“The Abolitionists” and the awkward dance between movements and institutions

The AbolitionistsBy Alan Bean

Two facts struck me last night as I watched The Abolitionists on PBS.  First, the amazing characters who shaped the movement were all people of faith.  Second, the abolitionists were not warmly received by the institutional churches of their day.

Thus has it always been.  Movements and institutions have a troubled relationships.  It’s the way of the world.

In early December I listened to Brian McLaren describe the awkward but potentially fruitful relationship between institutions and movements.  Institutions, in Brian’s understanding, conserve the gains made by past social movements.  Movements make proposals or demands to current institutions to make progress toward new gains.  Organizations and movements need one another but inevitably frustrate and anger each other.

Movements harden into institutions so they can survive.  New movements are created when institutions become too inflexible to respond to present challenges.

Without movements, institutions stagnate.  Without institutions, movements evaporate.

McLaren notes that some movements successfully inject their values into the institutions they challenge.  Other movements create their own institutions or pass away–it must be one or the other.

Vital movements call people to passionate, sacrificial and personal commitment.  Sustainable institutions create loyalty across generations through evocative rituals and traditions.

Brian McLaren

It has frequently been noted that Jesus founded a movement and ended up with an institution.  This may be viewed as a tragic development but, if McLaren is right, the development from movement to institution was inevitable and even necessary.  If Christianity hadn’t hardened into an institution we would know nothing about Jesus and the kingdom he proclaimed.

On the other hand, as the abolitionists discovered to their sorrow, the values of the kingdom of God are impossible to institutionalize.  William Lloyd Garrison called his movement  out of the churches and the political process because the kingdom values he sponsored were too demanding for the religious and political institutions of his day, or ours.

Brian McLaren isn’t angry with the institutional church, as his critics easily assume.  The problem, he says, is that there aren’t currently enough movements challenging the church to return to its first love.

Friends of Justice is a movement that sprang to life 13 years ago when a tragically flawed drug bust went down in a small Panhandle town.  Broadway Baptist Church, the Fort Worth congregation where the new Friends of Justice office is now located, is a wonderful Christian institution.   Broadway comes as close to being a movement as a church can come, but there are limitations.  We are a diverse congregation of old and young, evangelicals and liberals, Republicans and Democrats held together by a common love of great music and liturgical worship (the evocative rituals and traditions McLaren talks about).

Broadway created a sensation when it refused to deny the personhood of the many GLBT individuals and couples that worship with us.  The congregation has never staked out a clear position on issues like gay rights, gay marriage, or gay ordination and it is doubtful that we could achieve consensus if we tried.  Our transgression, from the perspective of the Southern Baptist Convention, has been refusing to embrace the graceless position proscribed from on high by denominational authorities.

Institutions make decisions slowly and carefully.   Move too quickly and a body cobbled together with tremendous care starts coming apart.  Hundreds of families left when the church was excommunicated by the SBC.  Had the congregation moved any farther or any faster it would not have survived.

The churches of America make moral progress when they align themselves with the passion and freedom of genuine religious movements.  But what happens when the movement the church desperately needs doesn’t materialize?

Let me illustrate.  The Protestant evangelical churches of America are scandalously tribal, the lines of demarcation falling along racial and social lines.  In Texas, the great divide is particularly troubling.  African American, Latino and Anglo evangelicals live in distinct and separate worlds, silhouetted against the stark Texas sky like so many stovepipes, each belching a distinctly different hue of smoke.  We affirm the same doctrines and embrace similar rituals, but the course of our moral reasoning and the preferences we display on election day couldn’t be more different.

Latinos are hardly monolithic, but a solid majority favors radical immigration reform and a clear path to citizenship for the undocumented.  This comes as no surprise: 60% of Latinos are personally acquainted with a person who could be deported at a moment’s notice.

African American evangelicals care deeply about the current state of the American criminal justice system.  African American males are six times as likely as Anglo males to land in prison or to be victimized by gun violence.  Prescriptive opinion differ within the Black community, of course, but there is a general feeling that the center cannot hold, that change is desperately needed.

The Anglo evangelicals of Texas are generally unresponsive to calls to reform either the immigration or criminal justice systems.  These are potentially divisive subjects we’d rather ignore.  With rare exceptions, our families aren’t directly impacted by mass incarceration or immigration, so we restrict ourselves to more spiritual concerns.

This state of affairs is tolerable if the prime business of the church is saving souls for heaven.  Each ethnic tribe preaches to its own lost souls and is responsible for the success or failure of that enterprise.  So long as sermons are preached and sinners are saved, who cares if the three largest social tribes in Texas live separate religious and moral lives?

But if the role of the church is to continue the kingdom work of Jesus, our mutual isolation constitutes a genuine scandal.  Justice stuff is kingdom stuff, kingdom stuff is Jesus stuff, Jesus stuff is God stuff and heaven stuff is earth stuff.  If the three big tribes in the religious life of Texas can’t agree on the shape and relevance of the kingdom, we’ve got a problem.  If we can’t even broach the subject, the problem is hopeless.

Blaming the institutional church in all of its tribal manifestations is neither realistic nor fair.  The kingdom agenda of Jesus threatens the survival of the church as an institution.  It always has. Only by entering into an awkward relationship with a movement comprised of African American, Latino and Anglo believers can be hope to move forward.  If that kind of movement doesn’t currently exist, it must be invented.

For the past couple of years, Friends of Justice has been dreaming a Common Peace Community into concrete existence.  The process has been slow because the challenge is so big.  In Ephesians, Jesus is worshiped as the “peace” that breaches the wall dividing Jew and Gentile believers.  It doesn’t take a lot of prophetic imagination to realize that our tribal divide is just the latest manifestation of an age-old condition.

The goal of the Common Peace Community is to elevate and integrate public moral discourse on the issues that divide us: particularly our approach to criminal justice and immigration.  We hope to facilitate a Common Peace Consensus strong enough to challenge the punitive consensus that currently shapes public policy in Texas and across the nation.

Friends of Justice will be progressing toward this goal in partnership with the institutional church, or at least that segment of that institution willing to dance to our movement beat.  The abolitionists succeeded because, gradually and incrementally, they inserted their kingdom agenda into the life of the institutional church.  It was an ungainly and unsatisfactory process in many respects, but genuine progress was made and America was forever changed.

True, the peacemakers generated enormous conflict.  They always do.  America cannot have an integrated moral conversation about kingdom stuff without generating extraordinary fireworks, but the conversation will happen all the same because it must.


One thought on ““The Abolitionists” and the awkward dance between movements and institutions

  1. I don’t know. I’m not optimistic about the mainliners–too stuck in ossified institutions. I’m not optimistic about evangelicals–too stuck in pie in the sky when you die by-and-by. There’s little consensus for a Common Peace Consensus. But then there was little consensus for the abolitionists at the beginning–I also saw Part I of that in PBS’s “American Experience” and look forward to Part II. There was never a real consensus for the Civil Rights Movement even though it attained remarkable achievements. Kingdom movements are born, achieve some progress toward the kingdom–get ossified into instutionalism, then die. And another kingdom movement is born, and goes through the same cycle. Is the world closer to the ideals of the kingdom than 2,000 years ago? No and yes. Slavery still exists, but it is almost universally viewed as an evil. Women are still objectified, but in most of the world they can now own property apart from their husbands. Children still work in sweat shops, but . . . And this can go on and on. No and yes. We have to see the “no” before we can be moved to work for the “yes.”

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