Tuesday, April 13, 2004

I felt all at once properly rebuked and filled with hope by this passage today from Not Religion But Love , a book we are reading together at our house (it's a long one... the quote, not the book):

Practicing compassion, like Christ, involves developing power that is strong but gentle with people. Power that is strong but gentle with people is not power that is exercised over people, but power that people exercise over themselves. Essentially it comes from within a person or a group of persons. Yet nearly every time I talk with people about developing a project in their community, the conversation quickly turns from talk about internal to external sources of power.

If they want to organize a welfare programme, they want to talk about funds. 'Where can we get the funds we need to run the programme?' they inquire. If they want to organize a protest movement, they want to talk numbers. 'How can we get the numbers we need to get a major social movement on a roll?' they ask. These reactions reveal that people, both on the right and on the left of the political spectrum, believe that external resources matter more than internal sources of power. They believe that we can only do significant work in our community if we have access to either lots of cash, or large crowds, or both. It's essentially all about fundraising and number-crunching.

Because so many communities frame their problems, and the solutions to their problems, in terms of access to resources which, by definition, are beyond their control, they disempower themselves. If they can't get access to the resources they require in order to act, they simply do not act. If they do get the resources they require, they may act, but they only act according to the terms and conditions that have been set for the support they receive. Either way, they abrogate their power to solve their own problems; they project the power to solve their problems onto others; and, in so doing, they render themselves powerless.

Christ challenged people's dependence on external resources for community work. On two occasions he sent his disciples out into various villages to do community work. On the first occasion, he forbade them to take any money at all. According to Christ money was not essential for community work. Money is merely a note promising to share a certain amount of commodities or services. What mattered to Christ was, not that his disciples carried a note that held the promise of help, but that his disciples actually helped the people they met out of their own internal resources. On the second occasion Christ sent his disciples out into the community, he allowed them to take a little money - but not much. According to Christ, money was never to be considered a primary but a secondary resource. External resources like money could be helpful as a secondary resource for community work. But, if external resources ever became a substitute for internal resources, and money became a primary rather than a secondary consideration, then Christ warned us that money would not only destroy our work, but also our community. After all, 'the love of money is the source of evil' (l Timothy 6:10).

On both the occasions Christ sent his disciples out to do community work, he didn't send them out in big numbers, and he didn't expect them to get big numbers involved. It was less of a mass movement - more a micro movement. He didn't send his disciples out in their hundreds, or thousands, but in twos. And he didn't expect them get hundreds, or thousands, involved, but one here, and one there. As far as Christ was concerned, two meeting one and forming a group of three was a big enough crowd to begin to overthrow the order of the day. A group of three could create within themselves the stability and security necessary for any development; as Jewish wisdom had it, 'A cord of three strands is not easily broken' (Ecclesiastes 4:12). A group of three could create within themselves the subjectivity and objectivity necessary for community development. 'Let every matter be decided on the basis of two or three witnesses' (Matthew 18; 16). And a group of three could create within themselves the time and space necessary for Christlike community development. 'Wherever two or three of you gather in my name', Christ said, 'there am I in the midst of you' (Matthew IS:2O). According to Christ, a small, apparently insignificant group of just three people can actually have all the internal resources they need to create a significant movement in society towards community.

Most attempts to bring about change in society haven't come unstuck because the groups involved lacked the funds or the numbers. Most came unstuck because of power struggles that caused the groups to self-destruct. The people involved lacked the power to change themselves, let alone their society. Hence, Christ taught that the most important single issue in bringing about change was for groups to discover the power to be able to manage their affairs in a way that gave everyone a fair go; power that enabled them to transcend their selfishness, resolve their conflicts and deal with their issues in a way that did justice to everybody involved. Without that strong but gentle power, Christ said, we should not even try to start working for change, lest we end up destroying the world that we are trying to create (Luke 24:49)- However, with that strong but gentle power, Christ said, nothing on earth can stop us from building a better world - neither lack of funds; nor lack of numbers; nothing (Matthew 17:20). So when Christ sent his disciples out to build a better world, he imparted to them what he called 'the power of the Spirit' (John 20:21-22). This Spirit was not a spirit of timidity, but of power, characterized by discipline of self, and compassion for others' (2 Timothy 1:7). So, as they opened themselves to this Spirit, it produced in them the strong but gentle power to control themselves, and to love others as they loved themselves.

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