When the institutions of society are corrupted, or the institutions’ actions become repetitive, unfocused, dull and merely uphold the status quo, cultural atrophy begins to wither a nation’s spirit. The Bible speaks of it this way: “Without a vision the people perish.” When our institutions of commerce, political order, religion, media and education stop functioning for the common good, they become part of the problem. When the people who lead these institutions no longer have a desire to build a better world for better people, institutions become oppressive. They become used by elites to keep the rabble obedient and ensure they conform. In such a context the only real freedom is to revolt and rebel not merely against what is, but also to embody what can be. Freedom is the capacity to dream in a time of sedation and nightmare.
In a wee, tiny way my job as pastor of a church institution is to keep hope alive through rebellion and vision. In the University District that means, at a minimum, to rebel against those forces that would desire to sweep our streets of any evidence that the poor live among us. So, like many other churches, we provide meals and showers and shelter so that we can help our city become a better place for better people. We do all of this as a living reminder that everyone belongs, everyone has God-given dignity that the state and the market and even circumstance cannot take away. We do this so that our neighborhood, targeted for residential growth, will not forget that the poor and the homeless are still part of us and shouldn’t be forgotten in our plans for the future.
Churches also provide public space for democratic conversation. It is yet another way of contributing to the public good. Within my own institution we’ve created a conversational ministry called the Common Good Café, a civil, civic place to discuss political, cultural and economic issues. We dream into reality a sacred space where citizens can trust and respect each other as they encounter ideas that might, at first, seem fanciful or strange. We dream into reality a citizenry that re-learns how to be imaginative, creative and courageous as it says. No, to destructive activities like war and exploitation and Yes to that which brings people together to care for each other and the earth.
On Thursday, Jan. 24 my institution will reopen our conversational café with a winter lineup of speakers who will help us rebel and dream. We’ll talk about global dominance of the financial industry one week and drone warfare the next. We’ll talk about religious violence and also the possibility for a new socialism. We’ll meet a woman who thinks Jesus was married and hear from a physician who helped break the siege of Gaza. Check it out on Facebook and via the website listed below. Come and join us. Practice freedom.