I’ve written a number of posts recently about the 4 Corners Festival, which kicks off tonight at 7.30 pm with Tony Macaulay reading from his book Paperboy in Ballygomartin Presbyterian Church in Belfast.
I’m on the organising committee of the festival. While we are promoting it as an initiative that “seeks to inspire people from across the city to transform it for the peace and prosperity of all,” we are under no illusions that its impact will be swift – or even immediately discernible.
My own academic work has always been concerned with how religion can transform society and politics, and as part of my wider research I’ll be travelling soon to the University of New Mexico for a stint at the Southwest Institute on Religion and Civil Society.
The director of the Institute is sociologist Richard L. Wood, whose Faith in Action: Religion, Race, and Democratic Organizing in America (University of Chicago Press, 2002) won the American Sociological Association’s award for outstanding book in the sociology of religion in 2003.
Though now more than a decade old, the core insights of the book still have much to say to the American context which Wood writes about. And as with all good books in the sociology of religion, the key ideas can be applied more widely to other contexts.
One of Wood’s main concerns is how ‘faith-based organizing’ can contribute to improving the quality of democratic life in the US.
In light of the clear ‘democratic deficit’ in Northern Ireland – laid bare for all to see in light of the recent riots over the flying of the British flag at Belfast City Hall – Northern Ireland’s own faith-based activists could learn much from Wood’s study.
The book features several cases studies, including the umbrella organization the Pacific Institute for Community Organization (PICO) in California, as well as three congregations or parishes that have a relationship with PICO. Wood compares the mobilization of religiously-motivated activists with that of a race-based organization, the Center for Third World Organizing (CTWO).
The examples which he studied were deliberately selected to include organizations or congregations with people on the social, political and economic margins of American life, not just the usual white, middle class, suspects of much faith-based activism in the US.
Wood is interested in what makes some of these organizations more effective than others, in terms of achieving socio-political change in their local contexts. He sets his analysis in the rather bleak conclusions about grassroots social movements made by renowned scholar Manuel Castells in The City and the Grassroots, who he quotes on page 55:
“When people find themselves unable to control the world, they simply shrink the world down to the size of their community. Thus, urban movements do address the real issues of our time, although neither on the scale nor terms that are adequate to the task.”
That means that some of his key questions are (p. 4-5):
- How do those excluded from the full benefits of societal life organize themselves to project political power in defense of their interests and as a voice for the common good?
- When they do so, how do they build an organizational culture to sustain their political engagement?
Clearly, in loyalist parts of Northern Ireland, communities have ‘shrunk’ in the ways Castells describes. Various forms of social, economic and political deprivation are exacerbated by our longstanding sectarian divisions and loyalists’ frustration over what they see as a lack of a peace dividend and a perception of loss of power and influence.
Reading about Wood’s examples from California, I was struck by the lack of similar projects in Northern Ireland (though there are notable exceptions), either faith-based or secular, which are able to mobilize and empower the marginalized in relatively effective ways.
I was also impressed by the strong links PICO appeared to have with the various congregations under its umbrella. In my previous research (i.e. Evangelicalism and Conflict in Northern Ireland), I argued that it was religious organizations which were the most effective faith-based actors, rather than congregations. And while some organizations like Evangelical Contribution on Northern Ireland (ECONI) had links with congregations, I do not think they were as strong as PICO’s links, as described by Wood.
- be able to engage effectively in deprived communities, as hinted at by Presbyterian minister Doug Baker in an interview on Radio Ulster, and
- be able to make links between their work and that of local congregations and parishes
Wood also argues that it is the ‘cultural dynamics’ of the three congregations he studies which largely explains their varying levels of effectiveness, in terms of achieving their socio-political goals. Providing rich ethnographic detail about the activism strategies, as well as the worship and prayer practices of St Elizabeth Catholic Church, he identifies four ‘key cultural qualities’ in which the parish excels (p 213):
- moderately intense commitment to shared cultural elements
- an exceptionally strong capacity for dealing with ambiguity
- moderately strong cultural resources for contestation
- strong cultural resources for compromise
Wood’s identification of the need for ‘contestation’ is helpful in that it does not shy away from the fact that there will inevitably be conflicts when Christian activists engage in the public sphere – both internal to congregations or religious organizations and external with secular actors.
But can we honestly say that in Northern Ireland, our religious actors have a ‘strong capacity for dealing with ambiguity’ and ‘strong cultural resources for compromise’? How might Christians in Northern Ireland better develop such capacities and resources?
Faith in Action is an academic sociology book that analyses why some forms of religious activism are more effective than others, and argues that in the American context, religious activism can enhance the quality of democratic life.
Some readers of this blog may well think that the social and political action described by Woods should not be on the churches’ agendas. But in Northern Ireland, where there is a gaping democratic deficit and there has been a failure in our political leadership about how to deal with the past, I think effective ‘faith in action’ should very much be on Christians’ agendas.
The 4 Corners Festival is a small and tentative step in this process. Please do join us.