Community Organising: where it came from and why it matters

Guest post by Major Malcolm Martin.

lukeA few weeks ago William Booth College partnered with South London Citizens to host a conversation with Luke Bretherton, who shared some of the key concepts outlined in his latest book ‘Resurrecting Democracy: Faith, Citizenship, and the Politics of a Common Life’. The book examines the theoretical foundations of community organising, particularly as found in the work of Saul Alinsky, and relates them to an extended case study of implementation within London Citizens – inc
luding an honourable mention for ‘Nick Coke, a softly spoken Salvation Army officer’. Those who are readily familiar with ‘Marching Towards Justice’ will find this to be a familiar format.

A couple of key thoughts that Luke shared in the course of the evening included:

  1. Community organising is not a helderprogressive politics, but a populist politics, fostering broader involvement in meaningful democracy.
  2. Politicians like churches when they feed the homeless, but not when they ask difficult questions. This seems to echo the quote attributed to Helder Câmara: ‘When I give food to the poor they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.’
  3. Both state-based and market-based solutions have failed to redistribute power. Again this seemed to reflect the assertion of Leonardo Boff that neither socialism nor capitalism provide satisfactory structures for community – we should instead look to the Trinity.

I am not the only one to see some similarities between community organising and classical theologies of liberation, but when asked about these Luke highlighted a key point of contrast. Liberation theologies have tended to propose the overthrow of those in power, community organising advocates engagement and transformation, thereby avoiding the danger of polarisation. Whether this means that the principles can only really function in a context where those in power are willing to listen and change is a matter for further debate and reflection.

What both ‘Resurrecting Democracy’ and ‘Marching Towards Justice’ share is an emphasis upon the value of building relationships in order to improve the common life shared within local communities. Although aimed primarily at an academic audience (the book includes 119 pages of notes and a 31 page bibliography), Bretherton’s book provides an account of the broader context within which The Salvation Army can pursue justice through community organising.

Major Malcolm Martin is the Training Programme Director at William Booth College. He is one of the organisers of ‘Thinking Aloud: Salvationist Explorations in Theology’ taking place at the college this Autumn. You can book tickets here.