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Praise the Lord and Pass the Petition

An activist Christian left is slowly emerging of late, practicing "faith-based community organizing" for social and economic justice.

| Tue Feb. 28, 2006 3:00 AM EST

If you are waiting for a religious left to emerge to offset the power of the religious right, it may already be in your own neighborhood at a local church or synagogue. I stumbled across a branch of the religious left quite by accident recently, in Texas of all places, though the folks I met would say I was guided to them by the Lord.

On a weekend in mid-February, nearly 200 Evangelical Lutherans from all over the country came to Fort Worth for the Congregation-Based Organizing Strategy Summit or CBOSS. They talked, planned, and prayed about community organizing. They shared stories about what they had already accomplished through faith and hard political work.

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They had demanded action from public officials and corporate leaders in their communities, and they were proud of their victories. Among the local triumphs some of them claimed were: affordable housing for thousands of families; guaranteed access to health insurance for all children; treatment centers instead of prisons for criminals; a new community center where a meth house used to be; free day-care centers; water and sewer lines for 150,000 rural poor who had none before; laws requiring public contractors to pay a living wage; surveillance cameras in police cars -- to watch the police themselves.

The list of victories went on and on. In every case devout Christians, often allied with secular activists, had put enough pressure on public officials to turn empty promises into real results. These Christians did it all because they felt called by the Lord to do His work, to create justice in the world -- and because they've learned the rigorous, disciplined organizing techniques pioneered by Saul Alinsky, who created the Industrial Areas Foundation in the 1940s, and Ernesto Cortez, who then sparked Alinsky-style organizations from the barrios of Texas to the valleys of Los Angeles.

The Christians I met at CBOSS pray endlessly to Jesus, but their savior is no meek and mild turner of the other cheek. He is the Great Organizer. He agitates, builds political tension, and goes toe-to-toe with any authority who abuses power to oppress people. He is the model of a fighter for justice who won't ever quit until the wrongs of the world are righted. This Jesus has political values as radical as -- maybe more radical than -- yours. He offers his followers eternal life in heaven. But first He demands that they work to create justice on Earth every day by practicing the arts of tough political love that He taught so long ago.

They call their political work "faith-based community organizing," or sometimes "congregation-based organizing" to avoid confusion with George Bush's "faith-based initiative," which is a very different thing. In Bush's approach, religion is supposed to take the sin out of the sinner. That, congregation-based community organizers will tell you, is a case of blaming the victim. The problem lies not in the supposed sins of the poor, oppressed, and marginalized. The real sin is an oppressive economic and political system that deprives people of rights, resources, and hope.

That sinful system flourishes -- as they reminded themselves many times over in the CBOSS meeting -- because the powerless let the powerful get away with it. When the powerless heed the divine call to organize, they can exert enough political power to force sinners to mend their ways, and so to mend neighborhoods, schools, and social institutions that their greed has destroyed.

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