I am convinced that we who might describe ourselves as ‘the Christian Left’ need to shift our focus to a more radical engagement. We can’t trust governments to act justly. It is a delusion to think that any government, Labor or ‘Liberal’ (=Tory) is going to be committed to the vision for social justice that arises from the message and mission of Jesus. God’s passion for inclusive, just, life-affirming community requires a different sort of action.
As we come to celebrate 50 years since Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech, we have to ask: ‘What is our dream?’
For many, the dream is a nightmare: we wake in fright, realising that in fact we have been asleep while the social agenda has moved on. For example: there is virtually no effort to provide affordable housing in our communities. Housing is SO expensive in Australia, and the next generations as well as those who come to live here, from overseas, will find it impossible to reach that ‘great Australian dream’ of home ownership.
This is just one example. It’s not a hot political topic. It’s not even mentioned in our politics.
Of course there are so many other issues, beginning with the issue of just treatment (let alone compassion) for asylum seekers. Our public health and education systems exploit the good will and dedication of those who work in them.
What to do?
Martin King led a movement of people who set out to change the way their society treated black people.
They did not initially seek to get people into Congress.
Rather, their movement sought to apply pressure at the very points that hurt people most. One example was a program called ‘Operation Bread-basket’. It was about the employment of African Americans, or rather the under-representation of African Americans in the work forces of major US companies.
King and his colleagues developed a 5-stage methodology for bringing about social change. The method involved all the people in local communities, not just leaders.
We need to develop something along the lines of this methodology.
Stage 1: Investigation. This required research into the facts: such as, how many African American people are fact employed (eg. by Walmart) compared with the available workforce?
Stage 2: Education. When we know the facts, we need to teach them to our people. The media won’t do this for us. We have a superb opportunity to do this, today, with social media. We can promote the facts, for example, about Australia’s debt levels relative to other countries.
Stage 3: Confrontation. King and his colleagues devised methods of non-violent protest, such as boycotts and bans, civil disobedience and other ways to refuse co-operation with oppressive structures and processes. On one occasion, they met with the board of a company and asked them to employ African Americans, to the average in the population. Sometimes their action included ‘occupying’ a room ‘for a prayer meeting’! That company refused to agree, so on a single Sunday morning the Pastors all urged their congregations to stop buying anything from that company’s stores.
So pervasive was the response that by 9.20 am. the very next day the CEO of the company was on the phone to the Christian leaders asking could they negotiate!
Stage 4: Negotiation Here, there is a genuine need to know what you are prepared to accept as well as what you will not give up. It is vital that this is done in a spirit of good will, which leads then to stage 5.
Stage 5: Reconciliation In King’s approach, this is the goal, that all shall live in peace. It was not the intention of his movement to drive people out of business, or to impoverish others so that his supporters could take their homes or possessions. Rather, his vision was for all to live in just and fair relationships.
There are many inspiring stories from this movement. But we live in a very different time and a different culture.
Still we have to decide whether we are going to be dis-empowered by the forces of media domination, and the machinations of large companies and political interest groups and parties.
Democracy can only work through the participation of the people, not simply our votes.
It strikes me that we have in fact a ready-made movement through which a very significant amount of political influence could be brought to bear, for good. That is the local churches.
In my life time, this source of influence has been used by reactionary forces, such as in the years of the Cold War. Governments have been afraid of the power of the Archbishops of both Anglican and Catholic churches. But today the forces of secularity have undermined the influence of the churches, while the churches have lost so much credibility due to sexual abuse scandals. And on top of that, many of us in the churches have not wanted to be seen as manipulating people’s opinions. All this, however, has driven us into a position of powerlessness. Maybe it is at least in part chosen powerlessness. We have agreed to keep quiet, to stay in our corners, compliant with the status quo —who will never, never invite us to come out and challenge them!
Democracy needs us. It needs people movements, not a single movement but many movements.
We need to write, talk, email, Facebook and Tweet and all those other new verbs—we need to find our voices and act together to save our democracy. The enemy is not violent totalitarianism. It is the great tide of complacent or despairing disempowerment. Only we can claim back our democracy. We can. We must.