Surviving life in two cultures
One of the debates about the Church and Christian life that recurs in Soul Survivor is the difference between trying to expand Christian Subculture and actually taking Jesus’ messages of love, justice, forgiveness, etc to the people. Its a critical debate on one level, especially for a church so laden with its own peculiar culture that is butting up against many other cultures.
I had a conversation at Soul Survivor that turned out to be one of those self-teaching moments where you almost manage to learn from things you say spur of the moment to other people. Three of us were discussing living out our faith in different cultures – mine in activism, theirs in theatre – and I suggested that the way churches do things wasn’t necessarily the right one for implanting into these cultures.
The gap between the processes and methods of thinking and deciding in the activist subculture can be seen as irksome, especially if we’re talking about the parts where consensus decision making is almost deified. To an activist, the church can look like a very weirdly backward place, often devoid of any real democracy and going very purposefully in the opposite direction on what can seem to be pretty basic stuff. A day later, I encountered such a situation myself.
“You don’t have to send Your Mr Big*, just someone who can bring some young people to tell their stories”. I was asking someone from an organisation* that works in Inner City London about getting some young people from boroughs affected by the riots up to Yorkshire. I was thinking that they would have contacts and maybe could figure a way of getting a car load of young people to come and share experiences, as both a means to empower young people to speak for themselves and show them that someone, anyone, is actually listening, and as a way to inform those in the North for whom the riots were perhaps a bit of a surprise.
From the responses I got from the staff member I was listening to, it was very clear that it was either Mr Big, or it wasn’t going to happen and that, as Mr Big was currently doing urgent meetings with the government about policy strategies to make sure this doesn’t happen again, it was all very unlikely. It grated on several levels.
First, and perhaps least importantly, it grated because here was a group who often project a fairly radical image amongst certain circles, allowing themselves to be schmoozed by the Tories. I suspect the risk of co-option or giving legitimacy to a further crack down on the lives of local residents wasn’t being discussed, but maybe if it was, they feel they have a strategy to deal with this. Also, I’m not sure what the nature of the meetings actually is, and its possible the staff worker thought I’d be impressed to hear this person was meeting Theresa May and David Cameron. Obviously I wasn’t.
More important to my point, I was angered by the insinuation that this was the only person who ever spoke for the organisation, and that the organisation wouldn’t help get young people who they’re trying to help on a practical level listened to on a wider level. For an organisation not to be trying to spread the role of speaking and representing seemed so odd. Worse still, its a male leader and I was being told by a female that only he could do the speaking. No one else from said organisation ever speaks on their behalf to cameras, microphones or meetings.
If an activist group tried to work like that, they’d be in trouble – not necessarily because of the obvious legal implications of a single responsible person, but because no other group would work with them. I felt a massive sense of cultural dissonance and probably won’t be following the conversation up with an email as was recommended.
I’ve observed that after a spell volunteering with a church, I found myself having to completely relearn to take part in consensus decision making, though the hand-signals I could remember and I’d never gotten over the fact that women’s opinions were skipped over or left unacknowledged. Relating Christianity to Activism can be almost impossible for several reasons, but the arcane and highly rigid structures of the church are pretty high on the list (unless we’re talking about the Quakers).
But then I’m painfully aware of some of the things that activist culture misses out on by being so dismissive of Christianity. And I’m also aware that very often church organisations have reasons for their choice of structure that are based on practical reasons that have yet to be explained to me. But it also leaves me in a situation where I have to work between two very different processes for getting things done, and that can be very tiring.
* Organisation and personality not named because I don’t see any point. They do good work, just in way that seems really weird and counterintuitive to myself.