Below is a DRAFT text of the homily. It may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please excuse typos and grammatical errors, and do not cite without permission.
“I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate….I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” (Romans 7:15, 19). We’ve all been there. I know people have trouble with Paul. but…when he nails it…he really nails it.
The past several months have been a crucible for understanding (and misunderstanding) our own actions. As white people continue to awaken to the ways systemic racism and white supremacy have infected and twisted our lives, and brought centuries of pain and destruction to people of color, we are forced to reckon with what Paul is talking about. It’s easy to substitute racism for sin in Paul’s letter today. I don’t want to be racist, but I find that far too often I’m still supporting and sustaining a racist system. The good I want to do… I don’t do, and the evil I don’t want to do…I’m still part of. A lot of us are struggling with this.
And wondering: what do we do? Do we read more, educate ourselves, strive for personal transformation? Do we work at creating safe spaces where alternatives to systems of oppression can be experimented with and developed?…Do we march in the streets, lobby for new policies that will change our dominant institutions? Maybe it’s all of the above.
This past week I attended an Episcopal City Mission Racial Justice Network gathering (on Zoom, of course). I know several of you also attended. We gathered to discuss how “racial injustice is being revealed in this moment, and how we see God moving, and where [and how] we believe the Spirit is calling the Church to respond” (source).
At that meeting I was introduced to something called “movement ecology.” Movement ecology recognizes that people have different theories of change—different things we focus on,—different mechanisms —that we believe drive change—They’re all important…They’re all related…And they are all different. But we tend to prefer one over the others, and we can become frustrated when the groups or organizations we’re part of are using a different model of change than we prefer.
The three models of change in movement ecology are: personal transformation, alternative institutions, and changing dominant institutions.
Personal Transformation is what Paul is talking about. It’s what the church tends to focus on. The belief that only transformed people transform people. When we get right with God,…when we heal our hurts, forgive our past…give our lives to Jesus…when we strive to “be the change we want to see,” in the world…that’s personal transformation. Paul is big on personal transformation. The church tends to be big on personal transformation.
The church is also active in creating alternative institutions, which create change by experimenting with…well…alternatives: Co-ops, communes, MANNA, B-Ready, and B-Safe, monasteries, …these are alternatives that create communities around shared values…and push the boundaries of what is possible in the world. The churches that Paul started were alternative institutions…formed to show that the imperial way of Rome, and the centralized way of the Temple were neither sustainable, nor godly…there was an alternative. The church in every age can be, and should strive to be, an institutional alternative to the principalities and powers of the world.
The third model is dominant institutional change: think Black Lives Matter, Act Up, and Move On, union organizers, and lobbyists…Think the Episcopal Public Policy Network, and Episcopal City Mission; the organizations that flood my email inbox with “action alerts.” This is the model of change that gets the most press…it’s also the one that makes people nervous. When the church gets involved in dominant institutional change, people start worrying about things getting too political.
Eighty years ago, Archbishop William Temple wrote an elegant defense of the church’s role in dominant institutional change. He said, “The Church must announce Christian principles and point out where the existing social order at any time is in conflict with them. It must then pass on to Christian citizens, acting in their civic capacity, the task of re-shaping the existing order in closer conformity to the principles…” [In other words, he says, the church shouldn’t come up with a policy to end unemployment, for example, but the church can, and must announce that, “a society of which unemployment is a chronic feature is a diseased society and that if you are not doing all you can to find and administer the remedy, ‘you are guilty before God.”… “Sometimes,” he says, “the Church can go further than this and point to features in the social structure itself which are bound to be sources of social evil because they contradict the principles of the Gospel.” Racism. [the Most Rev. William Temple, Christianity and the Social Order].
Learning about movement ecology helped me understand a tension I often feel. The church tends to focus on personal transformation, and to a certain extent developing alternatives; but individual Christians might be more likely to want to work at changing dominant institutions. So because we each have a bias towards one model of change, it makes sense that people who are upset by how political the church is being, or frustrated by how apolitical the church is being, are probably feeling that way because the whatever model the church is using doesn’t align with their bias.
But as Archbishop Temple says, as Christians we need to find ways of engaging all of these models…and recognize that not everyone is going to be comfortable with, or able to fully engage every model. But they are all necessary, and are all vital to carrying on the work of Christ in the world…
I know I have a bias towards personal transformation—that’s where I think real change happens—but I’ve also walked in marches, and worked on moving policy initiatives forward, I’ve helped create or worked in alternative institutions…and I know that doing that actually has had a profound impact on my personal transformation. MANNA is in an alternative institution, but anyone who has ever served there will tell you, it’s also life-changing. Participating in the Mother’s Day Walk for Peace, or a Black Lives Matter march is always going to be scary for some and empowering for others…reading a book and participating in a courageous conversation may feel like essential work to some and fruitless navel-gazing to others. But they are all vital, and necessary to drive the mission of God forward.
The key to all of it—the key that we need to hang onto always—as Paul reminds us—is Christ. In any of the work we are doing, whether it’s personal transformation, or creating alternative institutions, or trying to change dominant institutions—we must be aware of our biases and yoke ourselves to Jesus…bind ourselves to him and his work…allow him to guide our actions and set our course, and set our course in the way of love. Then, with his help, as we purify our hearts, and clarify our actions, and engage in multiple models of change maybe we won’t have to worry so much abbot doing things we don’t want to do, or not doing the things we need to do. Because we will be by his side…and in the words of our collect today…we will be devoted to him with our whole heart, and united to one another with pure affection. Amen.