Monday, July 12, 2010

Mellowed Out or Watered Down

Reflecting on the Non-Profit Industrial Complex***

Sojourners is a progressive Christian non-profit trying to live out "faith in action for social justice" that began in the early 1970s as an intentional community of radical anti-war seminarians who transplanted to Columbia Heights in Washington D.C. but has now become a respectable 501(c)3. When looking at the magazine the non-profit now publishes against the first issue published by the intentional community, the differences are eerie. For instance, the first issue had a picture of the crucified Christ wrapped in a USAmerican flag as his death shroud. While Sojourners the magazine still covers progressive, leftist issues, it has certainly "mellowed out," in the words of the director of policy and advocacy. She said "mellowed out" like it was a good thing, but looking at that picture I questioned that. Here we were, sitting in a boardroom in business casual talking about social justice, but I wondered if we had not mellowed out but watered down the message of that first issue of what would become Sojourners magazine.

Now this reflection seems to be a departure from the upbeat excited reflection that I had written about finding common ground and using different language to bring people across party lines to consensus. Here I am, halfway through my fellowship at a faith-based non-profit and I start reading INCITE! Women of Color against Violence's anthology The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex (For this I blame Caroline Radesky with whom I went to undergrad and who gave me the book). The Non-Profit Industrial Complex is defined as system that incorporates progressive and leftist social dissent by controlling it through political and financial technologies.* I just read the introduction over the weekend, but it was enough to disturb me as I spent the day today on my tour of the Beatitudes placements with the other fellows.

To return to Sojourners: I want to assert that I believe this is an organization that does great work. The articles in the July 2010 issue of the magazine, in which there is an interview about intentional community between one of the original members of the Sojourners community and a woman who is now living in an intentional community, include those on important, often ignored as too leftist, issues like Israeli occupation, patriarchy in the church, and myths of masculinity. These are not often discussed by respectable Christian organizations and even some secular progressive groups. Sojourners also creates valuable resources for faith communities to educate themselves about justice issues. So in many ways their message is not watered down but "mellowed out" into forms (glossy magazines) and languages (evangelical, for instance) that are accessible and make justice work accessible to people other than the leftist elite. Those who were founding members of the Sojourners community continue to work in and with Sojourners the non-profit, which surely helps keep the focus on revolutionary work.

Still, we must be critical about the capacity for revolutionary work in hierarchical, formalized, business casual (so I may pick on the business and business casual uniform in part because I really should not be allowed to dress myself but it is a visual that reminds us how much a part of white culture we are) workplace that answers to foundations whose only interests in all honesty are making money who give it grants. (Come on, do you really think BP is giving money to the National Wildlife Foundation out of the goodness of its heart? Sure, it is a publicity stunt in some ways but the major reason is that BP gets tax breaks for donating money to charity. When companies donate money, they do have an agenda, and even when they donate to progressive organizations, those organizations better not be doing work, like anti-capitalist work, that does not mesh with their agenda.) We must develop ways to hold these organizations better accountable to the communities they serve.

So yes, as I visited Sojourners and the other Beatitudes fellows' sites and thought of my own placement, I was uneasy about the potential for revolutionary work left untapped because of the ways in which non-profits are made to play nice in the form of non-profit organizations complete with executive directors, nicer than Sojourners must have played in the 1970s as a radical Christian community living in protest against the Vietnam War. And as I continue reading The Revolution Will Not Be Funded, I expect to continue to become uneasy, perhaps disturbed, particularly around issues of race and non-profit work.**

However, I want to make it clear that the work of organizations like Sojourners and Faith and Public Life that is directed to moderates as well as progressive folk and that is committed to reform rather than revolution is valuable. When I look at my own relationships, my closest relationships are not with all revolutionaries. I am in love with and committed to a person who is far more conservative than I am theologically and politically, my sisters are more conservative than I am particularly when it comes to economic issues, and so many of my friends are outside of the academic and activist/organizer Left "elite" which criticizes our society: I cannot just preach about how wrong they are all the time without trying to use their language to dialogue with them and educate them (and myself). I have written about this experience before, but when I did radical feminist work in college, I hated everyone and had no respect for those who didn't agree with or even for those who didn't understand my politics. One of the other Beatitudes fellows told me something similar about when she worked with the Open Door Community in Atlanta: she said she had contempt for those who chose not to live the way they did until someone called her out on it. Now Open Door is an amazing community, and in college we did great work against sexual violence, but neither I nor the other fellow found our work to sustainable for us. I needed to reach out not in contempt but using a mellowed out message to speak and listen to others rather than just tell them how wrong they were.

This need for the work that come of these non-profits is particularly salient when we are in a world in which our work is under surveillance, even though it is the non-profit system through which that surveillance is possible. Ours is a society in which capitalism has so much power that it has now thwarted the energy of the Left's social movements into respectable non-profit business casual. So what I'm thinking is that we cannot move from this pit we are mired in to the kindom of God, which is how I talk about a world of peace and justice, in one piece of policy or one big protest, but rather we need to move on two fronts: work that is watered down AND living that is revolutionary work.

The watered down work is necessary in my mind because our system is so corrupt that it must be coaxed along from within the system until we can safely dismantle it. By watered down work, I mean working within the system for reform. For example, passing laws like comprehensive immigration reform even though the kindom knows no nationality, knows no border, is an example of important work that falls short of revolutionary. So we must advocate for comprehensive immigration reform at the same time we personally are living in and creating communities that reject the idea of borders.

Revolutionary living is necessary to keep us from thinking that watered down is the best we can do. It isn't.


Note: I'm probably wrong about the two-fronts thing, and probably losing my edge, but this is just where I am now. I'm trying to navigate how to do revolutionary work in a way that is not alienating, in a way that is healthy, in a way that can be lived out in diverse community.


*The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex. Edited by INCITE! Women of Color against Violence. South End Press, 2007. 8.

** Ever, for instance, think about how white the non-profit Left is? Where the voices for prison abolition are? Dylan Rodríguez writes, "Why, in other words, does the political imagination of the US non-profit and nongovernmental organization (NGO)-enabled Left generally refuse to embrace the urgent and incomplete historical work of a radical counter-state, anti-white supremacist, prison/penal/slave abolitionist movement?" From The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex, 22.


***This summer I am a Beatitudes Fellow at Faith in Public Life. The Beatitudes Society is a progressive Christian resource center for and network of faith leaders that offers seminarians like me internships at key national social change organizations. Faith in Public Life is one of those organizations, focusing on "advancing faith in the public square as a positive and unifying force for justice, compassion and the common good," a lot of which is in making the progressive faith voice audible in the media. I believe God has called me to parish ministry, yet I felt strongly that I needed experience outside of parish ministry if I want to be an effective pastor working for a just world. I have not been disappointed with this decision.

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