Revolutionary Congregations as a Model of Mass Organization, Part 3

Click here to go back to part 2.

Okay, time for my description of the revolutionary congregation, as I have imagined it up to now. Please keep in mind that this is my first time articulating this in writing with any depth, so I imagine it’ll be pretty rough.

Overview

The core purpose of the revolutionary congregation is to serve as a stable community for people who condemn the current organization of our society, who want to believe that a wholly different, participatory organization of society is possible, and who want to gather together and fight for that new society right now. The most fundamental goals of this particular formation are:

1) To provide a consistent, warm space for participants to reflect, internally and interpersonally, on revolutionary ideas as a comprehensive worldview, and the implications of those ideas not just for society but for our lives as whole people.

2) Build infrastructure for shared personal growth and study, shared action, and shared counterinstitution building, which is also then shared with broader movements.

3) Provide opportunities for a rich variety of programming that allow people to connect with revolutionary politics from a variety of different angles, education levels, and personal needs

Rooted in “The Idea”

Like the Spanish anarchists who talked about living and fighting for “the idea” and who let that basic, core aspiration fuel them for generations, the revolutionary congregation is rooted in a basic statement of beliefs and aspirations.

This statement wouldn’t be more than 2 pages long, and ideally it would be less than one page. It expresses, in as accessible of language as possible, the core principles, analysis, and vision of the congregation. This can be as general or specific as each formation wants, depending on what kind of base-level political agreements that they want from the beginning.

The critical thing about the document is that it honestly spells out what ideas people are seeking to congregate around; it expresses both analysis, vision, and strategy; and it articulates the need for both personal change (including a changing orientation to our power, privilege, and material relationships to the world) and institutional transformation.

This document forms sort of the essential compact of trust between members of the congregation. There is an understanding and trust that anyone who keeps coming, no matter what their level of education, level of time commitment or particular interests, believes in those core beliefs. There is a regular celebration and mutual recognition that all participants are fueled by these ideas and hopes, and that though we are each walking individual paths towards transformation, and at different speeds, we all broadly share the same destination. As the Zapatistas have said, “we walk at the pace of the slowest.”

I should emphasize that this is not a wishy-washy, catch-all document. Being simple does not have to mean being vague or simplistic. For example, the opening line of the IWW preamble is, “the working class and the employing class have nothing in common.” It’s simple, it’s accessible, but it names the system honestly.

What’s important about this first point is that this organizational model is based on a belief that “the idea,” at root, is pretty simple, and that we can build large fighting organizations that allow people to build skills and take action at all levels of education and dedication, so long as they agree with those simple ideas. It holds that this is a sufficient foundation from which revolution minded people can build a rich and nourishing community. This differs from many cadre examples where revolutionaries seem to believe that they need to come to careful and detailed political agreement before they feel like they can settle into building a political home together.

The Weekly Gathering

The most basic building block of the revolutionary congregation is the weekly gathering. Different from a mass meeting or weekly workshop, this is a 1 ½ to 2 hour convening in which people share music, poetry, and art, but also hear opinions and reflections about current events and revolutionary ideas, and have opportunities for participatory dialogue as well. More than anything else, these gatherings are designed to refuel the soul and keep the mind energized after a week of having to survive in our absurd society.

Additionally, the congregation could have occasional “street gatherings,” in which instead of meeting at their usual location, participants gather and carry out their program in particular sites of struggle (like a picket line or in a squatted building, etc.). The gatherings could also offer a regular opportunity for guests to come and share about movement experiences elsewhere, but it’s always really important that it be more than just a news and announcement session.

After the gathering, there is a food and chatting period, as well as resource booths, action bulletin boards, and petition tables for people to check out (sort of like a weekly resource fair and potluck).

The gatherings would be planned thoughtfully, with a multi-issue emphasis, by member-run committees, not by any permanent leadership. That is, there would be no pastor or single congregational leader. I’ll discuss the leadership question in more detail shortly.

Opportunities to Go Deeper

In addition to the weekly gathering (and maybe duplicate gatherings at other times for people with different work schedules) the congregation offers groups, programs, and action projects throughout each week. Multiple levels of study groups, action committees, counterinstitution committees, solidarity committees with larger struggles, somatics practice groups, caucuses and personal change groups, childrens and seniors programs, art classes, etc. would be offered.

A lot of these opportunities would also be open to the broader public, and many congregation members would probably spend their weeks involved in other, non-affiliated movement projects, not just congregation projects.

The idea here is to offer opportunities for growth and action directly to members, but also to encourage building and actively participating in the larger movement.

Speaking personally as someone who is responsible for a huge family and who has a really hard job, this model is perfect for me. It allows me to be a full-fledged member of a revolutionary community, sharing space and art and life each week with both my other busy comrades and my comrades who are full-time, super intense organizers. At the same time, I can take on additional activities as I am able, and those who are more free can take on a whole lot more without feeling like my busy schedule is holding them back.

Here’s another thing that’s cool about this: it allows way more people to share in the comradeship that makes revolutionaries form cadre organizations in the first place. Think about it: cadre organizations usually exist to 1) give committed revolutionaries a space to feel safe and not alone in this harsh world, 2) do in-depth theoretical development together, 3) create finely honed strategic interventions in movement work. This congregation model allows 2 and 3 to happen in small mid-week groups, just the same as a cadre model, but it’s all grounded in a 1 that includes potentially hundreds more people (people who agree with the politics but don’t have time for the intense theory or strategizing). This overcomes the primary problem of cadre organizations: that they create insularity, and the lonely righteousness of being more “serious” than everyone else in the movement.

Building Revolutionary Infrastructure

At the weekly gatherings, financial offerings would always be requested and expected, and that money would first be used to build a space (I imagine that first congregations would start by meeting in existing schools and non-profit spaces, just like fledgling churches do), and then furnish that space with resources like a childcare area, a gym, a playground, a kitchen, a music setup, a stage, etc. even our own schools!

Along with building congregation-specific infrastructure, additional money would be put towards supporting counterinstitutions that serve the larger movement, as well as action campaigns that the congregation believes in.

This part is really exciting to me, because evangelical churches generate a lot of dollars, and they put a lot of those dollars toward international mission work. I’d really like to see what revolutionary congregations could support with that kind of money on a global level.

The Leadership Question

Leadership development is a big priority in the revolutionary congregation idea. The goal is to offer consistent, structured encouragement and opportunities that move people from their first curiosity about the group, to their attendance and agreement with the core beliefs, to their active membership in the congregation, to their committed action and organizing, to their conscious democratic participation in the core leadership of the organization.

Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Church is really helpful here. He has a whole diagram that shows the flow from the larger community, to the curious crowd, to the congregation, to the committed, and then to the core.

Rick Warren Diagram

All self-identified congregation members would be welcome to participate in decision-making and in all committees. But what’s particularly cool about this model is that the hardcore people have lots of opportunities to delve deeply into analysis, theory work, experiments in strategies and actions, but in committees where they are bolstered and held accountable by the larger congregation that they belong to. Similar to the Zapatista idea of “governing obeying,” those who don’t have the time or interest to be full-time revolutionary organizers or theorists are able to be in weekly communication and have direct oversight over the work that their more intense comrades are doing. This is the reverse of the cadre model, where the professional revolutionaries concoct their revolutionary ideas first, and only then decide when and how the masses are prepared to see them.

Geography and Size

I imagine that revolutionary congregations would start as singular, geographically amorphous entities in all areas, but especially in big cities the idea would be to get them as local and neighborhood-based as possible. I think 200-300 people congregations would be ideal, but part of me would be really curious to see an experiment in a 30,000 person mega-organization like Rick Warren’s church is.

The Question of Power

The revolutionary congregation does not have the goal of becoming a mechanism of popular power in itself. Its goal is to provide what George Lakey has called a “base camp” for people to learn, grow, reflect, and take care of themselves between their interventions in the larger sites of struggle such as workplaces, community councils, etc.

In this way, they have a very similar role to the FAI and ateneos in Spain or even to the old IWW halls.

However—and I think this is cool too—because of its infrastructure and resource base, in moments of crisis, social collapse, or insurrection, this model does offer the flexibility for like-minded congregations and sister counterinstitutions to quickly federate and become sovereign communities…if that’s what the conditions demand. This is exactly the capacity that right-wing evangelicals are building. It’s a structure that allows us to be prepared at a moments notice for revolutionary opportunities like the Spanish anarchists had in 1936, like the Bolsheviks had in 1917, and like we’ve seen recently in Egypt and Tunisia.

Recruitment

Because the revolutionary congregation isn’t religious, and is advocating for a down-to-earth, democratic approach to the problems of daily life and the world, participants should have no qualms about spreading the word of their congregation. What’s more, because the center of the congregation’s life is the weekly gathering, it’s not as if entry-level activities are some afterthought that the group has to come up with–which then is dropped when intense organizing heats up, which is another common phenomenon with cadre organizations. Of course, because this is a model so similar to a church model, people would need to be careful about not copying the annoying tendencies of both Christian and Social evangelicals (that is, paper peddlers), but this, funny enough, another area where evangelicals have done a lot work, sort of understanding the nuances of their recruitment.

Now, of course there will be questions and issues of the demographic makeup of congregations, just as there are currently with both radical groups and churches. But I don’t think this model absolutely depends on the need for, for example, always multiracial groupings, or cross-class groups. I think it’s possible, though not ideal, to form even relatively homogenous congregations that are honest with themselves about that reality, and then seek to build relationships of trust, solidarity, and shared resources and action with other congregations and organizations. But like I said, that’s not the ideal.

Building a Revolutionary Movement to Scale

Because this model is both growth oriented and focused on building its activity around the whole lives of its participants, I think it could be uniquely capable of building revolutionary ideas and counterinstitutions to the scale that we need to be a threat to the system.

One thing that kind of irks me about us radicals is that we get so self-satisfied about all of the neat and special organizations and collectives we have across the country, yet we don’t think more intensely about how weak their diffusion makes them. I mean, it’s fantastic that we have a radical mental health collective in New York, and massive community gardens in Detroit, while we have bike projects in Tucson, and Seattle Solidarity Network fighting bosses and landlords in Seattle. But the the problem is that to actually be a serious force, we need all of those types of projects and campaigns in all localities, actually being accessed daily by stable populations of people! Sometimes I think we almost take it is a badge of pride that some regions and cities have their own little unique collectives, but as soon as we move from niche thinking to revolutionary thinking, this should be seen as a considerable problem and a challenge.

The evangelicals and other spiritual groups have been successful at building to scale, and almost entirely from their own grassroots fundraising, as opposed to making demands on the state or foundations in order to survive. This is because they have a mass base and they regularly receive offerings, but it’s also because they build outward from that core premise of building institutions that serve the spiritual and material needs of their congregants. It’s that fixed orbit around the central idea that’s so important, and it could give coherence to the current chaos of disparate projects–that are also usually unaccountable to a base–that the radical left faces now.

Closing

At least for now, these are my main points about the revolutionary congregation model. I’m hoping that after I get this all written and I share it around a little bit, then I can polish it into a more formal article. Hopefully then it will generate enough discussion and interest that some people (please be people in Seattle!) will be willing to try experimenting with it.

But before we get that far, and potentially waste resources on a model that could be disastrous, I have one more section to write: the pitfalls and criticisms that I anticipate from this proposal.

Click here for part 4.

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-Dispersing Power by Raul Zibechi

1 comment

Dr. Bowman,I think a major contributing fotcar to this statistic as well as the statistics I have read in general about those who have college or graduate level degrees who are more liberal in their perspective than those who do not is the perspective that is centrally taught at the specific university or institution. One thing I noticed in many of my classes at Bridgewater (and know that I say this with all due respect to my professors that I was privileged to study under while there) is that really only one perspective was given. Several times the professor would point to the two major views on the issue and then dismiss the one they personally did not agree with and argue their view in such a way that it appeared to be the only right view. For instance, I had a professor mention that modern day Evangelical Fundamentalists who still held to the view of the inerrancy of Scripture were ignorant. He did not even review much of the evidence in favor of holding to the inerrancy of Scripture (which I still hold to based on several strong supporting evidence). He basically dismissed the view of inerrancy and then pushed the other view. You would be stupid if you held to inerrancy according to his statement. I had another professor who dismissed my view of there being one creation account in Genesis (contra to the two accounts he taught) as being midrash and would not even consider the evidence for scholars who do hold to such a view. Yet another professor spent no time evaluating the numerous reasons why one would hold to the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch but much time going over Wellhausen’s Documentary Hypothesis without mentioning the numerous problems that exist with it. Interestingly enough, my seminary professors went in great detail about the Documentary Hypothesis (which none of them agreed with) and a very detailed look at the problems with it as well as more evidence in favor of Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch than I ever heard at Bridgewater.My point in sharing all of this is to illustrate that this statistic might result from several higher institutions of learning presenting material in such a way that it is one-sided. That was my experience at Bridgewater (and also could be argued with Capital but it had a doctrinal statement that clarified where it stood on certain key issues so a student knew what he or she was getting into). It does appear, from what I have studied, that homosexuality in several institutions is being presented as one-sided. It is being taught that it is a sexual orientation instead of a lifestyle when no research has been conclusive for such a claim. The numerous accounts of those who have left the homosexual lifestyle are not mentioned or if they are, they are dismissed. If many of these institutions are presenting a one-sided perspective on several social issues such as homosexuality and abortion, then it is not surprising that more college and graduate graduates have adopted liberal views on these issues.Thanks again for allowing me to join the conversation Dr. Bowman. I think these conversations are especially helpful during this time in the denomination.Blessings,Lee Smith