Ray Charles’ solo recording of “Low Society”—a classic boogie-blues number written by his former bandleader Lowell Fulson—is just about enough to make you give up any ambitions of joining high society.
It’s Monday morning; what else is happening?
Jennie B. Wilson died over a century ago, so she didn’t have today’s headlines in mind when she wrote “Hold To God’s Unchanging Hand”. And I think it’s safe to say that she didn’t have in mind that deep groove, anchored by a rock-steady backbeat, the Chicago Mass Choir finds (if for no reason other than it hadn’t been carved yet) as they sing one of her most enduring hymns.
Time is filled with swift transition,
Naught of earth unmoved can stand,
Build your hopes on things eternal,
Hold to God’s unchanging hand.
I like to think she’d be happy about the song’s resilient power.
Hope Within History is a short book (5 chapters, 108 pages), and that’s good because it has a lot of dry, technical language. Walter Brueggemann is a theologian and seminary professor, so his brand of technical language is theological and academic. His primary concern here is: how does the Bible (in particular, the Exodus stories and the prophets of Israel) understand history, hope, and how people grow and develop in their faith? Almost everything he says about faith development applies equally to the notion of a community organization functioning as a “university of public life”.
Brueggemann wrote Hope Within History because “the temptation among us is to split hope and history. As a result we hold to a religious hope that is detached from the realities of the historical process, or we participate in a history which ends in despair because the process itself delivers no lasting victories for the participants…. Obviously such a split which yields both a historyless hope and a hopeless history is a betrayal of biblical faith. It is precisely the wonder and burden of the biblical texts that hope is relentlessly historical and history is cunningly hope-filled.”
Chapter 1: Israel’s Articulation of Faith Development
The story (and the retelling) of the Exodus tells us at least three things about how Israel understood “faith development”.
- It begins with a critique of ideology. “Every Israelite is personally thrust into a world of power politics and public reality…. Israel’s self-identity is from the outset a public one.” The world as it is (slavery in Egypt) is designed to sever the special interests of some at the expense of others. This world can be changed, and God is the agent of that change.
- It continues with the public processing of pain “As long as persons experience their pain privately and in isolation, no social power is generated.” When people “cry out” as a community, in public, that is a revolutionary act. And God responds to that crying out.
- This public outcry and processing of pain leads to the release of new social imagination. “When the cry comes to voice…there is a new ability, courage, and will to hope, imagine, design, and implement alternative scenarios” of how the world could be. The expression of this release of imagination is always social (the Exodus is a communal, not a personal, event), liturgical (the victory song of Moses), political (the Israelites reject Pharaoh’s kingship and accept God’s kingship), and legislative (the Torah is the concrete expression of this new kingdom—replacing Pharaoh’s laws).
Chapter 2: Righteousness as Power for Life
Brueggemann sees the same pattern in the Book of Isaiah as he sees in the Exodus. “First Isaiah” (ch. 1-39, written in the 8th century B.C.E.) is a critique of ideology, in this case, the arrogance and unrighteousness of Israel’s rulers as they face the Assyrian empire. “Second Isaiah” (ch. 40-55, written 540 B.C.E.) articulate the public embrace of pain, in this case, the pain of Israel exiled under Babylon. “Third Isaiah” (ch. 56-66, written around 500 B.C.E.) is a practice of new social imagination, in this case, Jews who have returned home to Jerusalem and must rebuild the ruined city on the basis of new hopes.
“Faith transformation is not self-contained individualism…(it) cannot be privatized but always concerns community. This is so for two reasons: first, because the ideology in which one is enmeshed is always a social construction; and second, because the power for life always means life for others, so that the person is always agent and never simply recipient“.
Chapter 3: Blessed are the History-makers
Brueggemann asserts that, biblically speaking, you can’t tell who the “history-makers” are simply by following the timelines (who was king or president, and in which order) or the headlines (what happened to the Assyrian or British empire). He asserts that in Israel at the turn of the 6th century “Jeremiah and those linked to him are the history-makers” and suggests that “Jeremiah provides a paradigm for history-makers around these five items:
- A profound sense of anguish, pathos, and incongruity that touches him personally.
- Confidence in the moral coherence of the world.
- Assertion of the raw sovereignty of God in the historical process.
- Capacity for discerning social analysis and criticism.
- Bold conviction about an alternative possibility that goes under the name of hope.
It will be clear that these elements are in fact, and are regularly perceived to be subversive. History-making, as I understand it, is a process of subverting public and institutional forms of power that have become frozen and absolutized in favor of some at the expense of others.”
“History-makers like Jeremiah (a) take the timeline and the headline seriously but not normatively; (b) maintain some critical distance from the dominant definitions in order to have space for alternative thinking and liberated imagination; (c) live at the edge of society where alternatives are thinkable and possible in terms of an imagination not yet co-opted.”
Chapter 4: Living Toward a Vision: Grief in the Midst of Technique
Here Brueggemann is exploring the biblical tradition of hope, asserting that the Bible is “fundamentally a literature of hope“, which places it at odds with the dominant Western intellectual tradition (Hellenistic philosophy) which is a tradition of order.
“The function of hope is to keep the present open and provisional, under scrutiny.”
“The natural setting of hope is among those who have grief and process in the community“, that is to say, they articulate it publicly.
“The enemies of hope include muteness, fulfillment, and technique, all ways of trying to keep life on our own terms.” The silent majority, the affluent, the best and the brightest who work for the powers that be are, in effect, a powerful alliance that works to create a society in which hopelessness is prevalent and powerful.
Chapter 5: Will Our Faith Have Children?
Here Brueggemann’s concerns intersect somewhat less with those of community organizers. He is putting forth his understanding of evangelical faith and rebutting some of his colleagues’ views. He again makes his point about the importance of grief and public articulation of pain as necessary prerequisites to the coming of new life or new hope.
“Evangelical faith is not only buoyant about new gifts surprisingly given. Evangelical faith is also candid and unflinching about hurt, loss, grief, and endings in human history which are real and painful and not covered over. The concrete embrace of deep death is as evangelical as is the lyrica celebration of new gift.”
Charlotte Ryan’s Prime Time Activism: Media Strategies For Grassroots Organizing is nearly 20 years old, which means it predates pretty much the entire online media and communications infrastructure that exists today. Nonetheless it remains an impressively valuable tool for leaders and organizers seeking to engage more effectively with the media.
Prime Time Activism is a “how-to” book: not how to write a press release, eep a media list updated, etc., but how to use mainstream media as part of an overall strategy to advance your organization’s agenda and build its power. To do that, Ryan contends, one must understand the media “world as it is” and then make decisions about how and when to use it. Here’s a summary of the book’s main points.
WHAT’S NEWSWORTHY: Something is newsworthy if it meets the criteria of public recognition, importance and interest. Public recognition includes: issue recognition, famous faces, trendiness and proximity. Importance is defined by: power, impact and currency. Criteria for interest include: good story, human interest, memorable emotions, visuals, cultural resonance and fresh twist.
GETTING FRAMED: A “frame” is a way of ordering information into a coherent story. A frame is almost always implied, rather than explicitly written in a news article or broadcast. A “mobilizing frame” has 3 characteristics:
- the issue, responsibility and solution are all defined collectively;
- they are conflictual—there is an “us” and a “them”;
- they launch a moral appeal—what’s happening is unjust, unfair and violates basic social standards.
A “demobilizing frame” does the reverse, defining the story as individual, obscuring sides, and avoiding questions of morality.
FRAMES contain: Core Frame (“the issue is…”), Core Position (“this is what should happen…”), Metaphor, Historical Example, Catch-phrases, Depictions, Visual Images, Roots, Consequences, Appeals to Principle. (See Appendix B, p 241 ff.)
FRAME CONTESTS: Your opponent will have its own frame it wants to promote. It’s important to take the time to understand your opponent’s view of the world, the way in which they want the story told, and the preconceptions reporters will have in mind. What then happens is a contest between you and your opponent as to how the story is told.
PEGS, LEADS & BITES: A “peg” is a “hook” on which to “hang” a story that otherwise isn’t “newsworthy”. (Like pretty much every institution, the media has its own jargon that’s known by insiders and can be a baffling mystery to outsiders.) Ryan gives the example of a feature story on African-American infant mortality that was only broadcast after the Surgeon General had released a report on infant mortality. In this case, the Surgeon General’s report became the “hook” that made it “newsworthy” to run a pre-existing story.
A “lead” is the “what’s new” part of the story. Here Ryan’s example is of the maids at Boston’s luxurious Copley Plaza hotel having to clean bathrooms on their hands and knees. The exploitation of maids in the hotel business is nothing new; the “on their knees” angle is what made it a story for the mainstream media.
“Bites” are soundbites. Not everyone is equally talented at speaking in “quotable quotes”, Ryan says. But people who are good at it are usually people who have practiced what they’re going to say, and who think of themselves as people worth quoting.
GETTING ACCESS: As with any institution, the media has its own avenues for allowing access to them (and their own roadblocks and detours for obstructing access).
NEWS ROUTINES: Reporters cover beats; they have deadlines and they have to file stories of a certain length (e.g., 90 seconds for TV, 20 column inches for print). Their needs vary depending on what medium they work in (radio, TV, print). [Today most reporters work in multiple mediums: e.g., the newspaper reporter who has a Twitter feed, files stories for the print edition of a newspaper, shoots video for the paper’s website, and has a weekly podcast.] Reporters’ needs also vary depending on what beat they cover (e.g., city hall, business, lifestyle, columnist). Ryan emphasizes that “challengers organizing in workplaces or in the electoral arena pay attention to the routines and organization culture of those they are trying to win over. Media work demands the same.”
GATEKEEPERS: Reporters are the gatekeepers of the mainstream media. You needs to “get past” them before you can hope to be covered. Basically, Ryan suggests monitoring what reporters write, and doing individual meetings with them. Building relationships is, she suggests, the best way to build one’s credibility.
SOURCES: Reporters tend to have a limited circle of people they consider “good sources”. Journalists look for the following traits in a source: an institutional connection, productivity (good story ideas), accuracy (solid research & documentation), honesty, articulateness (knowledge, brevity & wit), consistency, accessibility.
MEDIA PLANNING: Ryan provides some useful outlines and questions (see p. 220 ff.) for both short and long-range strategies for dealing with mainstream media.
It says something about Ray Charles’ place in the musical world of the early 1960s that when the great Coleman Hawkins and the incomparable Duke Ellington got together in the studio for the first (and, as it turned out, only) time, they cut this delightful, clever, playful, tastefully greasy version of…”Ray Charles’ Place”.
“Yakety Yak”, “a white kid’s view of a black person’s conception of white society” (according to songwriter Jerry Leiber) was the first and only #1 song The Coasters (first vocal group inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame).
Which gives you some idea of how much…and how little…has changed in American society over the past two generations.