I often lead workshops on themes of practical theology, mission and social justice. As part of these workshops, on several occasions over the last few months, I have shared with people the following quote from a pastoral theologian and therapist, wondering whether it finds resonances with participants:
‘The average individual I encounter in the clinical situation today is not the same as the person who sat with me 30 years ago. Sometimes the changes are subtle. Often, they are obvious. But they are pervasive and apparently widespread. There has been a marked increase in self-blame among those seeking my care, as well as an amorphous but potent dread that they are somehow teetering on the edge of a precipice. This is confounded by the appearance of a few individuals who seem far more self-assured and confident, even entitled, or defiant, than I have previously witnessed. Somewhat mysteriously, these highly self-reliant souls seem more superficial and one-dimensional than their depressive or anxious cohorts. Meanwhile, addictive behaviors have become more prevalent and have quickly expanded into areas of life not usually associated with compulsivity. Relationships, even familial or romantic ones, seem to be becoming more ephemeral and contrived, almost businesslike. The people I now see tend to manifest a far more diffuse or fragmented sense of self, are frequently more overwhelmed, experience powerful forms of anxiety and depression too vague to be named, display less self-awareness, have often loosened or dropped affiliations with conventional human collectives, and are increasingly haunted by shame rooted in a nebulous sense of personal failure. I find myself more disquieted and even confused than I used to be while sitting with people, even less “myself.” What has happened?’
Without exception, people recognise this picture as reflective of their reality. They talk of the prevalence of loneliness and isolation within their communities; of polarisation in society, fed by social media; of low self-esteem and poor mental health, including amongst young people. Above all – and especially after Covid and in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis, they recognise the threat of grinding poverty, and the ever-present stark reality of huge inequality in every village, town and city in our country.
The quote itself comes from a brilliant book by Bruce Rogers Vaughn, ‘Caring for Souls in a Neoliberal Age: New Approaches to Religion and Power’ (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016, Kindle p.11). The book explores the impact of global capitalism through the eyes of a practical and pastoral theologian and psychotherapist. It tackles the whole spectrum from individual pain and suffering through to the biggest systemic material injustices that face us all today, and their ideological roots. It is deeply sobering; complexly nuanced, but curiously hopeful in that it gives us, as faith communities and congregations, urgent things to do.
In this chapter I will pick out some highlights of what he identifies has gone wrong in our world; explore briefly his analysis of what we need to build now and apply this to our task of rethinking the mission of our national church around the focal task of building relationship.
Identifying the Problem
Rogers-Vaughn explores in depth the growth of neo-liberal global capitalism from the Raegan/Thatcher era to the present day, and its historical roots before that. Many of his observations will be familiar to us.
First, individuals have become commodities in a market of labour and consumption. We are reduced to ‘human resources’ in an exchange market. That market is founded upon a free-market ideology based on individual liberty and limited government. Human freedom becomes the freedom to consume, as rational, self-interested actors in the competitive marketplace. Freedom has therefore been redefined on the market’s terms, and society has been replaced by isolated and competitive individuals. Moreover, the actions of these individuals are based on self-interest rather than the common good. As global capitalism has taken hold, so there has been a rapid increase in economic inequality and class-based segregation and a remarkable decline in the quality of social relations.
In cultural terms, the organisation of human society based on individualism and competition ‘…subtly but steadily influences our attitudes and feelings toward ourselves, including our understanding of what it means to be a “self,” as well as our dispositions and feelings toward others. Combined with the erosion of belief in the common good, this leaves us with a society in which each person increasingly looks after their own interests, and leaves others to look after theirs.’ (Kindle p.29)
Rogers-Vaughn comments that, ‘Prior to neoliberalism, domination was exercised by means of the disciplinary powers of institutions. Today domination occurs through the suppression of these institutions. Prior to neoliberalism, domination required replacing a particular type of subject with a new form of subject. Today it occurs through the fragmentation and dispersal of the subject altogether.’ (Kindle p.156)
And as our sense of ourselves as subjects is undermined, we begin to ‘lose our voice’ – we struggle to make meaning from our experience. He suggests that ‘although everyone in neoliberalized societies may suffer a reduction of voice, this will be exacerbated by the extreme material inequality in these societies. Moreover, loss of voice will be unequally distributed, with those with fewer material resources being the more severely affected. The inability to narrate one’s life, then, participates in the oppressions occurring at the intersections between class, race, gender, sexuality, and other loci of social injustice.’ (Kindle p.160)
Stated theologically, he says, these conditions are weakening the human soul. He defines ‘soul’, crucially, as the connective tissue linking us together as a human community, as well as to creation and the Eternal. It is therefore a material, embodied and collective concept. It is not akin to the individual ‘spirit’ as conceived of by capitalist-inspired individualist spiritualities. The soul that Rogers-Vaughn suggests we need to ‘increase’, in his words, inhabits a collective home. Indeed, he argues that individuality, because it is dependent upon soul, arises only in a communal context. You cannot be an individual without first being part of community. Soul, he says, is the quite substantial fabric that weaves us all together and with all that is. We are all entangled. ‘Soul inhabits a collective body, a body that exhales hope. This hope, once exhaled, expands to enfold our precious, entangled world, only to take it back in again. It has economic and political aspirations and inspirations. Just because it is expansive, however, does not make it abstract. It exists in material form, the form of love and justice’ (Kindle p.291)
In a particularly poignant and urgent passage he concludes, ‘It is no coincidence that crises such as climate change and the rapid depletion of natural resources are occurring in combination with other symptoms of social breakdown: rising mental disorders, mindless consumerism, materialistic conformism, status competition, civic disengagement, startling economic inequalities, global financial instability and widespread political inertia. While these crises are usually studied in isolation, they are all interconnected.’ (Kindle p.38) He cites the work of the late Rosemary Radford Ruether as chief amongst the pioneering theologians who have for many years articulated a holistic critical analysis of the interconnected forces of oppression at work in our world.
It is worth asking ourselves, from the perspective of churches, the question that Rogers-Vaughn asks of the psychotherapeutic community: how have we colluded with normative neoliberal value systems? In what ways have we ‘instilled adaptation to society – rather than resistance; functioning in accord with the values of production and consumption – rather than communion and wholeness in relation to others and the earth, on symptom relief – rather than meaning-making, and accepting personal responsibility – rather than interdependent reliance within the web of human relationships’ (kindle p.16). These are key questions and represent deep challenges to our operant theologies of mission. Given the magnitude of the interconnected challenges to humanity that we have explored so far, the extent to which our mission theologies subvert neoliberal narratives should be a key criterion for judging their appropriateness for our age.
Building sustainable community
You will by now see why I described Rogers-Vaughn’s book as sobering reading. Now we need to move on to explore why it may also provide us with the hope of a programme for change.
According to him, responding to the sufferings of our age will involve three things:
- The strengthening of human collectives
- The nurturing and increase of soul
- The amplification of hope
In so far as we could see these as three threads in a strategy for renewal, I want to explore them in the context of a model for social change and transformation that I find particularly powerful, and apposite for the needs of our times. That model is Community Organising (CO), as embraced in the UK by Citizens UK.
For those unfamiliar with CO, I refer you to the very comprehensive website of Citizens UK (www.citizensuk.org), and in particular the rapidly developing churches’ community of practice which enables theological reflection on Community Organising and resources those who are involved in broad-based alliances as part of their churches. ( https://bit.ly/3dsRqsW), Also important is the work of theologian Angus Ritchie, and the Centre for Theology and Community in East London (www.theology-centre.org). His introductory pamphlet can be found on the CTC website, entitled, ‘People of Power: How Community Organising recalls the church to the vision of the gospels.’
Ritchie describes CO as a structured process which brings together grassroots institutions like churches, mosques and schools in a particular town or city to work, to act on issues of common concern. It originated in the USA in the 1930s and has been growing in the UK since the 1990s.
As an example of strategic church involvement with which I am most familiar is that of the Diocese of Oxford, which has a strategic partnership with Citizens UK and is currently building broad-based alliances of institutions in Oxford and Reading, to work with the pre-existing Citizens Milton Keynes. Together they are Thames Valley Citizens. There are now nineteen Citizens Chapters across England and Wales, many of which have participation by Anglican and Roman Catholic Dioceses and Methodist Districts, and all of which have local Christian congregational involvement from a wide variety of denominations. CO activity represents a context for discipleship development, vocational exploration, lay leadership and empowerment, congregational renewal, missional activity, and ecumenical/interfaith engagement.
In short, CO starts from an awareness that whilst the market and the state are ‘organised’ – the so-called third sector of civic society is less so. As already explained, collectives of all kinds have waned in importance under neoliberalism, and this has weakened participatory democracy, and undermined ways of building ‘people power’.
CO aims to address issues of social injustice through a distinct methodology and discipline that is, above all, relational. It begins with listening to people – their passions and their concerns – through systematic listening campaigns built on 1-2-1 conversations. The 1-2-1 is a basic building block of organising – it is an intentional conversation where the agenda is the other person, being attentive to the building of common ‘self interest’; a power analysis is conducted in order to take effective action on particular injustices; there is a constant focus on developing leaders who can testify to their experience and give voice (leaders are defined as those closest to the injustice, who are often those otherwise marginalised and oppressed by systems of power); change is won in a way that empowers leaders and builds agency (ensuring that campaigns are winnable and incremental); all meetings and actions are evaluated by a method akin to the ‘pastoral cycle’; broad-based alliances of diverse institutions are evolved that are constantly listening to those in their communities through 1-2-1s such that their institutions are strengthened, and they become part of a long-term ‘collective of collectives’. Its power comes through the number and diversity of people that an alliance represents. This broad-based alliance works to an annual cycle of action for change – calling powerholders to account, but can also respond quickly to crises and challenges (eg influxes of refugees; pandemic response; major disasters or crimes in local communities). Member organisations pay dues, which ensures that the alliance is independent of any body from whom it may wish to win changes.
Building Collectives, Soul and Hope
Angus Ritchie explains why Community Organising focuses on collective endeavours – on strengthening institutions, ‘Institutions attract a lot of suspicion, some of it justified. But an institution is just the set of structured relationships which emerge when human beings agree to be faithful to one another across time. That is what a Scout group, trade union, marriage and mosque have in common. It is one of the characteristic myths of our culture that such commitments restrict our freedom. In fact, our institutions are vital to our freedom. They enable us to build relationships of solidarity and trust across boundaries of age, race and religion. Without them, we are isolated individuals, and our lives and communities are dominated even more by the power of the market and the state.’
And Rogers-Vaughn says, ‘It is my judgment that the primary challenge for pastoral care, psychotherapy, social activism, and other approaches to caring for souls today is not the effort to fix discrete personal problems or even to redress specific injustices. It is, rather, to aid people, individually and collectively, in finding their footing – to articulate the deep meanings that ground their lives and to strengthen healthy collectives and social movements that hold some residue of transcendental values. These constitute the fundamental resources for addressing whatever ongoing crises people may be enduring under the new chronic.’ (Kindle p.163)
This points our congregations both towards strengthening our relationality within, and also to reach out to build relationships with other collectives that we can work with to resist oppressive hierarchies. The particular challenge of our time is to rekindle the concept of ‘solidarity’. We need to press through our differences in search of common interests and the common good – all the time resisting ‘divide and rule’ by those in power and fragmentation amongst an ‘us’ that must be forever porous. Rogers-Vaughn says, ‘If the problems of class exploitation, sexism, and racism arise together, then they must be addressed together. This is a peculiar sort of solidarity, a common life rooted not in sameness, but on a deep respect, obligation to, and thus love for, the infinite and unique value of every individual. This is the solidarity that sustains soul. Theologians Joerg Rieger and Kwok Pui-lan (2012) refer to this as “deep solidarity.” They assert: “Solidarity in this context is not the support of people who are exactly like oneself but rather what we are calling deep solidarity. Solidarity is the support of others who are different yet experience similar predicaments”’ (Kindle p. 267).
In a broad-based Community Organising alliance, building across different religions and beliefs is crucial. Nobody is asked to ‘leave their beliefs at the door’, or to abandon the distinctiveness of their convictions. Action is taken only on issues that everyone can agree on, and what is surprising is just how much diverse groups can agree on – and, as Angus Ritche explains, also how different groups can learn from one another without diluting their own core beliefs. For example, the seriousness with which Muslims take Qu’ranic teachings on usury has inspired Christians to engage at a greater depth with Biblical teaching on these issues – and so churches and mosques have been at the heart of a successful community organising campaign for a legal cap on the interest rates of pay day loans.
How is hope amplified by this re-emphasis on collectives and the embracing of soul as the fabric that weaves us together in those collectives? I think in two ways at least. Firstly, and perhaps paradoxically, in the articulation of pain and suffering, and secondly in the discovery that change is possible, and we are not powerless. Like physical pain, psychological, relational, and spiritual suffering has a function – it calls us to take action to address a threat or a problem. As Rogers-Vaughn says, ‘Sufferings insist on finding a voice… I (and we) have learned that, when unheeded, pain produces and structures alienation, injustice, ignorance, division, and isolation into our individual and collective lives. I (we) have also learned that, when articulated and heard, pain may yield and structure connection, continuity, integrity, justice, and direction into our individual and collective lives.’ (Kindle p.15)
In making relationality central to social change and justice-making, Community Organising enables the articulation of pain: through 1-2-1 listening, through small group conversations, and through leaders ‘giving testimony’ and bearing witness, sometimes to audiences of hundreds and thousands. This is not ‘telling one’s story’ for media-defined purposes – which can often further traumatise a person, but it is telling one’s story on one’s own terms, in order to create change. It can therefore be both therapeutic and political. It is, in itself, resistance.
And, as Angus Ritchie points out ‘…the questions at the heart of a one-to-one…are questions Christians ought to be comfortable asking. Organising around citizens’ “self-interest” does not involve organising around their selfishness. Rather, it honours their actual values and concerns – focusing on the realities of their lives and commitments, rather than talking in the language of vague and abstract ideas. And in the process of building relationships with our neighbours and taking action with them for the good of our families and communities, we discover our hearts are expanded, and our “self-interest” becomes less and less self- absorbed. In losing our lives, we find them.’
A weakness deep at the heart of our Christian congregational life is often a failure deeply to know one another; to pay attention to consistent and persistent community building. No wonder we find it so hard to build community with others beyond our congregational boundaries. The structure of the 1-2-1 conversation alone can be transformative of congregations. But as soon as we get to know one another – our hopes and fears, our passions and commitments, the way we spend our time and our money – our outlook will begin to expand. We become the wider community of those that our immediate community encompasses. I care that your brother is struggling with his mental health and cannot access services; I care that your mother has dementia and is in a care home that is under-staffed. I care about those things because I know you. I care about those things because I care about you. Once we begin to learn more about one another, we begin to see patterns of common experience. Then we can reach out to others in our community with similar experiences. Relationality drives our outreach.
There is so much about our current context that is desperate. I need not list those things. We need hope. And hope comes from not feeling alone. A relational church engaged in Community Organising, part of a web of diverse institutions winning change, begins to address what the poet Adrienne Rich encapsulates in her poem ‘Natural Resources’ in ‘A Dream of a Common Language (Norton, 1978)
“My heart is moved by all I cannot save:
so much has been destroyed
I have to cast my lot with those
who age after age, perversely,
with no extraordinary power,
reconstitute the world.”