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Toward a Civic Ecclesiology -- A response to Jim Skillen

In his essay, “Overlooking the polity, Idealizing the nation,” Jim Skillen identifies a core problem in our politics: the liberal framework which holds individual freedom to be ultimate goal of politics.  To address this problem he explores the relationship between citizens and government; biblical narratives; and the role of Christianity in public life. I agree with Jim about the problem and we have disagreements about the solutions.

His essay raises questions: Who are the foundational agents of politics? What are the nature and aims of politics? What is the role of the church? In my response, I elaborate citizen politics as “wilderness politics,” identify culture, not formal governance, as the main source of political dysfunction, and sketch churches as sites for civic culture building, education, and empowerment.  For the latter, I draw on the concept of “civic ecclesiology” developed by the public theologian and African democracy educator Marie Ström.

Citizens and government

Jim Skillen speaks in the accents of James Madison, leading architect of the American constitution. Jim calls for “conversion of the nation as a governed polity” and argues that “politics should always be thought of in relation to public governance.”

In today’s context, Madison has a contemporary ring. In Federalist Paper 10, Madison wrote that “a zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government and many other points…an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power…have divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate.” Madison, like other founders, didn’t ignore civic virtue. The security of liberty, he wrote in Federalist Paper 84, “altogether depend on public opinion and on the general spirit of the people...” But Madison’s view of civic education, like Skillen’s, was only normative. He believed that elected officials, not the general citizenry, were the best guides for the nation, contrasting a “republic,” which he championed, with a “democracy,” which he thought both inferior and unworkable in a large society. In a republic “a small number of citizens [are] elected by the rest,” he said in Federalist 10. The effect “is to refine and enlarge the public views by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations.”

Jim Skillen also recognizes civic virtue, “a civic commitment to the work of building a just republic,” but in his view this is not about citizens’ agency. In fact, he sees the constitutional defect as its excessive decentralization of power. “There is, for all practical purposes, no common legislative, executive, or judicial focus of attention on the wellbeing and justice of the national polity as a whole,” he writes. He proposes “a system of proportional representation for the House of Representatives that would…build disciplined national parties and subordinate interest groups to the parties so they can no longer fund candidates and directly lobby members of Congress.”

My different view comes from the tradition of political thought which sees government as the instrument of “the people.” The people, as Thomas Jefferson famously put it to William Jarvis in 1820, are the only “safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society.” Jefferson was not naïve about the people. Like Madison, he saw people as usually narrowly self-interested. But he was convinced that if the people are “not enlightened enough to exercise their control with wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them but to inform their discretion.”

Jefferson saw civic education as the task of formal schooling (thus he founded the University of Virginia). But education for democracy in American history has involved many settings in addition to schools and colleges, from settlement houses to women’s reading groups, from labour study circles to the citizenship schools of the freedom movement. All aimed at “informing the discretion” of the people. The leaders and organizers who shaped me also saw the freedom movement and citizenship schools as part of an ancient struggle. As Vincent Harding, friend and speechwriter for Martin Luther King, put it in Hope and History, “The civil rights movement was in fact a powerful outcropping of the continuing struggle for the expansion of democracy in the United States…it demonstrates…the deep yearning for a democratic experience that is far more than periodic voting.”

The concept of “the people” was the foundation of a democratic society with a republican form of government. Unlike monarchies emerging from the mists of the past or aristocracies ruled by landed nobility, the United States was a nation founded by “we the people,” agents and architects of the new country. The revolutionary generation of the 1770s drew on decades of experiences in which settlers built congregations, schools, towns and local governments. This lent immense authority to their aspirations. As the philosopher Danielle Allen has argued in Our Declaration, the Declaration of Independence “makes a cogent philosophical case for political equality…that democratic citizens desperately need to understand [today].”  Such equality involves citizens protecting themselves from domination but “political equality is not…merely freedom from domination. The best way to avoid being dominated is to help build the world…to help, like an architect, determine its pattern and structure. The point of political equality is not merely to secure spaces free from domination but also to engage all members of a community equally in the work of creating and constantly recreating that community.”  In the Constitutional Convention a decade later, the Preamble’s declaration that “We the people” create government as an instrument of collective action preserves this sense.

Madisonians were skeptics.  As the late political philosopher Sheldon Wolin observed in the New York Review of Books, they immediately sought to redefine the people as the voters. “This meant that only on infrequent occasions was the citizen encouraged to think of himself [or herself] as a member of a...body politic.”

Yet America continued to be the setting of robust self-organising activities, from churches and synagogues, to voluntary associations, common schools, libraries, parks, and colleges. In the first half of the 19th century, the Second Great Awakening created a seedbed for movements such as abolition, labour organising, and women’s suffrage which sought to create “a more perfect union.”

Such civic ferment also created a citizen politics different than electoral politics. Reflecting on his travels across the country in the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville compared European nations in which the citizenry relied on government or great leaders with the self-organizing efforts of citizens in America. “In democratic peoples, associations must take the place of the powerful particular persons,” he wrote in his classic, Democracy in America. “In democratic countries the science of association is the mother science; the progress of all the others depends on the progress of that one.”   As Wolin put it in Tocqueville Between Two Worlds, “The Americans, in Tocqueville’s account began with a political culture rather than a state… [They] introduced a…conception of democracy as rooted in, and corresponding to, the democracy of daily life.”

I agree with Jim Skillen that we need a revitalized sense of “civic community,” but am convinced that this requires devolving authority and developing citizens’ agency, not mainly cultivating support for a “sound and stable polity whose aim is to equitably balance multiple needs and demands for the sake of the republic’s common good,” as he puts it. Today people of every group feel hopeless about redressing our mounting problems and reversing civic unravelling. Many feel devalued and victimized. Politicians and government are not going to fix this problem.

Another Biblical narrative: The work of the people

I agree with Skillen that the Exodus narrative has played an important role in Americans’ self-understanding and that there are two contending variants. Co-existing with the concept of a nation shaped by WASP assumptions, which he calls “an Americanized derivation of Israel’s exodus story originating from New England Puritans,” the other Exodus story involves “the African American ideal of a free, equal and inclusive nation,” linked to a strong federal government. The latter Exodus narrative was an important thread of the freedom movement and I know its merits.

But there are also limits in the Exodus narrative and its politics which lead people to look to “powerful particular persons” for rescue. As Marie Ström (full disclosure: my wife, as well as a public theologian) puts it, “The ‘struggle against oppression’ paradigm forms the basis of many Christian efforts to promote justice.  It conveys the belief that salvation is not only about individual religious experience, but affects every aspect of life, including socio-political issues.” This narrative holds the danger of conceptualizing other problems in Manichean terms, “as a fight of the innocent and the forces of good against the evil-doers.”  It also relies on rescue by outside powers whether divine or human saviors like Moses..

 There is another political narrative in the Bible. It can be called the public work story. The Nehemiah story, about the Jewish leader who led the Israeli people in the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem, is a striking example. Nehemiah held together a motley crew – 40 different groups are named, including merchants, priests, governors, members of the perfume and goldsmiths’ guilds, and women. Nehemiah participated in the work himself. At one point he organised a great assembly to call to account nobles making excessive profit from the poor. As the Jewish people rebuilt their walls, they renewed their purpose and identity. The Nehemiah story has been an inspiration in recent decades for many minority, low income and working class communities seeking to revitalize their spirit of community as they “rebuild the walls.”

The wilderness narrative that comes after the Exodus is also a remarkable example, as Marie Ström detailed in her paper on the Pentateuch at Luther Seminary. As she put it, “Gradually the Israelites are formed into a people, with new institutions such as a decentralized system of governance and new systems of sacrifice and worship that demand the full participation of everyone.” The process is full of ambiguities and setbacks.  “During the wilderness journey, the Israelites oscillate between moments of obedience and constructive activity, and moments of disobedience and apostasy.” But the wilderness story is also full of great examples of public work projects, like building of the tabernacle. Men and women “whose hearts made them willing” (Exod 35: 29) – the text places special emphasis on the contributions of women – contributed their skills and resources for the construction of God’s dwelling place and their own place of worship.   Bezalel, the organizer of the work, was filled “with the divine spirit, with skill, intelligence, and knowledge in every kind of craft” (Exod 35:31).  

Marie Ström found in Africa that using the concept of democracy as the public work of the people in building communities and a democratic society transforms people’s sense of themselves from victims to agents of change. “The tremendous energy that animates these [Biblical] narratives is exactly the same energy I saw in often the poorest of the poor, dehumanized by apartheid in South Africa, brutalized by civil war in Burundi and Mozambique, disillusioned by the failures of democracy in Zambia and Malawi, as they developed the skills, confidence and power to unleash their own innate capacities, access resources within their communities and beyond, and work collaboratively with fellow citizens, government departments and other institutional partners.”

The public work paradigm points to a new role for the church amidst the crisis in civic culture.

The primacy of the cultural crisis and Civic Ecclesiology

Jim Skillen’s primary goal for the church is to strengthen public governance: “There are, of course, many things citizens can do in organized ways to promote a more healthy and just republic. In my estimation, however, all such actions will remain sideshows with diminishing influence if fundamental changes are not made.” Central to improving governmental machinery is rewriting of the Constitution, though he is pessimistic it can occur in the current liberal climate.

I take an emerging alternative view which challenges the proposition that reform of public governance is the first priority. Former president Barack Obama’s new foundation is founded on this alternative. “The moment we’re in right now, politics is the tail and not the dog,” Obama argued in his speech to the Summit launching the foundation on November 30. “What’s wrong with our politics is a reflection of something that’s wrong with the civic culture, not just in the United States but around the world.” Conservatives like Yuval Levin and David Brooks share Obama's primary focus on culture. “Naked liberals of right and left assume that if you give people freedom they will use it to care for their neighbors, to have civil conversations, to form opinions after examining the evidence,” wrote Brooks in his New York Times column November 16, “Our Elites Still Don’t Get It.” But “if you weaken family, faith, community and any sense of national obligation where is that social, emotional, and moral formation supposed to come from?”

To show how citizen politics can address the fraying of civic culture as well as questions of justice let me note several examples of empowering and educational civic centers in the life of communities.

Earlier I recalled Jane Addams’ book, Newer Ideals of Peace. She proposed the need for new community based “centers of spiritual energy” and co-founded the Hull House settlement as an example. John Dewey took Hull House as the model for democratic schooling in his famous essay in 1902, “The School as Social Centre.” Dewey proposed that educational sites free of top down control, grounded in rich community life, could create spaces for people of diverse backgrounds to learn about each other and work together. They could shore up ethical standards against the pressures of cultural degradation. They could help people learn about the “bigger picture” of changes taking place in society. They could prepare people for the radically changing world of work.  

In my John Dewey Lecture last spring, now available in the John Dewey Society journal, Education and Culture, I argue these functions are all more relevant than ever. The Dewey Society has launched a new initiative, “Democracy in Education,” to map promising networks like the Coalition for Community Schools and to catalyze a movement for civic centers.

In today’s world, religious congregations in the US and around the world can perform such functions of civic repair and others as well. For instance, the Theology of the People movement which shaped Pope Francis created something like the Hull House model in Argentina.  As John Carr, director of Georgetown University’s Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life, said on National Public Radio, Pope Francis “looks at the world from the bottom up.”  This view comes from experience.

While archbishop of Buenos Aires before he became pope, Jorge Bergoglio worked with a leaders and organizers to put Theology of the People into action, greatly increasing the number of “slum priests,” much like community and civic organizers. Slum priests turned their parishes into civic sites -- centers for education, places for collective action against drug lords, corrupt business and corrupt political leaders, and sites for constructive development.  In the process the priests themselves became “citizen clergy,” with deep respect for the people and their capacities. Padre Pepe described how their experiences brought them to challenge “the misunderstood progressivism” of liberation theologians who arrived “from the outside to give lessons” and viewed the people’s culture with skepticism. The slum priests had “seen and followed the faith of the people, their way of living it, and expressing it,” and were profoundly changed by the process. “Liberation has to start with people, not an ideology and not with charity,” Pepe summarized the lesson.

Like Jane Addams a hundred years ago and Jorge Bergoglio in recent decades, in her work in grassroots African communities Marie developed a similar view as she saw villagers and township inhabitants develop remarkable capacities to change their circumstances,often involving clergy and congregations in the process. She became convinced that churches (and other faith communities) can become civic centers and developed this idea in her thesis, From Servant to Co-Creator: Toward a Civic Ecclesiology.

Her thesis makes a compelling case for the relevance of the role of congregations as centers for civic repair as well as social and economic justice in affluent societies like the US where civic unravelling is a crucial concern. “For the church and its citizens to begin to play this civic role requires a new way of thinking and acting,” she argues. “It involves congregations becoming sites of democracy education and organized citizen action [and] a new language of citizenship to describe their work of co-creation in the world, skills to do this work well, and a new habit of mind: to choose hope over victimhood and despair, shifting from an Exodus mentality [which looks for salvation from outside] to seeing themselves as people of the covenant.”

This perspective challenges conventional, one way ideas of “serving the needy” both inside and outside congregations. “For example, rather than treating pastoral care as an end in itself, from the perspective of a civic ecclesiology caring for members is a way of assisting them to play an active, transformative role in the life of the church and society…The goal is to develop an internal public sphere and a culture of agency that can be projected out into the world through hopeful work.”

Concepts and practices of public work, citizen politics and civic ecclesiology are countercultural today. Lay citizens are mostly treated as demanding consumers and needy clients by clergy and other professionals, who have been trained to “help” and to “rescue” but not to empower. But these ideas of citizens as co-creators, which such ancient roots, also have renewed relevance.

I am convinced that they are the way to overcome radical individualism, to rebuild civic culture, and to revitalize democracy in a time when it has never been more crucial. 

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