February 27, 2006

Guest Blog: The Hungry Multitude in the Age of Mass Culture

Witnessing in a crowd has a particular role to play. As when Jesus dispensed the five loaves and two fishes that fed the crowd of hundreds, sharing actually proliferates and foments grace among individuals until it affects the people around them. The miracle is that in sharing, good things actually multiply until they fill every hungry mouth.

If you believe an active group can accomplish more than individuals in isolation, that it can build up individual courage, and allow individual talents to shine, then you believe in aggregated witness.

So I'd like to share two examples from my own work.

The first has to do with bloggers and readers, just like the guest blog you're now reading. The Internet allows a special kind of witness, making it possible for you, the reader, to create your own witness in response to mine, instantly.

The second has to do with activities afoot right now among Progressive Christian activists, by which I mean both those concerned about addressing issues like poverty from within church congregations, and those who would prevail upon Christians to make issues like poverty matter once more in American politics. Their witness intends to begin direct and tangible appearances in American society within the next year.

For the hunger that haunts America is at once physical hunger in the shape of the 37 million Americans who live in poverty, the one million added each year, those who live down the very street each of us live on who by some accident, injury, or mistake will be unable to feed their families -- and a spiritual hunger, in the form of fake religion, fake compassion, fake values, fake diplomacy, and fake dialogue.

Both hungers are worsened in the age of mass media, where it has been, until recently, all but impossible for voices of compassion to break through the white noise of fake Christians, empty values, and the politics of blind-eye-turning to human cruelty.

Witnessing on the Internet

When witnesses come to town, souls wake up. The Internet brings witness to everyone's town. Bloggers serve a role that itinerant ministers played in the age of John Wesley.

Wesley's Methodist circuit riders took the gospel by horseback to poor miners and farmers who never before had the opportunity to engage Christian teachings. The long-term result of their work was what we call the Progressive Era of politics, a sudden boom of concern for the poor. Progressive politicians got poor children out of the mines and into schools; they passed acts to protect divorced and abused women; they legalized unions, and laid the foundations for Civil Rights.

Spreading information to people who don't have access to it creates the possibility for working together among people who have hitherto been suppressed by powerful, entrenched interests.

Bloggers write because they've been transformed. People respond because they're moved by witnessing such a transformation. Street Prophets, the major discussion board for progressive religion, regularly gets fifty comments to a single post, of which there may be twenty a day. The newspapers of America regularly report on the expansion of bloggers and blog-readers -- getting and sharing information this way is becoming part of everyday life for many people. The bloggers at Sollicitudo Rei Socialis and throughout the Progressive Christian Bloggers Network are actively testifying to the power of witness, so much so that the stranger who googles the phrase "Christian Blogger" learns first about Progressive Christians at work, not about Pat Robertson. As the patterns of reading and sharing on the Internet expand, the power of this form of witness will continue to expand.

Aggregating the Witnesses

Sneaking links into this information is powerful: it means that if you find one blog, soon you know that there's a movement, whether or not the blog explicitly tells you so. Information in the same place is also good for encyclopedia-like power to search under topics -- that's what Google did for all the information on the Net, but also what Progressive Christians could do for Progressive Christian sermons and blogs.

Finally, shared information means helping collaborate in the most basic senses -- at the moment, the National Council of Churches and Sojourners only know about each other's events, lobbying, press releases, and mailing lists haphazardly. To plan for greater numbers at their turnouts, greater participation in their conferences, and greater effect behind their important lobbies, they, as well as smaller groups and tiny blogging communities and Sunday School clubs, need to share.

CrossLeft.org is one example of an aggregator that seeks to network Progressive Christian work. CrossLeft newsstreams pull together hundreds of Progressive Christian blog headlines into a dozen different streams (clergy's personal stories, just politics, mostly theology, etc.), so that after an event like the horrible bombings in Samara, you can literally watch as reactions spread through the Progressive Christian community: prayers are posted, political Jeremiads are delivered, proposals for relief mooted, all by bloggers and their readers.

Aggregation is powerful because it enables individuals to feel that they're not alone, and shows strangers that we inhabit a neighborhood of other people with similar experiences.

CrossLeft is only one form of aggregation. Co-blogging, like the Sollicitudo Rei Socialis guest blog and the regular Progressive Faith Blog Carnival, is another way. This form of aggregation brings strong voices into the same room, and offers real quality to readers. Discussion boards like StreetProphets are yet another way of showing numbers and solidarity. Linking to each other's sites is also a good way for people with weblogs to testify to the fact thay they're in community with other people whose work they value.

For people who run organizations, conference calls are another way of sharing. Live conferences for denominations is another.

Individuals can also share information, wisdom, and experience, just by letting others know what they're up to. Even without a blog, you can share sites and articles you found valuable, by noting what you've been looking at with the tag PROCHRIST (PROgressive CHRISTian) on information sharing sites like Del.icio.us and Flickr, which let individuals tell the world which websites or pictures they're looking at. Going to a local church where there are people you feel comfortable with is another great way to share. There's no one way to share, but the sharing is vital to our life as a community.

In the faces of other members of the church, we see Christ's own features; in the charitable works of their hands, in every loving word or comment exchanged, we feel the loving touch of Christ's own hands.

From Aggregation to Agenda: The Progressive Christian Leadership Summit, Feb. 4-5, 2006

In the name of aggregation, CrossLeft recently held a summit of activist leadership in San Francisco.

We had fifty leaders of Progressive Christian organizations; new groups in Nevada and Oregon; solid think tanks from the Washington, D.C. beltway; ninety-year-old crowds like the million-person California Council of Churches.

Our goal was to put on the table the values, issues, and actions that Progressive Christians are working toward. We wanted to find the political issues and cultural ideas that had the greatest purchase in American culture.

We wanted to review what everyone was doing, and to choose a couple of big actions for collaboration that represented issues everyone cared about. We wanted to get as many organizations as possible to sign up to help participate in these actions.

You can read an overview of the values, issues, and actions we talked about on the CrossLeft site. You will eventually be able to access a database of groups' strengths, weaknesses, and contact information.

Essentially, the summit allowed us to point to what, to the best of our knowledge, represents the five big actions the Progressive Christian Movement will be working on in 2006. These are:

  • To elect Progressive Christians to office, principally through the distribution of Christian Values Voting Guides;

  • To oppose the Iraq War, especially through church school programs and adult study toolkits;

  • To map moderate-to-progressive churches and Progressive Christian organizations;

  • To establish a national network of Progressive Christian groups on college campuses;

  • To engage in protests and lobbying focusing on the budget as a moral document.

CrossLeft suggested, and will promote, a very straight-forward plan for accountability. On top of each action is one coordinator, a representative from some activist group. The coordinator's job is to keep calling and writing all groups, from Sojourners to the local church, who are involved with the coordinator's particular project. The coordinator will ask them to brainstorm together, share resources, think about areas where their work is redundant, and think about what still needs to be done.

Our disorganization and isolation is the single biggest factor working against the Progressive Christian Movement. Collaboration across organizations is difficult, and it's never really been tried before in the Progressive Christian Movement, where Methodists work with Methodists and not Episcopalians, and peace activists work with peace activists and not homeless advocates.

The reason we're so dispersed is a throwback to the sudden way we came to meet each other: many participants in the summit confessed that they had an "aha" moment on or around 9/11. Thus, many of the organizations that showed up are only a year old or less, although some are already powerhouses like the above-mentioned California Council of Churches. The flourishing of a new generation of activists is a testament to the times, and a witness to growing interest in the movement and its work.

The new generation needs to learn how to work together. Only when we understand who's out there and what they're working on will these attempts to put together large movement-wide collaboration come together.

Only with the best and brightest of all backgrounds can we really begin to develop strategies to win cultural battles, to break through the fortress of the media, to defeat the idiom of right-wing pseudo-Christian politics for good, and to win back real territory for Christian values.

That's why we need you to read and to witness, in whatever form your calling takes you. Witnessing is the work that brings the broken pieces of God's body together.

Let that witness be about sharing information, spreading the loaves and fishes through the entire crowd, until so great a multitude is transformed that the faith will last another thousand years.

A Call to Witness: Lent

The last month's several shared blogs and the San Francisco summit both set the course for an experiment in movement that will be taking off in the next several weeks, even while the church invites Christians to participate in one of the great religious rituals of collective discernment through Lent.

Lent is an invitation for the individual to take some comfort and offer it up to God. That action, in its act of pure, arbitrary will, makes room for the individual to change according to a greater plan.

There are many individual readers who feel discouraged and isolated, fed up with American politics and the culture of the self, hungry for political change, and unsure of where to give their talents. Even among bloggers and organizers, there is legitimate concern about how to best strategize with each other, that our poor, solitary efforts should amount to more than a futile series of protests.

Let me therefore offer, in the spirit of sharing and inspiration, a very small spiritual practice in the form of a meditation, which may be engaged as part of a Lenten discipline.

  1. What issues do I personally feel most moved about?

  2. What is it that the movement itself needs to succeed, regardless of where my own talents or inclinations lie?

  3. What form of working with others allows me to share the most good?

The first question is extremely personal, the innate emotional pull of where an individual is at the moment. The second is detached and political, even theoretical -- what form of action would produce the desired change, by any means, at any cost? The last question, of where the individual fits, moves back to what the individual in question can do to change at this very moment.

This is a circular movement, from the personal to the selfless and back to the personal. It mirrors a form of Lenten practice in confession, self-denial, waiting for discernment, and final return to a re-awakened everyday practice.

Sharing relies on noting the self and leaving the self, then leaving the strategy to return back to life. This is a form of witness to which the Progressive Christian Movement, on the Internet and in the board room, immediately aspires.

May we enter then, together, into this season of Lent, conscious of the great multitude which waits to be fed, conscious of our own hunger, as of our talents, and of the miracle of sharing, manifesting even now among us.

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Jo Guldi is the Communications Director for CrossLeft, a strategy clearing-house and central hub for grassroots activism among Progressive Christians. She is a PhD student in history at Berkeley, a former Gates Scholar at Trinity College Cambridge, and a graduate of Harvard College. Jo is a member of the Episcopal Church of the Advent of Christ the King in San Francisco.