Tents of Hospitality: An Interview with Luke Bretherton on Community Organizing

Luke Bretherton’s podcast, Listen, Organize, Act!, is an eye-opening and inspiring series of conversations around the history and practices of community organizing. Building from and beyond Bretherton’s many scholarly publications exploring the intersection of religion and democracy, the podcast is a site of hospitality, providing a platform where wisdom is shared from a variety of organizers and activists. In this interview with former TOJ editor Joel Mayward, Bretherton discusses his personal background with organizing, the pedagogical motives behind the podcast, and his hopeful insights about the role of democracy for our contemporary politics.

The Other Journal (TOJ): Share your organizing autobiography: what experiences drew you to community organizing?

Luke Bretherton (LB): I fell into organizing, as many do, by having a one-to-one with an organizer. I was invited for a coffee by Catherine Howarth, who at that time was doing the groundwork to establish West London Citizens as a chapter of the London Citizens organizing coalition. I later learned we were doing a one-to-one—at the time, I just thought she was interested in what I was about! I became more involved in the work of West London Citizens through my church. Part of my motivation was it felt like home.

My parents were deeply concerned about their local community. In the early 1960s, when they moved into the neighborhood where I grew up, there were a number of notorious slum landlords operating. This was a time when the first generation of migrants from the Caribbean, often referred to as the Windrush generation, were coming to London. These migrant workers encountered racist housing policies and were violently exploited by the slum landlords who would take their deposits and then, a week or so later, send in their heavies to throw the migrant workers out and replace them with prostitutes who the slum landlords also controlled. My mum and dad were appalled by this racket, and through their church, they joined together with a few others to raise money from friends and family, buy houses, do them up, and then rent them out. They eventually set up something called Latimer Housing Association to provide good quality housing for low-income families. It ran out of our front room for fifteen years or so until they eventually got offices. It was a form of community self-organization that only later was helped and supported by the state. This was but one of myriad local initiatives to address serious problems in the area, initiatives in which churches and other religious communities were vital players.

In these and my parents’ response to the world around them, the market had a place, but it had to know its place. Vulnerable strangers were not commodities to be exploited for monetary gain but neighbors to be hosted. The state had a role, but neither law nor central government was the best or first place to turn to in order to address social, economic, and political problems. In the first instance, neighborhoods could organize themselves to address issues of poverty or racial and religious conflict, of which there was a great deal. One’s identity, beliefs, and practices were to be hallowed, as they formed the deepest level of motivation, yet it was recognized that one’s own primary community, be it based on religion, class, or ethnicity, was never all-encompassing and never sufficient in itself to sustain a decent neighborhood. Rather, a shared life based around goods in common—for example, decent housing or education—must be forged in order that the welfare of both me and my neighbor might be met.

I don’t want to idealize the world I grew up in. There were deep and systemic problems. But, as I said, when I encountered community organizing, it felt a lot like home.

At an academic level, I became involved in community organizing just as I was finishing up researching the shifts in policy and practice through the 1990s, both in the United States and the United Kingdom, around government funding of and engagement with faith-based organizations. I had also been looking at the parallel shifts that came in the wake of 9/11 and the intentional and intensive engagement of Western governments with religious communities who were focused on a social cohesion and social exclusion agenda. I was increasingly concerned about how these changes set up dynamics of co-option by the state through what is called institutional isomorphism whereby religious organizations took on the form, adopted the ends, and adapted to the culture of the state. At the same time, this process was generating interreligious competition for state funding.[1] It gradually dawned on me that community organizing was a constructive response to these dynamics. It provided a pathway for establishing critically constructive and independent relationships with state and corporate entities while maintaining the specificity and particularity of Christian witness, and, at the same time, building a common life with religious and nonreligious others through the pursuit of goods in common. This insight led me to research and write on community organizing as a faithful form of democratic politics.

TOJ: You began recording your Listen, Organize, Act! podcast following the publication of your book on political theology, Christ and the Common Life.[2] How do you see the relationship between the book and the podcast? Is the latter a natural progression from the former, or are they distinct projects and interests?

LB: In many ways, the podcast is a form of public scholarship born out of my previous work, Resurrecting Democracy. The podcast would not have been possible without the research that went into that book.[3] But even more than that, the podcast emerges from my teaching. I’ve taught variations of a course entitled Listen, Organize, Act! since I moved to Duke in 2012. The podcast reflects the concerns and focus of that course. Alongside readings, the latest iteration of the course incorporates episodes of the podcast as preparatory material for each session. One of my aspirations for the podcast is that it can be an educational resource in seminaries and divinity schools, as well as other contexts that teach organizing. A few colleagues in other institutions tell me they are already using it this way.

Now, all of that said, and to return to your question, the podcast does in many ways articulate the thesis and vision of Christ and the Common Life. Among other things, the podcast stages a series of conversations about the kind of on-the-ground politics that Christ and the Common Life calls for.[4] The theological focus and vision of Christ and the Common Life is direct, whereas in Resurrecting Democracy this focus was more tacit than explicit. The podcast is a point of mediation between those two books as it articulates the political vision and practical entailments of this vision that both books share.

TOJ: And why a podcast in particular? What attracted you to the medium, and what have you learned or gained in the podcasting process?

LB: I was agitated into doing the podcast by a bunch of organizers. During the pandemic, Jonathan Lange, who was a long-time organizer with the Industrial Areas Foundation, and who is featured in episode 11, ran a monthly discussion group over Zoom. One of the issues discussed was how to do training under lockdown conditions. I took that as an opportunity to get on my high horse and harangue everyone on the call about how bad the organization was at social media and engaging new media to explain their work and engage wider networks of people. There is a deep antipathy toward online forms of mobilizing among many organizers and leaders, which itself is grounded in a commitment to real politics being a face-to-face endeavor. I share this commitment, but there are ways to engage social media constructively to enhance the work of organizing. As part of my harangue, I made the case that they should do a podcast, as it was a medium that best fits the culture and ethos of organizing. I thought it would be a great way to both supplement on-the-ground trainings and introduce a wider audience to the work.

Well, it seems I convinced them. Only trouble was, they turned around and immediately agitated me to be the one to do it. In the end, they convinced me. As it happened, I had funding from the Kenan Institute for Ethics for a series of events to be done in collaboration with the Industrial Areas Foundation at Duke. The pandemic meant these were canceled. The Kenan Institute allowed me to repurpose the money for the podcast. I then spent a lot of time watching YouTube videos about how to do one, as I was utterly clueless. It was a steep learning curve, particularly on the technical side.

The truth is, I did not take much persuading. Coming out of the ethnographic and archival work I did for Resurrecting Democracy, I’ve long wanted to do a series of interviews with organizers and leaders about the craft of organizing so as to have that available on public record. There is a terrific online archive of interviews with organizers hosted by Brown University, but these range all over the place and don’t focus on the discrete elements of organizing such as the one-to-one or house meeting. And the organizers don’t tend to be asked about the connections between religion and organizing.[5] I am also acutely conscious that there is a generation of organizers who have either retired or are retiring and who have great wisdom about what it takes to get churches of all types to engage in forms of small d democratic politics and the dynamics and challenges involved in doing so. At a time when so many Christians around the world are either seduced by antidemocratic social movements or despairing about any kind of political involvement, there is a need to make this wisdom available in some way. The podcast seemed like a great vehicle for this.

TOJ: You mentioned one-to-one meetings and house meetings as one of the subjects you discuss on the podcast. Can you say more about how and why these are so foundational to the organizer’s toolkit? And how has the meeting shifted in our era of COVID and digital communication?

LB: For those unfamiliar with these terms, the one-to-one involves having an intentional conversation with someone. It is a conversation in which the organizer seeks to identify what the person is passionate or angry about, what the person wants to see changed where they live or work, whether the person will act on that desire for change, and whether the person can get others to act with them to address a shared concern. Similarly, the house meeting is a gathering of friends, neighbors, colleagues, or fellow congregants to discuss what matters to them, what they are angry about, to tell their stories of the issues that affect them, and to listen to each other. In listening to each other, they begin to hear that their stories of pain and struggle are not unique or isolated, and so they can begin to discern issues of common concern. Moreover, in hearing each other face-to-face, they also begin to identify and empathize with each other’s problems. Both one-to-ones and house meetings are ways of beginning politics by listening and attending to the experience, conditions, and stories of people.

To really understand why they are so foundational to organizing, I need to give a bit of background. As you know, in Christ and the Common Life, and my work more generally, I am trying to recover an older and what I see as basic distinction between politics as statecraft and politics as a relational practice. Contemporary discussions of politics, whether in churches or elsewhere, collapse politics into forms of competition for the state or conflate politics with the procedures, policies, and mechanisms of government. But statecraft does not exhaust the ways and means of doing politics. Alongside statecraft, politics also refers to the informal, relational practices through which a common world is cultivated. Politics as an informal, relational craft takes place in multiple settings and is not coextensive with control of the state or even dependent on there being a state. Elders and pastors negotiating changing service times in a church are practicing the craft of politics. Board room negotiations without recourse to litigation are a form of politics. Neighbors sorting out complaints about noise between themselves without calling the police are likewise doing politics in this informal dimension.

As a mode of statecraft, democracy entails systems for sustaining some form of legal-constitutional order that guarantees certain liberties and equality before the law. Such an order is articulated through various procedures and institutions for securing these liberties—for example, an independent legal system and voting. But democracy is first and foremost a set of social practices. It is a way of acting with others so as to nonviolently cultivate a common life. As a social practice, small d democratic politics embodies and enables each person to have some say and agency in determining their living and working conditions as well as to participate in and benefit from shared goods. Such practices emerge in many cultures and historical periods, including ancient India, precolonial Africa, and ancient Mesopotamia.[6] Examples include West African practices of palavar, Islamic practices of shūrā, and the Viking thing or folkmoot. In Christianity, it is represented in conciliar and synodal practices. To be actualized today, contemporary democratic politics requires, among other things, organized people. This entails building the networks, trust, affective registers, and cooperation that enable people to come together over time to act in pursuit of their common interests and to forge shared worlds of meaning and action without killing, coercing, or persecuting one another. The one-to-one and house meetings are vital tools for organizing people so as to be able to do the work of democratic politics.

These meetings also help build relational power. Politics necessarily involves power, which I define as the ability to act. At its most basic, political power takes the form of relational power (power with), unilateral power (power over), or some combination of the two. There is a third source of political agency, what I call soul power or the power from within. This is the subjective, internal element that enables individual action over, with, or for others. It includes drive, motivations, gifts (including spiritual gifts), will, dispositions (whether toward virtue or vice), sense of vocation, and personality/charisma/spirit.[7]

Statecraft primarily deploys unilateral, command, and control forms of power, whereas democratic politics as a set of social practices depends on relational power. Attention to relational power foregrounds agency, whereas focusing on unilateral power directs attention to structures and systems. Attending to the ordinary ways people are able to relate to and act with each other is important because otherwise there is little to say other than that wolves eat sheep, power corrupts, and the strong triumph over the weak. Overly deterministic accounts of unilateral, command-obedience conceptions of power and the domination of structural forces, such as capitalism and racism, do not allow for the kinds of individual and communal agency that can enable social movements and other forms of political action to bring about change. Through ends-oriented and conscious action, the structurally weak can resist and redirect the unilateral power of either corporations or the state. The early labor and civil rights movements are paradigmatic examples of such relational power in action, and both depended on traditions of popular piety, such as those found in Black-led churches, Methodism, and Roman Catholicism. One-to-ones and house meetings are means of generating relational power for those who neither control the commanding heights of the economy nor can pull the levers of government to serve their purposes.

During the pandemic, these meetings migrated to Zoom and other online meeting platforms. In many ways, this has extended the reach of relational meetings and enabled them to involve more people in house meetings. That said, as we have all experienced in our lives, there is also something lost in the online versions of these encounters as well.

TOJ: Let’s get at that sense of loss. How has the local dimension of community organizing changed or been affected by the digital revolution and rise of social media? What have been the benefits and challenges of digital forms of communication within organizing?

LB: That is a much-debated matter. In a sense, you are asking whether social media, online platforms, and digital forms of communication are, at the end of the day, a help or a hindrance to the work of organizing and, beyond that, a blessing or a curse to democracy.

To answer that requires considering how locality and a sense of place are constituted today, and where folks gather to build meaningful connections to each other that can be organized. Unions focus on workplaces as the point of gathering and organizing. Community organizing focuses on the places people live: neighborhoods, towns, boroughs, et cetera. But how where we live and work is constructed and experienced is always changing. For example, the factory or warehouse as a place of organizing is very different from the conditions of work in the gig economy as mediated through digital platforms such as Uber or TaskRabbit.

The changing nature of living and working conditions and the role of technologies in mediating and driving these changes must be a part of determining the appropriate and effective scale of non-party-based and extra-parliamentary democratic politics. And establishing the appropriate scale—the local, the regional, the national, or the global—has always been an issue for organizing. Early critiques of Saul Alinsky said the neighborhood was too parochial and localized a scale to effect real change; instead, what was needed was a city-wide focus. Later critics of community organizing as an approach to democratic change, such as Manuel Castells and Michael Hardt, saw the global as the only effective and appropriate scale. Why this matters to the original question is that as soon as one moves beyond the local, technologies of mediation––the telegraph, mass mailing lists, Facebook, et cetera––become instrumental to connecting and organizing people. But at that point, does the medium become the message? Do the social and material effects and affordances of the technology overwhelm and distort the work of democratic politics?

Some contemporary organizers are learning the lessons of ages past, and instead of posing the local against the national or global and then favoring one over the other, they are developing trans-local and distributed approaches to organizing. These echo later nineteenth- and early twentieth-century organizing work that developed local chapters of larger organizations; these chapters were attuned to conditions within a given area or workplace and able to build meaningful relationships born of proximity. They were then connected through national strategies and wider, often international networks. This was how the early labor movement, NAACP, Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League, Rotary Club, and many others organizations functioned. The issue is not one of scale—with the implication that scaling up is always better—but of distribution and connection: are you active in the right places, and what is the quality and character of the relationship between your chapters or coalitions trans-locally? For this, a sense of shared story and purpose is more important than what technological platform one uses.

There is a long-standing distinction in organizing circles between mobilizing and organizing, and that distinction directly relates to your question about digital technologies. In his book I’ve Got the Light of Freedom, Charles Payne contrasts the in-depth organizing model pioneered by Ella Baker and SNCC with later—and lesser, to Payne—forms of social movement mobilization that came to dominate campaigns for social justice from the late 1960s onward. Online mobilizing efforts emerge out of these latter campaigns. They have been effective at generating large turnout at specific times and places. The role of online networks and mobilizing in the Arab Spring is one example; the Women’s March on Washington in 2016 is another. But such online mobilizing generated crowds connected by Twitter feeds, not organized people with concrete, focused asks who were able to act together in sustained and coordinated ways to effect real change. Crowds may have an important symbolic significance, but they are easily dispersed, or at some point, they go home. By themselves, they rarely, if ever, achieve long-term change. A contrast here would be the organizing work, in which Bayard Rustin played a key role, that went into the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. It emerged out of and fed into a much wider set of on-the-ground organizing initiatives.[8]

The ineffectiveness, short-termism, and easily ignored nature of mass mobilization achieved through communication technologies has burned out and disillusioned many involved in such campaigns. There is now a huge amount of energy and experimentation going on to address that. Groups like Power Labs, Ayni, and Momentum are developing strategies that combine mobilizing and organizing, and as part of that process, they are integrating online mobilizing and activism with on-the-ground organizing efforts. The classic case study of such efforts is the 2008 Obama presidential campaign.

In short, digital forms of communication intensify perennial dynamics as well as present new opportunities, but for them to be used strategically requires answering a prior set of questions about the nature and form of organizing and how it can connect to wider social movements.

TOJ:In Christ and the Common Life, you describe how the sociopolitical reality of a “people of God” might play out in the everyday life of democratic structures. Where do you see the overlaps and distinctions between the “congregation” and a “self-organized movement”?[9] In other words, what is the relationship between community organizing and the local church?

LB: Let me answer that question by framing it in terms of the democratic paradox. And I’ll focus here more on the democratic side of this relationship rather than the ecclesiological and missiological imperatives that drive congregational involvement.

Democracy presumes the existence of people and institutions committed to respecting the dignity of each individual. It employs dialogue and persuasion instead of killing and coercion as means of resolving conflicts. And it affirms that people should have a say in decisions that affect them. Yet democracy is forged out of immoral people, dependent upon hierarchal and often authoritarian institutions, and plagued by the despotism of either the one, the few, or the many (i.e., majoritarianism). The personal dispositions needed for a freer, more egalitarian, and democratic society will not be generated through centralized state mechanisms; a revolutionary vanguard; a technocratic, educated elite; or an ideological program of social engineering. Merely changing the immanent structures of power is never enough. To put this in biblical terms: Egypt abolished is not Israel empowered.

Alongside legal and institutional changes, new ways of acting—ways not determined by structures and habits of domination—require converted hearts and habits. People who are atomized and alienated need reconstituting through changes in the quality and character of the relationships between them—that is, formation in virtue—so that together they may be capable of pursuing life-giving goods in common through democratic means. The democratic paradox is of course an immanent version of a central theological and pastoral challenge, which is the question of how to live into the kingdom of God when the conditions for its realization do not yet fully exist.

To echo what I’ve just said, by itself democracy, as either a mode of statecraft or a set of social practices, cannot generate the quality and character of relationships needed to form people capable of being democratic. Churches, along with other kinds of ethically orientated forms of covenantal association, are vital for democracy. They help form people with the character and vision to undertake democracy. This is a central insight and basis of broad-based community organizing.

If democracy is to avoid slipping into either some form of legal, bureaucratic, or ideological proceduralism that treats humans as means to an end or a majoritarianism that treats either minorities or the friendless as enemies, it requires people formed in a variety of virtues who are committed to learning from and living with others not like themselves. And if the demands and exigencies of political and economic life are not to dominate everything we do and say, then democracy needs people with the capacity to rest and play, as well as to ponder questions about the meaning and purpose of life. In short, any kind of politics, even democratic politics, becomes pitiless if it fails to cultivate virtue and moral vision and denies the human need for rest, play, and contemplation. So churches––along with myriad other forms of local institution––are vital for democratic politics. They are communities of character that sustain ways of knowing and being open to transcendent ends. On this account, the deepest gift the church offers democratic politics is that it witnesses to a horizon of reference beyond politics and economics, thereby pointing to how political economy neither exhausts nor defines what it means to be human. This is a key and consistent insight of Catholic social teaching.

If the work of broad-based community organizing is to ensure state and market build up rather than destroy just and generous forms of common life, then it needs churches in doing that work. Churches are part of the civic infrastructure vital for sustaining democracy. Nonpecuniary institutions and forms of mutual association, that is, those not wholly subject to logics of instrumentalization or commodification, are key to creating spaces amid political, economic, social, and technological pressures that militate against developing such relationships. These institutions represent a legal, organizational, financial, and physical place to stand. For example, congregations can represent institutions of this kind and are places constituted by gathered and organized people who do not come together primarily for either commercial or state-directed transactions. Instead, they form institutions through which to worship God and care for each other. Without such institutions, there are few real places through which to resist the processes of commodification by the market and the processes of instrumentalization—and sometimes brutal repression—by the state. In short, if we have nowhere to sit together free from governmental or commercial imperatives, we have no shared spaces in which to take the time to listen to each other, develop mutual trust, and learn ways and means of cooperating so as to develop the kinds of relational power necessary for doing bottom forms of democratic politics.

In the specific case of community organizing, churches of all denominations are the institutions that have most intensively and fruitfully engaged with the work. It would not exist without them. To use a metaphor I’ve developed elsewhere, while community organizing is in relationship with temples—authoritative moral and religious traditions of interpretation and practice such as Christianity, Judaism, and Islam—and subsistent on houses—local, contextually alert places of worship and formation, such as a congregation—it is itself a tent: that is, community organizing is a mobile, provisional place where faithful witness is lived in conversation with other faiths and those of no faith. Community organizing is a form of tent-making where a place is formed in which hospitality is given and received between multiple traditions. Sometimes there are issues heard in the tent that can be collectively acted upon and sometimes they cannot be acted upon, but the encounter with others and their stories informs the sense of what it is like to live on this mutual ground, to dwell together in a given and shared place. The hearing of others’ interests and concerns in the context of ongoing relationship and the recognition that everyone in the tent occupies the same mutual (not neutral) ground fosters the sense that in each other’s welfare we find our own.

Churches need to be in the tent; churches need to be involved in local forms of democratic politics exemplified by community organizing initiatives. It needs to be in them in order to be church. The politics the church embodies—being the people of God—is not a stable category that of necessity generates separation from or distinctiveness to the world. To be the people of God is to be formed from, by, and with the world while on pilgrimage through the world. The people of God are therefore unlike other peoples in ways that may or may not be righteous and which cannot be predetermined, only discovered in the midst of building a common life with other kinds of people. Community organizing is a way of building that life through politics. In building a common life within and without the church through democratic politics, the church can discern and discover what it means to be a faithful, hopeful, and loving people.

TOJ: One element of community organizing is fundraising and money, a topic you address in episodes 8 and 9 of season 1 of your podcast. Are wealth and money a necessity in organizing, or are there alternative forms that challenge or reject the use of money? Do you see the concept of money as an evil to be rejected, a communal resource to be used for good, or something else entirely?

LB: There are two very different questions here. One is about the nature and purpose of money—is money separable from other means of exchange, such as gifts, and a distinct means of valuation and accountability rather than an expression of prior and more basic credit and debt relations? I’ve addressed these questions in Christ and the Common Life and elsewhere.[10] I’ll focus here on the other question you raise, the question about the right relationship between money and organizing.

In terms of organizing, money is not to be rejected. Money in organizing is shorthand for generating the material and economic resources to act independently from the state, one’s employer, or the patronage and philanthropy of elites. Money denotes a mode of agency. It enables action. It is not the only means of agency, but it is an important one. Without independent material resources, we lack a crucial form of power that enables us to act with others to achieved shared ends.

Where we get our money often determines the ends we can and cannot pursue together. If we are dependent on either the state or philanthropists and foundations for money––as most NGOs, not-for-profits, and organizing groups are––then those who pay the piper call the tune. We need our own money if we are to be truly free to pursue ends we democratically decide. Without it, we are unable to determine what to do and how to do it; instead, we are told where to go and who to be for or against. As Alinsky put it in his 1946 book Reveille for Radicals:

It is living in dignity to achieve things through your own intelligence and efforts. It is living as a human being. To live otherwise and not to share in the securing of your own objectives but simply to receive them as gifts or as the benevolent expression of either a government which does not consult with you or as the hand-out of a private philanthropist, places you in the position of a pauper.”[11]

Echoing Alinsky, and as I discuss in episode 8 of season 1, organizers teach that there is a distinction between hard money, which is money one raises among one’s own, and soft money, which comes with either state-directed or philanthropic terms and conditions. To be dependent on soft money is also to be accountable to who pays the bills, which means one quickly ceases to be accountable to the people one claims to work for or represent. That corrupts the relationship and leads to evaluating the worth or activities of the organizing work in ideological terms rather than whether it genuinely serves the needs and interests of the people. And at that point, one has put program before people and become a self-righteous vanguard looking to recruit campaign fodder for your soft-money driven work. That is not cultivating grassroots democracy. At best it is advocacy, but mostly it’s astroturfing for ideological ends, whether of the left or right.

TOJ: Another element you discuss in both your book and podcast is power, namely political and social power. I really appreciated your view in Christ and the Common Life that “if politics is to be democratic, its most basic building block is the need to listen to others not like oneself . . . I assume that democratic politics is premised on the recognition that love and sin are political realities.”[12] In recent years, we’ve seen displays of political power, both in the United States and across the globe, in which the moral and epistemological foundations that seem to be necessary for such listening are shaky or simply missing—there appear to be such deep political divides between parties, even within the church, that the aporia cannot be overcome. Can this divide be overcome, and if so, how? What are areas of contemporary political life that you see signs of hope for such listening and a love-filled practice of power?

LB: It depends on what is meant by hope. In theological terms, I understand hope as an orientation to, expectation of, and identification with reality as ultimately and finally determined by God. This means we understand suffering and injustice as neither the fullest truth about the world we live in nor as the final determination of the meaning and purpose of life. If Christ is the Alpha and Omega, the first and the last word, then suffering and injustice are the middle word. A reality but neither all-encompassing nor definitive.

Real hope does not evade the tragic, overlook suffering, or deny injustice by fixating on a future object or time. It faces head on the world as it is but refuses to be governed by it. To put this another way, hope refuses the tyranny of the present. In hope, we act now in the light of who God is revealed to be, who we are in relation to God, and how Christ will fulfill and reconcile all things. It is through hope that we can carry on in the face of affliction, knowing that while everything does not have a reason, all things are open to redemption in Christ. Hope enables action today that is directed toward and identifies with this promised eschatological end—the kingdom of God or new creation. This end cannot be extrapolated from the present. Rather, following the form and pattern of Christ’s resurrection, it confounds current experience in its newness and the ways it utterly transforms existing ways of life.

Understood in this way, I think hopeful stories are all around us. Indeed, every episode of the podcast witnesses to such signs of hope. But the scripts we are given, whether by our newsfeeds or in the academy, mostly alienate us from each other and cloud our vision, so we cannot see or hear what is going on. Like the Pharisees meeting the healed blind man in John 9, when we encounter signs of hope, we either only find fault or refuse to believe such a thing is possible. This is not to say we are not also surrounded by structures of exploitation and entangled in cultural systems of domination. But to live with dignity as human beings amid the squalor, exploitation, and tragedies that make up our world is to discover ways of being alive that reveal how creaturely life is founded on and a response to divine love and justice and orientated to a God-given end. Such discoveries and revelations happen all the time, in ways large and small. The challenge is to join in and share in these discoveries and to thereby bless others rather than being a curse, either through inaction or actively investing in accursed forms of life.

TOJ: Who are the authors, thinkers, and practitioners readers can look to if they’re interested in community organizing? Who are the people who have most shaped your own thinking about organizing and political theology?

LB: The first thing to do is access the readings that accompany each of the episodes in the first and second series of the podcast!  The second series in particular addresses exactly your question. In this new series, I explore some of the key texts, people, and ideas that shaped contemporary organizing. Many of the texts I reflect on form a kind of unofficial canon that organizers and leaders have turned to again and again to inspire shared action and explain the meaning, purpose, and character of community organizing. I focus on writings that speak to the moral and political philosophy of organizing as a contemporary form of democratic politics. Figures and texts I discuss in the series include Thucydides, Saul Alinsky, Ella Baker, Bayard Rustin, Hannah Arendt, Bernard Crick, and Sheldon Wolin.[13] All of these figures have shaped my understanding of organizing.

Although I won’t be discussing Jane Addams’s pragmatist vision of democracy, Jacques Maritain’s conception of Christian democracy, Reinhold Niebuhr’s Christian realist defense of democracy, or Martin Luther King Jr.’s understanding of the relationship between love, justice, power, and nonviolent democratic politics, all of these figures have profoundly shaped Christian commitments to organizing in one way or another over the years. And each provides a direct connection between political theology and organizing, which if I can, I’ll make the focus of series 3. Another person who comes up again and again when talking to organizers and leaders is Walter Brueggemann. However, in my own work, I’ve found the early modern Protestant thinker Johannes Althusius to be a generative point of reference for understanding organizing in terms of political theology.[14]

But if you know nothing about organizing, obviously first listen to the podcast and download the readings. Then, in addition to that, as good a place to start as any are the testimonies of organizers. I would recommend Arnie Graf’s recent Lessons Learned: Stories from a Lifetime of Organizing alongside Mark and Paul Engler’s This is an Uprising, which does a good job of connecting organizing and contemporary social movements. Both books are narrative rather than theory driven.[15]

TOJ: And lastly, how do you see your role as an educator in corresponding with or informing your interest and participation in community organizing? Does one drive the other, or do they operate as distinct aspects of your vocation? I’m interested in knowing how you balance and integrate these roles and passions.

LB: I see them as mutually constitutive. My work has always been responsive to questions of political economy. I’ve sought to identify and develop critical and constructive frameworks for reflecting upon the nature of the church, its mission, and the ways in which these interact with and are directly shaped by broader social, economic, and political relationships and processes. And I’ve tried to do my work inductively by beginning with how Christians are already negotiating forms of shared life on the ground. Community organizing is just such a practice.

It has been hard at times to balance scholarship and active involvement. In London, I was very engaged in organizing, but I was able to do this through making it the primary focus of my research. Since moving to Duke, I’ve been less directly involved in campaigns. But that was a self-conscious choice. I think organizing has three key elements: relationships and relational power, campaigns and actions, and popular education. In general, the first two receive the lion’s share of attention. But I think the work cannot be sustained without the third, particularly for clergy and those coming from congregational settings. Unless the organizing connects to their deepest levels of faith commitment and can be made sense of theologically, the organizing work just becomes one item on a laundry list of things to do. Popular education, which I discuss in episode 7 of season 1, is vital to nourishing and sustaining the work and fostering a holistic vision for it. It is also a key part of leadership development and what in other circles is called conscientization. So since moving to the States, this is the side of the work I have given my energy and time to in leading workshops, producing relevant materials, and talking to congregations. I see the podcast as part of that popular education work. But for me to do that work well, I need to do my scholarship. It is from my academic research and writing that I think I have a gift to share. Conversely, involvement in organizing has been an enormous gift to me, helping to shape my imagination for what moral and political theology can and should be and keeping my work accountable to and serving what it means to live, here and now, as a disciple of Christ in community with others.


[1] See Bretherton, Christianity and Contemporary Politics: The Conditions and Possibilities of Faithful Witness (Oxford, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 31–70.

[2] See Bretherton, Listen, Organize, Act! Community Organizing and Democratic Politics, sponsored by the Duke Kenan Institute for Ethics, podcast, https://ormondcenter.com/listen-organize-act-podcast.

[3] See Bretherton, Resurrecting Democracy: Faith, Citizenship, and the Politics of Common Life (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2015).

[4] See Bretherton, Christ and the Common Life: Political Theology and the Case for Democracy (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2019).

[5] See the Community Organizing Archive, Brown University Library and Swearer Center for Public Service, https://libguides.brown.edu/coa/home.

[6] See Temma Kaplan, Democracy: A World History (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2015); and David Stasavage, The Decline and Rise of Democracy: A Global History from Antiquity to Today (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2020).

[7] See Bretherton, “The Ability to Act: Power Over and Power With,” March 9, 2021, in Listen, Organize, Act, podcast, 61:09, https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/s1-e4-the-ability-to-act-power-over-and-power-with/id1553824477?i=1000512370427.

[8] See Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1995); and Bretherton, “Bayard Rustin: Part 1,” August 29, 2022, in Listen, Organize, Act, https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/s2-e4-1-bayard-rustin-part-1/id1553824477?i=1000577721810, and “Bayard Rustin: Part 2,” September 8, 2022, Listen, Organize, Act, https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/s2-e4-2-bayard-rustin-part-2/id1553824477?i=1000578806474.

[9] See Bretherton, Christ and the Common Life, 415–421.

[10] See Bretherton, Christ and the Common Life, 323–38; and Bretherton, Resurrecting Democracy, 243–84.

[11] Alinsky, Reveille for Radicals (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1969), 175.

[12] Bretherton, Christ and the Common Life, 446.

[13] See the PDFs posted on Bretherton, The Listen, Organize, Act! Podcast, https://ormondcenter.com/listen-organize-act-podcast.

[14] See Jane Addams, Democracy and Social Ethics: An Introduction (Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2001 [1902]); Jacques Maritain, Christianity and Democracy, trans. Doris C. Anson (New York, NY: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1944); Reinhold Niebuhr, The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness: A Vindication of Democracy and a Critique of its Traditional Defenders (London, UK: Nisbet and Co., 1945); Martin Luther King Jr., A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King Jr., ed. James M. Washington (New York, NY: Harper One, 1986); Walter Brueggemann, Hopeful Imagination: Prophetic Voices in Exile (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress, 1986); Johannes Althusius, Politica, ed. and trans. Frederick Carney (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 1995 [1964]).

[15] See Graf, Lessons Learned: Stories from a Lifetime of Organizing (Chicago, IL: ACTA, 2020); and Engler and Engler, This Is an Uprising: How Nonviolent Revolt Is Shaping the Twenty-first Century (New York, NY: Nation Books, 2016).

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