This week I've been learning about ways to live joyfully within imperfect institutions, while also moving toward the development of alternatives to those institutions. I've been thinking about how Jesus worshiped in the Temple in Jerusalem, while also challenging the institutional powers connected with the Temple, and planting seeds for new forms of religious communities. I've recently talked with people in both religious and secular institutions who find a way to live within imperfect institutions, while also planting seeds for alternatives to those institutions.
One of those people I talked with was Jin Kim, the pastor at Church of All Nations in Columbia Heights, MN. Their members include people from more than 20 countries, and no one ethnicity is a majority within the congregation. The church describes themselves as a "high risk, low anxiety church." They seek to embody the changes they envision in the wider church, in ways that are radical, nonviolent, and humble. I am inspired by their example. Here's a sermon that Jin gave about their church's vision.
I sometimes get confused about whether I should be working for revolution or reform in institutions that I work with. The examples of Jin and others I've talked with, and the stories of Jesus remind me that it isn't always an either/or choice. We can live now in the spirit we are seeking to bring about, recognizing the ways we are intertwined in the oppressive systems we are working against.
In the consulting work I do, I find that almost all organizations have some harmful patterns that seem to suck people into negativity. I also find that every organization seems to have at least a couple people who have a gift for addressing the unhealthiness without being caught in it. They are able to remain both joyful and realistic when there is a lot of blame and despair around them.
How do you balance loyalty, reform, and revolution in your relationships with institutions?
I just found your blog, Michael and this post interests me. It is a relevant topic to me lately and I will have to contemplate it for a while. One simple point that comes to me in thinking about your closing question is sticking it out through the rocky times. Sometimes people aren't comfortable or willing to work through things - and thus their insight, their perspective, the reasons God called them to be part of that body, are lost. Not to say that one must always stay, but I know I was called to stick it out recently and I see great things beginning to happen. I wonder how to share those things with people who left, without implying any blame or judgment..
All the people you mention have some measure of power and respect in the organizations they're trying to change.
I can't help but wonder what you'd write if you were one of the oppressed trying to change an oppressive organization.
Or if you'd just leave it.
Carla and Jeanne: I hear you both raising the question of when to leave an organization and when to stay. I've personally erred on both sides of that--staying too long, or leaving too quickly. Both of your comments help me see that question in new ways.
Jeanne: I also hear you challenging me (and all of us) to recognize the ways power and privilege affect how we see and act in institutions. Sometimes my class and race privileges have allowed me to leave places that others couldn't (like when my family moved out of North Minneapolis, or when I've left uncomfortable jobs). Other times, like in religious communities, my privileges have made it more comfortable to stay in places where others are excluded. I've got a lot to learn in both directions.
Both of your comments reminded me of something that Jin Kim at Church of All Nations wrote about power and comfort within his church:
"In our local church context, the power brokers are the Korean Americans since the Church of All Nations emerged from the Korean immigrant context. As we moved at increasing speed toward embodying the multicultural vision, the collective response I seemed to get from that group was: “We work for Dow Chemical, 3M, General Mills, and the University of Minnesota. Although we have well-paying jobs we are not really leaders in these places; we still have to live and work under the overarching White power structure. Now we come to a Korean American church, the one place where we have power, where we have leadership, where our culture is affirmed, and you want to take that cultural hegemony away from us? You want to take away the one last refuge where we can be ourselves?”
My answer is “yes.” Yes, we lay down our lives for our friends. Yes, we love our neighbors as ourselves. Yes, we care for the widows, orphans, aliens, and strangers in our midst. Although we have painstakingly constructed foxholes and bird nests for our security, we choose with our Lord Jesus to be homeless wanderers on this earth, to have nowhere to lay our heads (Luke 9:57). I have compassion for my fellow 1.5- and second-generation English-speaking Korean Americans who must choose between comfortable and affirming spiritual fellowship and the daring work of the ministry of reconciliation."
I find that I am like Palker Palmer. When I am in organizations, I find that I get so incensed by the way that power if used, that I spend too much time railing against it. It brings out the worst in me. I find I am better off leading from the margins of institutions and supporting them in changing that way.
Just waking up to this now, but really enjoying your queries at the end of each entry. I know how questions have blessed my life, and how they can enrich in ways that answers or admonitions can't. Thanks for those.
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