Sunday, 5 July 2015

Review of 'Marching Towards Justice: Community Organising and the Salvation Army'

By Sam Tomlin

In her famous freedom song 'Talkin about a revolution', Tracy Chapman refers to the poor and oppressed 'crying at the doorsteps of those armies of salvation, wasting time in the unemployment lines, sitting around, waiting for a promotion.' The picture might depict the image of a poverty stricken American city where Chapman grew up, but it is also familiar to anyone with knowledge of the origins of the history of the Salvation Army itself. Founded 150 years ago this week at the heart of the poverty stricken East End, it certainly would have provided hope for thousands crying at it its doorsteps.

The song has been used in justice-seeking Christian circles since it was released, its words powerfully evoking the biblical theme of the upside down Kingdom of God where the last will be first, and the first last and the 'whisper-like' nature of God's revolutionary plan for the world. The reference to the 'armies of salvation' was also given fresh relevance this week with the launch of a new pamphlet 'Marching Towards Justice: Community Organising & the Salvation Army' published by the Centre for Community and Theology.

Authored by four Salvation Army church leaders based in East London, the pamphlet was launched at the famous site of the Bryant & May match factory. Famous in salvationist circles because in in the 1880s and 1890s it was the scene of an early battle for justice. The powerful and profitable factory relied on a workforce it treated appallingly - workers (mainly women) were exposed to dangerous substances while making the matches which caused cancer of the jaw and were paid barely anything. Voicing any opposition could result in losing your job.

Working with others, the Salvation Army opened its own factory with better conditions and pay. A huge campaign by salvationists buying the 'Darkest England' matches eventually undercut the profits of Bryant & May, and the moral pressure that came through the publicity forced them to improve conditions and pay.

Around 80 people came to the launch and standing in a small bar area, the meeting at times had the feel of what I imagine an early revivalist meeting might have had, or that of 'base communities' of South American liberation theology - passionate speakers, contribution from the floor and a feeling that everyone has something to offer - an exciting buzz in the room. Not that this is anything new to the concept of community organising the pamphlet discusses - all strategic or public meetings are designed to be creative and participatory.

After the first section which describes how the Army was 'born for justice seeking', exhibiting numerous examples from the past, comes the challenge to recapture this spirit today in the form of community organising: 'These stories remind us that we stand on the shoulders of giants. If they remain only as aspirational legends, however, they can rob us of what we can learn about the reality of justice seeking today.'

The main principles and methodology of community organising are described as founded in building relationships, often with people very unlike yourself, to build power. This often makes people nervous but the distinction is made between dominant power 'over people' and relational power 'with people'. Four main elements are cited and discussed in this way of thinking and acting: visitation, power analysis, training and public action. Building power with people enables the upside down situation where seemingly powerless people are put in the position to have their voice heard; for example when a Soldier at a corps and cleaner at a housing association in Canary Wharf joined with an alliance of local institutions to meet with the CEO,

'The most poignant moment came when the...Soldier looked the CEO in the eye and shared the story of how difficult it was to live on the minimum wage and how family life could be transformed if he could earn the Living Wage. The The CEO listened respectfully to his employee’s testimony. It was a moment of grace – the ‘upside down kingdom’ in action, where the one considered to be powerless became powerful and a genuine public relationship was built. A week later a letter arrived from the CEO. All 30 of the cleaners were to be given new contracts. Wages would be set at the Living Wage level, and sick pay and holiday pay were included. Amazingly, he went the extra mile and backdated the workers’ pay for a whole year to a Living Wage level! It was an outstanding result. Justice had been served. Hallelujah!'

A question was asked at the launch about the often cited dichotomy between evangelism and social justice. The response was insightful and echoed the words of the pamphlet itself: 'At the heart of Salvation Army missional engagement is the dual focus of evangelism and social action. As with any healthy, holistic view of mission, both aspects are properly integrated and cannot be separated.'

A great achievement of the pamphlet, apart from exhibiting a biblical foundation and depth of personal experience is establishing the fact that far from being a set of new principles and orthopraxis (correct practice), justice seeking through community organising is part of the DNA of the Salvation Army. Indeed without such principles, being content simply with charity without justice, it is actually a betrayal of the founding principles of the Army and will result in detracting from its mission. As it is asserted: 'Everything about the language, terminology and methodology of the Salvation Army points to a revolutionary movement seeking to turn the world upside down'.

It finishes with a section on case studies from the authors' churches (or corps) and the Salvation Army training college, and the many victories that have been won with other local institutions for the common good through building relationships of power: e.g. the living wage, housing, street safety.

What I personally love about the pamphlet and approach it describes is that it captures what theologian Jacques Ellul calls the 'troublemaking' heart of Christianity: 

'Christians were never meant to be normal. We’ve always been holy troublemakers, we’ve always been creators of uncertainty, agents of dimension that’s incompatible with the status quo; we do not accept the world as it is, but we insist on the world becoming the way that God wants it to be. And the Kingdom of God is different from the patterns of this world.'

Social justice seekers can often be said to be 'serious' people dealing with 'serious issues' and there is not much room for fun. The approach the pamphlet endorses contradicts this entirely - if it is partnering with God in establishing His Kingdom, we should be dancing as we go: 'action should be fun, so that people enjoy what they are doing. It's important to laugh! Actions should be creative in order to get the attention of bystanders, the media and the 'target'.'

I have been blessed to get to know the four 'troublemakers' who authored the report this year and join in some of their holy troublemaking, and it has been a joy to realise that this fits firmly within the salvationist tradition. As Army Mother Catherine Booth said: 'If we are to better the future, we must disturb the present'. I wholeheartedly commend this pamphlet and suggest it is essential reading for all salvationists.

More information and a continued discussion of the pamphlet and its themes can be found at

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