Blog posts

Faith in Public Life

This reflection was first recorded for an online service of The Church of the Good Shepherd in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

Many of us have been taught that the church “shouldn’t be political.” This stems maybe from a few places, but for me as someone who grew up in a white midwest suburb, I think it mainly came from a place of discomfort with tension. It was the same reason we were told it was uncouthe to talk about money or sex or any other number of things – it was not the topic of polite dinner conversation.

But my faith and the life of Jesus Christ are inherently political. Not because Jesus subscribes to a particular party; in fact, I think scripture demonstrates that Jesus would be critical of most anyone in power. Our faith is political because “politics” is just a word describing our public life together. You could almost substitute in the word “community” for politics. Any decisions affecting our community is a political decision. And faith is all about relationships and community.

Community organizing and faith, at their best, share this in common. Although we don’t always live into it – in either sphere – faith/ministry and community organizing are both supposed to be about relationships. In community organizing we define power as the ability to affect change, and we say that the building blocks of power are organized people and organized resources. The building blocks of change are relationships. At Church we might say that it is through our relationships with God and one another that we are transformed.

But I didn’t become a faith-based community organizer because of abstract theological or ideological reasons. I am not out in the street protesting because there’s some argument I am trying to win. I began organizing because people I loved didn’t have what they needed and I knew that God was urging all of us towards co-creating the kind of kin-dom where all people have what they need to thrive.

In white, western Christianity we have often hyper-spiritualized Jesus. We have acted as if Jesus came only to save our souls. But, as evidenced by Jesus’ own ministry of healing and feeding and casting out demons, Jesus came to save us as whole people. Bodies and souls. The Gospel is not just Good News for after we die, later, somewhere else. It is Good News for bodies, too. It has implications for the physical, material reality we experience on this fleshy plane. It is concerned with the suffering of people here and now, especially those most vulnerable. And we are charged as the Body of Christ here on earth to be co-creators of a future world where the abundant life promised to us by God is a reality.

So when we are deciding questions like, “Do the people of Chicago deserve clean, affordable water?” The answer, which I hope will be yes, is both spiritual and political. It has implications for us as whole people and as a community. When I work with local power organizations and environmental community oversight advocacy groups to pass the Water for All ordinance in Chicago, it is an act of discipleship. It is living my faith out loud, in public, in a way that makes a difference for my neighbor.

I first got started with community organizing during the Ferguson Uprising. You can read more about my transformation in my book Baptized in Tear Gas: From White Moderate to Abolitionist which is available for pre-order now. As a mother of Black children, now Black teenagers, I was kept awake at night by the state violence and anti-Blackness of our carceral system. That pull in my gut? I now recognize as the Holy Spirit, urging me into my own part of this work for our collective liberation.

Maybe a fierce longing for racial justice keeps you up at night too. Or maybe it’s something else..although everything is related. There are issues in our communities that connect to our own stories. Issues that we feel so deeply that they might as well be written on our bones. Reflecting more about our own stories and sharing them with one another is the first step in beginning to live out our faith in public life through activism or organizing. Once we are clear about our own stories, we can listen to others tell their stories too. We might notice the places where our stories are similar or related, areas that overlap where we can work together. We can find out what community organizations in our neighborhoods are already working on this issue, and find our slice of it. We can use our gifts – our passions, interests, and skills – given to us by God, to serve the wider community as an act of discipleship and work together to bring forth the coming Reign of God in all its fullness.

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