shouting: “Hosanna to the Son of David. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” It is evident from the Gospel narratives that Jesus has thought very carefully about the drama of his entry into Jerusalem. In Ched Myers’ words, Jesus’ entry is “filled with conflicting signals, as if it intends to be a satire on military liberators.”
His arrival both recalls and subverts the military entry of the triumphant Simon Maccabaeus into Jerusalem in 141 BC “with praise and palm branches... and with hymns and songs.” (Simon Maccabeus went on to evict the forces of another empire which had also occupied the holy city).
To process into Jerusalem in this way – into an occupied city with a brutal and yet nervous regime, at a time of huge political and religious turmoil, echoing a previous military leader – to process into Jerusalem in this way was undoubtedly provocative. And yet, to the disappointment of the crowd, he refuses Maccabeus’ path of violent revolution.
Upon entry into the city, Jesus does not storm of the Roman garrison or of Herod’s palace. At the end of the procession, St Mark tells us that he goes into the Temple, and “when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany”. He is carefully weighing and planning his next action. Far from driving out the Roman occupiers at the head of the assembled crowd, Jesus goes on to cleanse the Temple.
This is not an act of impulsive rage but, once again, something he has planned. Like the refusal to allow fascists to march down Cable Street, it is an act of civil disobedience – both provocative and physical – but it portends a revolution far more radical than that of Simon Maccabeus.
A different kind of revolution
Only the anonymous woman in Bethany really understands what Jesus is doing. In anointing him for burial, she has recognized that Jesus’ is embarking on something far more fundamental than the exchange of one violent regime for another. The politics of Jesus is deeply sceptical of all such rulers.
Not long after he has driven the money-changers out of the Temple, Jesus is again teaching within its precincts and he warns of the leaders who walk around in robes and love to be treated with respect. “They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.” It is immediately after saying this that he sits and watches the crowds putting money into the Temple treasury – and praises the two coins put in by a poor widow over and against the ostentatious giving of the wealthy.
In these two vignettes – of one anonymous and generous woman who alone understands Jesus, and another anonymous and generous woman who Jesus lifts up as an exemplar of true faithfulness – in these two vignettes at the heart of Holy Week, we come to the heart of Jesus’ politics. Regimes of domination will come and go, and those who live by the sword will surely die by it. What Jesus asserts, in the face of what seems like overwhelming evidence, it that it is in these ordinary, unnamed citizens – the women and men perpetually overlooked by empires and elites – that we find the very heart of the Kingdom of God.
Among the poorest
While Jesus stands among the poorest, and is unafraid to name and challenge the self-serving elites who oppress them, he never ceases to love those he confronts. To say that Jesus’ politics is “provocative but peaceful,” I do not simply mean that he renounces the sword. I mean something more fundamental: he renounces hatred. His agitation of unjust rulers is an act of love: for the knows that their sin not only harms those they oppress. It estranges them from their Heavenly Father.
His harsh words towards them flow from love, not hate: which is why, even as they crucify him, Jesus prays for his killers. His sacrifice represents the end of scapegoating: an end to the cycles of injustice, violence and revenge in which the human race has become enmeshed.
So, to return to our original question, the crowd desert Jesus in disappointment, when it becomes clear that he will not be the military liberator many have been longing for. They are still hoping for a revolution that vanquishes their oppressors - they cannot yet believe in the deeper revolution which Jesus is working.
This brings me to the third feature of the politics of Jesus: unlike the “fake populists” of our day, he does not leave his followers as isolated individuals following a charismatic leader (that, indeed is the model of leadership he rejects in his temptations in the wilderness). Rather, Jesus draws individuals together, into one Body – building a people of power.
Building an institution
It may be an unfashionable way of thinking about the politics of Jesus to say that he builds an institution. For nearly everyone, ‘spirituality’ is a more attractive term than ‘Institutional religion’. It is common to contrast the (dynamic) ‘spiritual message of Jesus’ with the (stagnant) ‘institutional church’. Should we be surprised that one of Jesus’ first acts is to appoint disciples – to set up a structure of leadership by which his Gospel will continue to be taught and embodied? Only if we forget one simple fact: that the alternative to institutions is atomisation.
Institutions happen whenever and wherever human beings enter into committed relationships, and agree to be bound by promises, rules or covenants. They come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, formal and informal – churches and Scout packs, tenants’ associations and trade unions, colleges and families. They force us to balance reliability with spontaneity, faithfulness with freedom. Institutions are imperfect because humans are imperfect. We need to become patient with one another, and it takes patience to live within the Church. But that is our calling.
Institutions are pockets of power. In building a Church with the poorest at its heart, Jesus was building power – not the dominating, violent power of Empire, but the power of a movement of human beings, drawn together and guided by his Spirit. I am always puzzled by people who claim to follow the teachings of Jesus without being part of the Church, because the heart of Jesus’ teaching is not a set of ethical maxims. No, the heart of Jesus’ teaching is a summons to follow – to follow the one who has gone before us through the deep waters of death, and in his resurrection inaugurated God’s new creation.
And to follow Jesus, in a path so clearly marked out in the Acts of the Apostles, is to be baptized by his Spirit, and into his Church – to share its common life, through which he lives in us. There is no “teaching of Jesus” detachable from a summons to join his Body. As Tim Keller has put it, his message is not good advice but good news.
Realities are greater than ideas
This leads me on to a wider point about Jesus’ politics: he builds a Church of, and not just for, the poorest because he teaches through experience and not just through words and ideas.
Nicky Gumbel has rightly observed that the Church of England is rather better at training and ordaining scribes like St Paul than fishermen like St Peter. If we want that to change, it is worth studying how Jesus – himself a working class Jew – trained other leaders from among the poor.
The very first thing Jesus does after gathering his disciples is to take them to a wedding in Cana. As Jean Vanier observes, another religious leader might have brought new followers into the desert for a spiritual experience or to a school to deepen their knowledge of the Scriptures Jesus takes them to a week of feasting in an obscure Galilean village.
At Cana, as throughout the Gospels, Jesus enters fully into the joys and sorrows of those around him. Elsewhere, he is criticised for being a “drunkard” and keeping unrespectable company. He also spends much time in quiet prayer and is deeply immersed in the Scriptures. But he does not use these times of retreat to evade the realities of daily life. Rather, they inform and intensify his engagement with it.
As Pope Francis explains, in the Gospel, realities are greater than ideas:
“Ideas – conceptual elaborations – are at the service of communication, understanding, and praxis... What calls us to action are realities illuminated by reason. Today, we have politicians – and even religious leaders – who wonder why people do not understand and follow them, since their proposals are so clear and logical. Perhaps it is because they are stuck in the realm of pure ideas and end up reducing politics or faith to rhetoric. Others have left simplicity behind and have imported a rationality foreign to most people.”
A different kind of leadership
As we have seen, Jesus’ ministry involves a more fundamental revolution than the violence of the zealots. He repeatedly tells his followers that he will be a different kind of Messiah, but he knows that words alone will not shift their conception. Only after his death and resurrection will they fully comprehend the revolution he is wreaking.
As Mary Healy explains, this explains why he is often secretive about his Messianic status: “Jesus’ messianic identity is a deeper mystery than any of his followers yet fathom, and it must be unveiled gradually. The messiah of popular expectation was a political and military leader who would liberate Israel from Roman domination and usher in a new world of peace and prosperity. But Jesus had come to bring a much greater liberation—from the domination of sin, Satan, and death—and his mission was inseparably linked with the laying down of his life on the cross. Until that mystery was revealed, the risk was that sensational reports about his miracles would generate a false and distorted messianic enthusiasm.”
Jesus has to cure the disciples of a “false and distorted” vision, not only of his leadership, but also of their own. Through Jesus’ death and resurrection, St Peter learns that Jesus power is made perfect in human weakness – and through the searing experience of his own denial of Jesus, he is commissioned by the Lord to tend the flock, not in his own power, but in the power of God.
As Pope Francis observes, this willingness patiently to identify, accompany and develop grassroots leaders is in short supply today: ““Sometimes I wonder if there are people in today’s world who are really concerned about generating processes of people-building, as opposed to obtaining immediate results which yield easy, quick short-term political gains, but do not enhance human fullness.” It is an aspect of Jesus’ practice to which both Church and society need to be recalled.
But it is not only fishermen like St Peter whom Jesus teaches through experience. Let us consider the way he teaches and forms St Paul. As Saul, he has been zealously persecuting the fishermen and tax collectors who have been preaching the good news of Jesus death and resurrection.
At Damascus, Jesus reveals that, in persecuting these humble disciples Sa has in fact been persecuting his Lord. And so Saul, the well-educated scribe, the high-born Roman citizen, has to receive forgiveness and hospitality from people, who in the world’s eyes are nobodies. In that process, he recognizes that the power of God is not to be found in the systems of status and domination in which he has previously sought validation.
It is in this way that, alongside St Peter, he becomes one of the central figures through whom the risen Lord builds a Church of the poorest. As St Paul explains to the church in Corinth:
“not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.”
So far in this lecture, I’ve drawn a contrast between the “fake populism” of Trump and his ilk with the inclusive populism of Pope Francis (and, indeed, of those who resisted fascism at the Battle of Cable Street).
I’ve contrasted the three defining features of “fake populism” with those of the politics of Jesus Christ.
- Where fake populism leaves wealth and power in the hands of the elites, Jesus places the poorest at the heart of his mission.
- Where fake populism foments grievance and seeks scapegoats, the politics of Jesus is provocative and yet ultimately peaceful
- Where fake populism leaves the people as passive, isolated individuals, Jesus draws them together, into one Body – building a people of power
In the final section of this lecture, I want to suggest that these three features of Jesus’ practice offer us the framework for an authentic and inclusive populism.
In doing to, I want to practice what I am preaching! I have quoted Pope Francis’ maxim that “realities are greater than ideas” and his warning not to remain “stuck in the realm of pure ideas” where we “end up reducing politics or faith to rhetoric” – and so I want to offer more than a framework, more than a set of principles. I want to offer you a concrete example of this inclusive populism: the practice of broad-based community organising.
As part of Citizens UK, there are community organising alliances in a growing number of towns and cities across the country. An alliance is a formally constituted organisation consisting of churches, mosques, schools, trades unions and other civic organisations which have agreed to work together for social change in a particular place. Each member institution pays a modest annual membership fee which is used by the alliance to employ some trained community organisers to help identify and mentor local leaders, and to organise training for them.
In practice, community organising involves the (formal and informal) within each institution undertaking “one-to-one” meetings within and beyond its walls. A ‘one-to-one’ is a 30 to 40 minute face to face meeting between two people where the purpose of the conversation is to learn about the other person and their aims and to help identify any common agendas. In organising, action emerges from the shared interests of local people. Out of these many conversations come the actions and campaigns which deliver change.
Member institutions join together at regular intervals in ‘assemblies’ to share the results of their conversations and to agree shared priorities for action. The actions may start small: a campaign for a sign outside the church, a zebra crossing in a housing estate, or lighting in a park.
As well as being valuable in themselves, these actions build a community’s confidence to imagine more substantial changes. While an organising alliance will consist of diverse groups – Christian, Muslim, Jewish, secular – that does not mean they need to leave their distinctive beliefs at the door. A Christian congregation that takes organising seriously will root this external action in the vision of the Gospel, so regular reflection is essential.
The roots of this form of community organising lie in the slums of 1930s Chicago, where Saul Alinsky pioneered this particular form of social action. He was a secular Jewish activist, who discovered churches and synagogues were vital allies in the struggle for justice. He began his work in the 1930s in some of Chicago’s poorest neighbourhoods. Jay MacLeod sums up his unique approach:
Reversing the logic of paternalistic reform
“Alinsky’s breakthrough was to reverse the logic of paternalistic reform by wresting control away from the professional do-gooders and handing it over to the people they were supposed to help. Alinsky transformed community activism from the liberal, elite-led endeavour it had become around 1900 into something he hoped would be more hard-headed and democratic.”
MacLeod’s analysis captures, for me, the most appealing feature of community organising. It offers a practical way of placing the poorest at the very heart of the Church’s life: not as a “them” for whom a more middle-class “we” are advocates (whether on Twitter, in the pulpit, or in political campaigns).
As Liverpool’s diocesan Bishop is rightly fond of saying, “a bigger church can make a bigger difference.” But we are also finding, through community organising, that making a bigger difference helps us build a bigger church – precisely because that bigger difference is not made by a small group of well-meaning (but increasingly exhausted) middle-class advocates and activists, but it is made by the patient, intentional development of the poorest in the congregation, and in the wider neighbourhood, as leaders.
How does organising help to build a bigger church – a church which is of and not just for the poor? The answer to that lies in the two other features of the practice, which mirror aspects we identified in the practice of Jesus. Like the politics of Jesus, organising is provocative yet peaceful – and like Jesus, it seeks to develop leaders through experience. Let me explain these two points with practical examples.
The Living Wage campaign emerged out of a classic community organising listening process: with one-to-one conversations, small group meetings and a wider assembly identifying poverty pay as a key issue o which east Londoners wanted to take action. The infrastructure of Canary Wharf had been built with considerable Government subsidy – supposedly to regenerate one of our poorest neighbourhoods. But while white-collar workers travelled into its gleaming new offices on the newly-constructed transport links, most local people who worked there were on poverty wages, as security guards, catering staff or cleaners.
So the campaign team sought a meeting with Sir John Bond, the chairman of HSBC – whose new world headquarters were on that very site.
A number of letters from religious and civic leaders had gone unanswered, and so the nuns at St. Antony’s Catholic Church in east London came up with an idea. The two thousand–strong congregation had an account with HSBC. Each Tuesday the nuns were accustomed to depositing in their local HSBC branch a large number of coins left each week by the many visitors who came into the church to light candles. The nuns decided to save up these coins for a few months, until they filled a small van.
Just before Christmas, accompanied by a team of London Citizens leaders, they drove to HSBC’s Oxford Street branch in the heart of the capital, near to BBC Broadcasting House. In full view of the national media, holding placards saying “Sir John Bond – Scrooge” and “Give HSBC a Living Wage for Christmas,” the nuns tied up the branch completely by depositing their coins one by one.
This exercise of tension had the desired result. Within an hour, Sir John had agreed to meet a team of London Citizens leaders. This was the beginning of the process which included further occasions of high-profile tension. There was a memorable encounter at the HSBC Annual General Meeting, which was broadcast on national radio. At the AGM, Sir John was confronted by two local leaders, one of whom was Abdul Durrant, who cleaned his office on a poverty wage. “Sir John,” Abdul declared, “we work in the same office, but we live in different worlds.”
It’s a memorable story, although when I tell it, there is sometimes discomfort. I’ve been asked more than once whether the slogans on those placards weren’t unchristian. Part of my reply is that they are far less rude than the words Jesus uses to call out the religious and political elites of his day. The other part is to suggest that the real test of whether such agitation is Christian is whether, as well as being provocative, the ultimate intent is peaceful.
Loving our opponents
And the Living Wage campaign is, to me, a wonderful example of what it means to love our opponents: for many of the institutions (including HSBC) who at first told us the Living Wage was economically impractical have become its greatest advocates – as they have discovered the benefits (both relational and economic) of doing the right thing, and investing in every part of their workforce. In the Living Wage Campaign, as in the ministry of Jesus, agitation has been a form of love.
In the story of Abdul, you can begin to see how the practice of organising develops grassroots leaders. But my final example of organising illustrates this in more detail. I can’t think of any leader who embodies the slow, patient process of organising better than Fr Sean Connolly – parish priest at St Stephen’s Catholic Church in Newham, the east London borough which contains the main park used in the 2012 Olympics.
Fr Sean arrived in the parish just before those Games. One of the churches in his parish was celebrating its 150th anniversary. Because of the impending Olympics, the local council was unwilling to put up any new road signage. However, Fr Sean’s parishioners felt strongly that their church needed the same public recognition that many other local institutions had already received – and hence that this prohibition was arbitrary and unfair.
These parishioners led a community organising campaign called “We Don’t Want A Miracle, We Just Want A Sign.” The good-humoured action they took at a meeting of Newham Council got significant local media coverage, and led on to an agreement by councillors to provide the road sign. While it was a small victory, it was a very tangible one. Every time parishioners attended the church, they were reminded of what could be achieved by collective action. Through the process of one-to-ones, the growing team of grassroots leaders in the church identified housing as an issue of widespread concern – and so they decided to an accountability meeting at the church with their local councillor, presenting testimony on the issue.
It was at this point that Lucy Achola got involved. Lucy is a mother of three who was facing eviction from her home at the hands of Newham Council. This displacement would have had huge consequences: it would mean that she would move far from the area where her two daughters sang in the school choir and her son was an altar server. Ultimately, she would be left without a place to live, away from her friends and community. One of the leaders involved in the sign campaign went on to have a one-to-one with her, and she was to share her testimony along with three others at the accountability.
The acknowledgement of her struggle itself gave her hope and joy: as she put it, ‘I was so happy - the whole Parish was behind me.’
The action taken by the parish led the council to revoke the eviction order – and this experience of support and solidarity from the parish led Lucy and her family welcome another parishioner facing homelessness into their home. Lucy is now also playing a leading role in the campaign to increase the proportion of genuinely affordable housing built on the site of east London’s 2012 Olympic as it gets redeveloped.
This slow, patient process of organising runs counter to the angry and impatient culture of our times – an impatience that is shared by both the “fake populism” of Trump and his allies, and by many of his loudest opponents. Like Jesus, it is important for today’s Church to confront the unjust and oppressive rulers of our age: but like Jesus, it is important that we remember where the heart of God’s Kingdom actually lies – not in the battle to seize command of this world’s palaces and fortresses, but in the lives of the multitude that this world overlooks and counts as naught.
© Angus Ritchie
Canon Dr Angus Ritchie is Executive Director of the Centre for Theology and Community and has worked in East End churches involved in community organising since 1998. He now serves at St George-in-the-East and his book, Inclusive Populism: Creating Citizens in the Global Age is published by University of Notre Dame Press.
You can listen to a recording of the lecture here.