Faith-Rooted Organizing: Mobilizing the Church in Service to the World

Written by Alexia Salvatierra and Peter Heltzel Reviewed By Aaron Griffith

The phrase “community organizer” was a helpful barometer of political persuasion in the 2008 American presidential election. For many on the left, the fact that Barack Obama had served in this role in Chicago was a boon to his credibility and evidence that he understood the plight of the urban poor. For the right the term was more evidence of Obama’s liabilities, a sign of his linkage to Saul Alinsky-style radicalism and lack of “real” leadership experience.

This conflict over the legitimacy of community organizing mirrors a similar debate in Christian circles. Liberal Christians usually see organizing as an ideal example of Christian social engagement, while conservatives often criticize its secular or social gospel connotations. It is within this conversation that Faith-Rooted Organizing: Mobilizing the Church in Service to the World must be understood, for it is a book trying to stake out new terrain in broader debates about Christian work on behalf of the marginalized. The book attempts to convince evangelicals of their social justice obligations in the progressive evangelical vein of Jim Wallis or Shane Claiborne. But more importantly, it also casts doubt on the appropriateness of traditional secular community organization practice for Christians and offers the theologically-driven alternative model of faith-rooted organizing.

Authors Alexia Salvatierra (an activist from Los Angeles) and Peter Heltzel (a theologian living and working in New York) begin Faith-Rooted Organizing with a brief articulation of the problem to be tackled: modern community organizing has significant shortcomings for Christians because it is theologically inadequate in its assumptions and methods. In contrast, faith-rooted organizing is explicitly grounded in the beliefs and practices of Christian communities and attempts to include their various gifts that they bring to the table, “from visions and dreams, to values, to scriptures and sacred texts, to symbols and rituals” (p. 10). Each chapter builds on this general outline, typically opening with discussion of a problem in traditional secular community organizing practices and moving to historical examples and analysis of how faith-rooted models can reinvigorate or replace these established paradigms. For example, the common appeals to communal self-interest or democracy in Alinsky-style organizing should be problematic for believers: “As Christians, while we may value democracy, we cannot imbue it with a completely blind faith, nor can we ignore the biblical command to take care of our neighbor.” By contrast, faith-rooted organizing creates a culture of obligation, seeing relationships with neighbors and even those in authority not in terms of self-interest but friendship: it “aspires beyond democracy to establish the beloved community” (pp. 31–32).

Salvatierra and Heltzel have written a highly readable book that would be appropriate for leaders and laity alike. However, it is perhaps best suited for Christians working in non-profits and parachurch organizations, or pastors heading up outreach ministries for their congregations. In these roles the creep of institutional isomorphism is a constant challenge; Christian organizations gradually start mimicking the rhetoric, methods, and even the goals of powerful state and market organizational structures. This book is full of ideas for how to reinvigorate ministry initiatives with deep-rooted practices that are unapologetically Christian. The book also helpfully provides an approachable articulation of some of the limits of liberal democracy. Mainliners and evangelicals have both been guilty of uncritical appropriation of liberal-democratic tropes and language, and Salvatierra and Heltzel are to be commended for helping Christians of all persuasions think about how these ideas can be re-framed with theological imagination. This is a move that seems to be particularly appropriate for politically progressive evangelicals, who have often been deserted by both their more conservative brethren and those on the secular left. This book helps stake a practical theological claim for this “moral minority” (to use David Swartz’s term) by embracing this disaffected status between these two poles. If earlier progressive evangelicals were known for their critiques of the individualistic, spiritualized evangelical status quo and trumpeting of the need for “God’s politics” (to use Wallis’s later phrase), Salvatierra and Heltzel have given us a book that pushes practitioners to consider what actually separates “God’s politics” from that of this world.

The book does have some weaknesses. Salvatierra and Heltzel occasionally slip into broader descriptive categories of “religion” to discuss their perspective. This is an unfortunate move given their commitment to articulating an activism that takes the nuances of faith seriously, as well as their nervousness about the various negative consequences of Christians uncritically imbibing liberal-democratic categories (of which the creation of a homogenized, privatized, domesticated “religion” is one, as thinkers like William Cavanaugh have shown). I also kept waiting for them to engage with Luke Bretherton’s recent work on community organizing, which makes the provocative claim that Saul Alinsky actually is a helpful model for Christian political engagement within the saeculum (Christianity and Contemporary Politics [Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010], 71–87). By contrast, for much of Faith-Rooted Organizing Alinsky serves as a foil for the faith-rooted Christian activist. It is unfortunate that this work did not fully probe the theological possibilities or origins of seemingly “secular” organizing techniques or possible contributions of modern liberal, capitalistic orders along with their weaknesses. The book’s two-page appendix on the best use of faith-rooted “serpent power” (as opposed to God’s “dove power”) is an exception to this critique; I would have loved, however, to have seen this broadened into an entire chapter or two. Nevertheless, this book remains a valuable contribution to discussions of Christian social engagement and a prophetic witness to the world about the difference that Jesus makes for our politics.

Aaron Griffith

Aaron Griffith
Duke University
Durham, North Carolina, USA

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