Monthly Archives: June 2008

Stories of Transformation: Policy

Personal transformation and congregational transformation are important in themselves, but they aren’t what get me up in the morning.

I see them as part of building a broader social transformation.

Let me give you an example.

In 2006, the minimum wage in Michigan was just $5.15 per hour. That’s ridiculous! There’s no way you can pay the bills with a wage that low.

The state legislature wouldn’t do anything to raise the wage, so ICPJ joined with a statewide campaign to put the question to the voters.

It didn’t take long to see that we were serious and that we would get this on the ballot and win. So the folks in Lansing who once opposed the wage increase realized that they would rather have a wage increase than to have the voting booths filled with low-wage workers thinking about which candidate will be best for them.

So Lansing passed a wage increase.

We didn’t even have to take it to the ballot box.

We won!

Now low-wage workers have a bit more in their pockets to pay for food, housing, and health care. It was one more step toward justice.

It was one example of social transformation.

[Note: this is one in a series of blog posts dealing with the importance of transformation iN social change organizing]

Stories of Transformation: The Congregation

"torture is wrong" banner at First Baptist of Ann ArborJennifer Mills‘ story is a poignant example of personal transformation. Working for an interfaith organization, I also see transformation within religious communities.

Let me give you two examples from the Banners Across America anti-torture effort.

In this campaign, some congregations signed on that we knew would support it. For example, the local Quaker meeting and ministry partnership of Northside Presbyterian and St. Aidan’s Episcopal have strong histories of speaking out on social justice issues.

It was easy to convince them to put up banners.

But not every congregation was as easy.

One of our board members attends a local congregation that has a history of being more moderate. They tend to avoid social issues. So when he brought the banner idea to the Church Council, he faced a harder sell.

Is it too political? Will it alienate members?

After an hour of debate, the vote came in: a unanimous vote for hanging the banner.

It was a transformation for this church from not talking much about these issues to actively engaging with them. Furthermore, it was a transformation from discussing the issue within the church walls to visibly taking a stand in public.

The pastor has told me that he thinks that years from now the congregation will look back at this decision and see it as the turning point when the congregation decided to go “the Jesus way” of speaking out on moral issues like torture.

That’s transformation!

Another board member had a similar challenge when she brought the banner to her church. In the end, her congregation decided they didn’t have enough unity to hang a banner; but they did agree to host forums to discuss the issue within the congregation.

This too is transformation. This is engaging a congregation that hasn’t been very involved and reaching out to people who don’t yet agree with this position. It’s reaching new audiences. And I’m as satisfied by this “engaged no” as I am with the easy yes from the Quaker meeting.

Stories of Transformation: The Individual

I’m pushing transformation hard right now for two reasons.

First, it’s why we’re here. If we’re not going to be serious about work for social transformation, we might as well go home.

Second, transformation is possible. Here’s one example of individual transformation and helping someone grow from inactive to being an amazing organizer.

Every fall at the Interfaith Council for Peace and Justice (ICPJ) we organize a delegation to the School of the Americas Watch rally and vigil in Ft. Benning, GA.

Three years ago Jennifer Mills was a first-year student at the University of Michigan. She had planned on going down to Georgia on the bus organized by the Adrian Dominican Sisters, but her test schedule didn’t allow that.

So she road with us.

I’ll be honest, we didn’t give her the most comfortable of trips; especially after other folks locked her out of the room we had booked for her.

Maybe it was because of her experience sleeping in the car that the next year she came to me and said, “we should bring our own bus.”

I was skeptical; busses are expensive. But I supported Jennifer, and I’m glad she did.

She worked hard to fill the bus. She created a partnership with the UAW to fill the seats. She found campus funding to help cover costs.

Thanks to her, for the last two years we’ve taken a bus to Ft. Benning.

Before she came down on that first trip, Jennifer was not an activist. Today, Jennifer is on the ICPJ Board, she’s received a peacemakers award from Pax Christi of Michigan, and she’s looking to follow Dr. Paul Farmer’s example of ensuring that the world’s poorest have access to quality healthcare.

Now ICPJ can’t take credit for all the hard work Jennifer has done, but by giving her a structure and support to grow as an activist ICPJ has been part of her personal growth and transformation as an activist.

Transformation is possible, and Jennifer is an excellent example of it.

What transformation means for me

I wrote earlier about the importance of seeking social transformation.

I intentionally never defined that term; it will be different for different contexts.

For me and for my context as an interfaith peace and justice organizer, here is what transformation means to me:

  • Transformation of individuals: Changing the way a person relates to a concern, especially what they do about it. Maybe it transforms them from being actively proclaiming that global warming is a hoax to just being quiet about the issue. Or, it could mean that they grow from taking individual action for peace in Iraq to organizing their neighborhood to take action together.
  • Transformation of congregations: Just like individual transformation, congregational transformation happens along a continuum. It can mean getting a congregation that is hostile to faith-rooted concern for the peace to give it a fair hearing; or it could mean moving discussion of social justice concerns from the social hour to the pulpit. Or, in the case of the Banners Across America anti-torture banner campaign, it could mean moving the discussion from inside to outside the congregation walls.
  • Transformation of society is changing policies or structures to make a more just and peaceful world, which can be anything from increasing funding for food stamps, improving public transformation, getting peace education in the schools, or a whole lot more.

There are many ways to envision transformation, but we won’t create it unless we know what we’re trying to create.

What does transformation mean to you?

Let’s get serious about transformation

 I'm looking through you by Morti RiuuallonWhat if we only did things that we knew would contribute to social transformation?

What if we agreed to never again do a half-hearted speaking event or a ten-person rally?

Sometimes as organizers we set our goals too low. We’re content with vague ideas of “raising awareness” or “speaking out” without really seeing how it will really make a difference.

I challenge all of you in social change work to set the bar high for program you do, so that whatever you do truly promotes transformation.

Transformation can take many forms; I’m not going to dictate what it should mean for you and your organization. In another post I’ll share what it means for me.

I am going to insist, though, that you relentlessly pursue social transformation. Cut away everything that does not vigorously promote transformation.

Otherwise we’re just going through the motions.

Why people of faith should oppose torture

Torture is Wrong bannerThis is Torture Awareness Month, and I’ve been working to recruit congregations to hang banners saying “Torture is Wrong.” Sometimes I get the question, “Why should our congregation take a stand on this issue?”

The National Religious Campaign Against Torture has compiled a good list of resources about why people of faith are speaking out against torture. Let me add my own thoughts.

As I look at my tradition, Christianity, and its roots in Judaism, I see much of its ethical teachings as based in empathy.

We see this clearly in the Laws of Moses:

“You shall not oppress the stranger, for you know the soul of the stranger, having been strangers in the land of Egypt.” Exodus 23:9

Why not oppress? Because you know what it’s like. Even if you as a person have not experienced this, remember your history as a people and a faith. Remember what it’s like to be powerless, so that you won’t take advantage of the weak.

Jesus continues teaching from this tradition by reminding his followers of Lev. 19:18, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mark 12:31)

If you love your neighbor, you won’t torture him. That may be trite, but it is true.

Likewise, when we look at the history of our faith community, we as a people know what it is to be tortured. From the St. Stephan, the first Christian martyr, to the Jews of the Holocaust, people of faith have seen what it is to be unjustly beaten, tortured, and killed. From a Christian perspective, of course, we see this most in Jesus, who was flogged, humiliated, and nailed to a cross–certainly a form of torture.

The teaching of Exodus can be restated, “you know the soul of the tortured, having been tortured by Rome.”

And now we are in power. As people of faith in America, we are part of the world’s only remaining superpower.

We are part of the New Rome. The New Egypt. The new empire.

And it is vital that we look back to our history and our tradition that we remember that we too as a people were victims of torture, and that we choose God’s path of empathy and declare:

Torture is wrong.

What peace activists can learn from a classical swordsman

In the famous Book of Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi, one of the key teachings is about attention:

The primary thing when you take a sword in your hands is your intention to cut the enemy, whatever the means. Whenever you parry, hit, spring, strike or touch the enemy’s cutting sword, you must cut the enemy in the same movement. It is essential to attain this. If you think only of hitting, springing, striking or touching the enemy, you will not be able actually to cut him. More than anything, you must be thinking of carrying your movement through to cutting him. You must thoroughly research this.

Now of course as a peace organizer, I have no intention of cutting anybody. But I do respect Musashi’s point about the need to have fierce dedication, focus and intent with each movement.

In our organizing and activism, every movement should be focused on peacemaking. If we hold a meeting, it should be to bring us closer to peace. If we rally and protest, it should be to bring us closer to justice.

If we think only of rallying, only of meeting, only of protesting, we will be unable to bring peace. If our efforts are only because they are things we should do, then we will waste effort.

Let us bring the same focus to stopping violence that Musashi brought to prevailing through violence.

Finding allies in unsuspected places: the Mackinac Conference

The Mackinac Policy Conference has a reputation of being a playground of the conservative business elite.

That’s not what I saw.

I went up for the Fusion young professionals track for the Conference, which is a sort of “kids table” to bring young leaders to the table and involve them in the discussion.

The conference attendees raised five issues as the top concerns for the state, including like transit, education, and green energy.

As a progressive, I can get behind these issues, and I’m excited to see the business community supporting them as well.

I admit, it’s not what I expected to see. I expected a litany of anti-tax, anti-environment, anti-labor hard-line conservative rhetoric. Instead I saw a lot of common ground and a desire to address problems that we can only address by bringing together the business, government, and nonprofit sectors.

So here’s my message to progressives: Stop running away from the conversation. We need to take our place at the table so we can build alliances and start solving some of these problems.

(And if that’s not enough of a motivation for you, here’s one more: it was an open bar every evening.)