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Mike hopes to see the world turned upside down through local communities banding together for social change, especially churches which have recognized the radical calling to be good news to the poor, to set free the prisoners and oppressed, and to become the social embodiment of the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. He lives with the blessed memory of his wife, in Durham, NC, and has three adult children living in three different states. He also shares his life with the Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, the faculty and students of Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, NC, and the faithful fans of Duke and Baylor Basketball in his neighborhood.

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Saturday, November 18, 2006

Writing a final report on my sabbatical grant project was a challenge and a learning experience. I spent four days hammering away at my keyboard, looking back at notes taken here and there, recently and not so recently. I reviewed comments from other professors. I gained some insights. I hope there will be much more that I can say about it than my formal report. The opening section of my report follows. I hope my colleagues and I can somehow grasp from this research some pieces of an appropriate pedagogical response. That would be one more reason to be thankful to God.

The “Teaching Political Engagement” project has provided excellent opportunities for learning about political engagement on the level of everyday practices of churches and church-related organizations. The fall political season in the United States presents exaggerated images of partisan conflict, overstuffed with fear-mongering and mudslinging, funded by mountains of wealth. But that is only one angle by which to look at political life. In communities all over the United States, neighborhood organizations, civic clubs, ad hoc committees, coalitions, political associations, and churches engage one another in transforming their communities and in affecting the decisions of businesses, large corporations, school boards, city and county governments. Their local work may ultimately reshape state and federal policies.

Of course, this kind of neighborhood-based political engagement is often the exception rather than the rule of life in the United States, as noted by Marcia Riggs, Cornel West, Mark R. Warren, and Robert Putnam,(1) who have examined the breakdown of community and neighborly structures and the possibilities for rebuilding them. Churches are often either oblivious to this loss or helpless and ineffective in their efforts to swim against this stream. The culture of individualism provides few tools for analyzing the structural problems of society, nor does it encourage sympathy for other people’s problems. For churches who do not recognize their calling to be rooted in the inaugural public statement of Jesus’ mission to the world, recorded in Luke 4:16-21, the initial task will be to undergo what James B. Nickoloff calls “conversion to the neighbor” in his comments on Gustavo Gutierrez’s theology of neighbor love: “that love of God is inseparable from [and] . . . unavoidably expressed through love of one’s neighbor.”(2)

There are many churches and church leaders who have a basic theological understanding of their duty to love the neighbor through offering grace in relational and tangible form. Providing food, clothes, and other assistance in times of crisis is not an uncommon practice by churches who may create organizational structures or may respond as cases arise. Sometimes these sorts of actions receive the name “mercy ministries,” a term derived in part from Micah 6:8, which summarizes the prophetic message with a threefold calling to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. Mercy ministries address the immediate crisis needs that people may face, but on their own they do little to confront structures which may be perpetuating the sort of crises that people in the neighborhood keep having. Justice ministries address structural injustices and seek to create structures of justice in the neighborhood, sometimes through the effort of the church and its neighborhood partners and sometimes through addressing governmental and non-governmental systems which affect the situation of injustice.

In my conversations with students about their churches and their responses to drug abuse, gangs, poverty, drop-outs, and crime, they usually tell stories of mercy ministries and efforts to help this family deal with its immediate need. Seldom are they able to articulate strategies or plans for addressing structural or systemic change. If the conversation shifts to systemic change, then often the focus becomes national political issues and elected federal officials. In contrast, Cornel West has insisted it is local grassroots community action, not neglecting state and federal influence, which will be able to bring about transformation.(3)

Many of the student ministers in my theology and ethics classes have an inclination toward grassroots action for community change, but their ecclesial training has seldom prepared them to innovate in ministry, to develop a workable ministry plan, or to use good organizational practices. Thus, a range of needs emerges for “Teaching Political Engagement.”

• A theologically grounded understanding of the relation of churches to their neighborhoods, communities, and other political and social organizations should effectively communicate the calling of the church to embrace the mission Jesus proclaimed as the Reign of God, sometimes contextualized in recent U. S. history as “the beloved community.”(4)

• A critical analysis of structures and systems in relation to the problems and needs of particular people should enable teaching the communal or corporate mission of he church, the church’s ways of using power, and models of social and political engagement with structures and systems.

• Studying and participating in good organizing practices and intentional community-building should support the development of habits that are flexible and foster the building of effective and sustainable organizations that are needed for longer-term personal and community transformation.

• Educational processes must accommodate formation in theological vision, communal identity, analytical insight, organizational tools, and vocational commitment.

(1) Marcia Riggs, Awake, Arise, and Act (Cleveland: Pilgrim, 1994) 87, 93ff; Cornel West, Race Matters (New York: Vintage, 1994) 29-30; Mark R. Warren, Dry Bones Rattling (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001) 16-18; Robert Putman, Bowling Alone (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000) 42, 56ff, 73-74.

(2) Gustavo Gutierrez, Essential Writings, ed. by James B. Nickoloff (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1996) 149, 154.

(3) West, Ibid.

(4) Martin Luther King, Jr., A Testament of Hope, ed. by James M. Washington (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1986) 140; Charles Marsh, The Beloved Community (New York: Basic Books, 2005) 49-50, 207-210.

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