Anvil journal of theology and mission
Collectives with soul: building sustainable communities
by Alison Webster
In thinking about building sustainable communities, it is helpful to begin by exploring the context we are in and the impact of global neoliberal capitalism on our sense of ourselves as human beings in the early twenty-first century. Competitive individualism, and a notion of “freedom” that prioritises the “freedom to consume”, is eroding our identities as citizens, creating and perpetuating massive inequalities between and within nations – making us sick, and destroying the planet for future generations. Engaging with the work of Bruce Rogers-Vaughn and his book Caring for Souls in a Neoliberal Age, I will explore these problems and identify how human connection and relationship are crucial to human well-being, and how building sustainable communities is a way out of our current malaise. I will then propose that community organising, as exemplified in the UK by Citizens UK, can be a powerful tool for cultivating the habits of making and maintaining relationships, developing new leaders and enabling a diversity of people to tell their stories, challenge power imbalances and change the world for the better. I will show how being part of broad-based alliances of institutions that are not primarily aligned with the market or the state gives churches an opportunity to work in partnership for the common good, and to strengthen and renew themselves in their own sense of mission.
What has happened to us?
I begin with this observation from the pastoral theologian and psychotherapist Bruce Rogers-Vaughn, from his brilliant book Caring for Souls in a Neoliberal Age. In my experience, it resonates deeply with contemporary pastoral theological audiences as a summary of who and how we are as citizens of developed nations.
The average individual I encounter in the clinical situation today is not the same as the person who sat with me 30 years ago. Sometimes the changes are subtle. Often they are obvious. But they are pervasive and apparently widespread. There has been a marked increase in self-blame among those seeking my care, as well as an amorphous but potent dread that they are somehow teetering on the edge of a precipice. This is confounded by the appearance of a few individuals who seem far more self-assured and confident, even entitled or defiant, than I have previously witnessed. Somewhat mysteriously, these highly self-reliant souls seem more superficial and one-dimensional than their depressive or anxious cohorts. Meanwhile, addictive behaviors have become more prevalent and have quickly expanded into areas of life not usually associated with compulsivity. Relationships, even familial or romantic ones, seem to be becoming more ephemeral and contrived, almost businesslike. The people I now see tend to manifest a far more diffuse or fragmented sense of self, are frequently more overwhelmed, experience powerful forms of anxiety and depression too vague to be named, display less self-awareness, have often loosened or dropped affiliations with conventional human collectives, and are increasingly haunted by shame rooted in a nebulous sense of personal failure. I find myself more disquieted and even confused than I used to be while sitting with people, even less “myself”. What has happened?”
Rogers-Vaughn’s book explores the impact of global capitalism through the eyes of a practical and pastoral theologian and psychotherapist. It tackles a spectrum from individual pain and suffering through to the biggest systemic material injustices that face us all today, and their ideological roots. It is deeply sobering; complexly nuanced, but curiously hopeful in that it gives us urgent things to do. There is no way I can do justice in this short article to even a fraction of the things that Rogers-Vaughn explores in his book, but my aim is to pick out some highlights of what he identifies has gone wrong (a broad-brush, big picture overview) and to explore briefly his analysis of what we need to build now. And with that in mind, I want to share with you something of one particular model of sustainable community that I think can be important in this work – community organising – and explain why.
1. Identifying the problem
Rogers-Vaughn explores in depth the growth of neoliberal global capitalism from the Reagan/Thatcher era to the present day, and its historical roots before that. Many of his observations will be familiar to us.
He explores how individuals have become commodities in a market of labour and consumption. We are reduced to “human resources” in an exchange market. That market is founded upon a free-market ideology based on individual liberty and limited government. Human freedom becomes the freedom to consume as rational, self-interested actors in the competitive marketplace. Freedom has therefore been redefined on the market’s terms, and society has been replaced by isolated and competitive individuals. Moreover, the actions of these individuals are based on self-interest rather than the common good. As global capitalism has taken hold, so there has been a rapid increase in economic inequality and class-based segregation and a remarkable decline in the quality of social relations.
In cultural terms, he says, the organisation of human society based on individualism and competition “subtly but steadily influences our attitudes and feelings toward ourselves, including our understanding of what it means to be a ‘self’, as well as our dispositions and feelings toward others. Combined with the erosion of belief in the common good, this leaves us with a society in which each person increasingly looks after their own interests, and leaves others to look after theirs.”
Contemporary capitalism is a global system of expulsion. “In the current global economy, millions of human beings are needed for neither production nor consumption. These unfortunate souls have become a permanent underclass. The existence of an ever-expanding population of migrants, refugees, prisoners, asylum seekers, the perpetually unemployed, and other outcasts become what Bauman (2004) calls ‘the waste products of globalization’.” We may justifiably think of them as excretions of the global debt economy. This perhaps gives us a perspective on the way in which the global COVID-19 pandemic unfolded in our own UK context: the very old (especially those in care homes – those who are no longer economically active and productive) were hit disproportionately hard because of acute underinvestment in that sector. As were the care home staff, who are paid a pittance for their hard and insecure work. And vaccination of the very young (those who are not yet economically active and productive) was left way beyond the time when it proved safe and effective.
It has been remarked often that the pandemic exposed, more acutely and clearly than anything else, the extreme inequalities that exist in our society. Such inequality, according to Rogers-Vaughn’s analysis, is underscored by the “belief that it is natural for the world to contain a very few ‘winners’ surrounded by multitudes of ‘losers’”. In their bestselling book The Spirit Level, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett demonstrate both the extent of inequality and its impact on our physical and mental health. In their follow-up book, The Inner Level, which takes a more personal and individual look at the effects of inequality, Wilkinson and Pickett say this:
Today we live in societies in which worries about how we are seen and judged by others – what psychologists call “the social evaluative threat” – are one of the most serious burdens on the quality and experience of life in rich developed countries. The costs are measured not only in terms of additional stress, anxiety and depression, but also in poorer physical health, in the frequent resort to drink and drugs we use to keep our anxieties at bay, and in the loss of friendly community life which leaves so many people feeling isolated and alone.
Signs of our concern for social appearance are everywhere. It is as if most of us fear being seen for what we are, as if acceptance depended on hiding some awful truth about ourselves: what we really look like, our ignorance, signs of ageing, unemployment, low pay, incipient alcohol dependence, humourlessness, inability to make small talk – in fact anything which might make others view us less positively.
As our sense of ourselves as subjects is undermined, we begin to “lose our voice” – we struggle to make meaning from our lives. And even that experience is affected by inequality. Rogers-Vaughn suggests that “although everyone in neoliberalized societies may suffer a reduction of voice, this will be exacerbated by the extreme material inequality in these societies. Moreover, loss of voice will be unequally distributed, with those with fewer material resources being the more severely affected. The inability to narrate one’s life, then, participates in the oppressions occurring at the intersections between class, race, gender, sexuality, and other loci of social injustice.”
Stated theologically, he says, these conditions are weakening the human soul, that connective tissue linking us together as a human community, as well as to creation and the eternal. Within theological education generally, several scholars have begun to argue that advanced capitalism now poses the most significant threat to the human spirit, to civilisation and to the health of the planet.
In a particularly poignant and urgent passage, Rogers-Vaughn concludes by quoting social epidemiologist Roberto De Vogli:
It is no coincidence that crises such as climate change and the rapid depletion of natural resources are occurring in combination with other symptoms of social breakdown: rising mental disorders, mindless consumerism, materialistic conformism, status competition, civic disengagement, startling economic inequalities, global financial instability and widespread political inertia. While these crises are usually studied in isolation, they are all interconnected.
Rethinking our “mission question”
Concluding this exploration of the problem, of “what has happened to us” in our context of global capitalism, it is helpful to pause to ask questions around mission and church. In his book, Rogers-Vaughn turns a self-reflexive gaze upon his own discipline of counselling and psychotherapy. He examines the ways in which it has, in his opinion, colluded with normative neoliberal value systems. It has instilled “adaptation to society (rather than resistance), functioning in accord with the values of production and consumption (rather than communion and wholeness in relation to others and the earth), on symptom relief (rather than meaning-making), and accepting personal responsibility (rather than interdependent reliance within the web of human relationships)”. As members of Christian communities, we might ask ourselves similar questions. In what ways have we (intentionally or not) accepted the normative value systems of capitalism? In what ways have we replicated them in our ways of “being church”? Not just in our organisational structures and strategies of mission and evangelism, but in our deeper discipleship and spiritual stories of self? It has been said that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. To the extent that this is true, it presents us with a huge challenge to our theological imagination and creativity. Quoting Buddhist philosopher David Loy, Rogers-Vaughn states that “market capitalism… has already become the most successful religion of all time, winning more converts more quickly than any previous belief system or value system in human history”. Our mission question must be: what is our prophetic response to this reality?
2. Building sustainable community
You will by now see why I described Rogers-Vaughn’s book as sobering reading. You will also recall, however, that I suggested with optimism that it also gives us “things to do”. Let us move on, then, to a suggested programme for change.
According to Rogers-Vaughn, responding to the sufferings of our age will involve three things:
- The strengthening of human collectives
- The nurturing and increase of the soul
- The amplification of hope
In so far as we could see these as three threads in a strategy for renewal, I want to explore them in the context of a model for social change and transformation that I find particularly powerful, and apposite for the needs of our times. That model is community organising, as embraced in the UK by Citizens UK.
For those unfamiliar with community organising, I refer you to the very comprehensive website of Citizens UK and also to the work of theologian Angus Ritchie and his Centre for Theology & Community (CTC) in East London. His introductory pamphlet, which can be found on the CTC website, is entitled People of Power: How community organising recalls the Church to the vision of the Gospel.
Community organising is a structured process that brings together grassroots institutions like churches, mosques and schools in a particular town or city to work for action on issues of common concern. It originated in the USA in the 1930s and has been growing in the UK since the 1990s. Perhaps its most famous US advocate is Barack Obama, who has his political roots in the practice of organising in the city of Chicago and famously used organising methodologies to encourage marginalised people to register to vote as part of his first successful presidential campaign.
My own engagement with Citizens UK began when I was deputy director of mission (social justice) for the Diocese of Oxford. Entering into a strategic partnership with Citizens UK was a crucial part of the diocesan common vision strategy to “make a bigger difference in the world”. The diocese and Citizens are currently building broad-based alliances of institutions in Oxford and Reading, to work with the pre-existing Citizens Milton Keynes, as Thames Valley Citizens. Several other dioceses in England and Wales also have fruitful strategic partnerships with Citizens UK, as do some Methodist districts, and local churches of many denominations are member institutions of local broad-based alliances.
As a long-term practical theologian of social justice, I recognise community organising as particularly valuable for two reasons. Firstly, it goes beyond the usual Christian activities (laudable as these are) of mitigating the effects of structural injustice and moves to asking the question of what the underlying structural causes of food insecurity, homelessness and poverty are. Food banks, winter night shelters and soup kitchens have their place as a means of emergency support to those who are struggling, but it is vital that the deeper issues of structural cause are addressed. Secondly, community organising builds broad-based alliances. These are relational and ongoing alliances, not built as a means to an end (as some issue-focused campaign groups can be) but to establish long-term relationships for the common good.
In short, community organising starts from an awareness that while the market and the state are organised for power and success (not least, to make money), the so-called Third Sector is not organised to anything like the same extent. Collectives of all kinds have waned in importance under neoliberalism, and this has weakened participatory democracy and undermined ways of building “people power”.
Community organising aims to address issues of social injustice through a distinct methodology and discipline. It seeks to build long-term relationships between these institutions and groups that work to the common good. These institutions together find particular issues and concerns they can work on together. They organise their people and their money to build power and to develop relationships that will bring about long-term change. It begins with listening to people – their passions and their concerns – through systematic listening campaigns built on 1-2-1 conversations. “The 1-2-1” is a basic building block of organising – it is an intentional conversation where the agenda is the other person, being attentive to the building of common “self-interest”. A “power analysis” is conducted in order to take effective action on particular injustices, and there is a constant focus on developing leaders who can testify to their experience. Community organising defines leaders as those closest to the injustice, who are often those otherwise marginalised and oppressed by systems of power. These leaders and paid organisers work together to develop campaigns that are winnable and incremental, ensuring that change is won in a way that empowers these leaders and builds agency. Turnout is an important measure of these campaigns because power depends on the number of people supporting a particular change, and there is always a focus on the development of people as leaders following the mantra “people before programme”. Broad-based alliances of diverse institutions evolve that are constantly listening to those in their communities through 1-2-1s such that their institutions are strengthened, and they become part of a long-term “collective of collectives”. The power of these citizen alliances comes through the number and diversity of people that the alliance represents. This broad-based alliance works to an annual cycle of action for change but can also respond quickly to crises and challenges such as influxes of refugees, the pandemic, major disasters or crimes in local communities. Member organisations pay dues, which ensures that the alliance is independent of any body from whom it may wish to win changes.
I will now turn to explore how community organising addresses each of Bruce Rogers-Vaughn’s three responses,.
Somewhat counter-culturally, community organising focuses on institutions rather than individuals. As Angus Ritchie explains:
Institutions attract a lot of suspicion, some of it justified. But an institution just is the set of structured relationships which emerge when human beings agree to be faithful to one another across time. That is what a Scout group, trade union, marriage and mosque have in common. It is one of the characteristic myths of our culture that such commitments restrict our freedom. In fact, our institutions are vital to our freedom. They enable us to build relationships of solidarity and trust across boundaries of age, race and religion. Without them, we are isolated individuals, and our lives and communities are dominated even more by the power of the market and the state.
Rogers-Vaughn’s analysis also takes us back to the importance of institutions. He comments, “Prior to neoliberalism, domination was exercised by means of the disciplinary powers of institutions. Today domination occurs through the suppression of these institutions. Prior to neoliberalism, domination required replacing a particular type of subject with a new form of subject. Today it occurs through the fragmentation and dispersal of the subject altogether.” Thus he maintains that “It is my judgment that the primary challenge for pastoral care, psychotherapy, social activism, and other approaches to caring for souls today is not the effort to fix discrete personal problems or even to redress specific injustices. It is, rather, to aid people, individually and collectively, in finding their footing—to articulate the deep meanings that ground their lives and to strengthen healthy collectives and social movements that hold some residue of transcendental values. These constitute the fundamental resources for addressing whatever ongoing crises people may be enduring under the new chronic.”
This is a practical theology in which the pastoral is embraced within the political because the oppression of our age works through every aspect of who we are and who we consider ourselves to be. It points our congregations towards both strengthening our relationality within, while simultaneously reaching out to build relationships with other collectives that can work with us to resist “the world as it is”, and work towards “the world as it should be” (a key watchword of community organising).
The particular challenge of our time, characterised as it is by deep division and political polarisation and fragmentation, is to rekindle the concept of “solidarity”. We need to press through our differences and work beyond the boundaries of our identity categories. Rogers-Vaughn explains that if the problems of class exploitation, sexism and racism arise together, then they must be addressed together. He explains, “This is a peculiar sort of solidarity, a common life rooted not in sameness, but on a deep respect, obligation to, and thus love for, the infinite and unique value of every individual. This is the solidarity that sustains soul.”
Angus Ritchie echoes this commitment to engaging with the whole gamut of humanity when he says:
[T]he questions at the heart of a one-to-one… are questions Christians ought to be comfortable asking. Organising around citizens’ “self-interest” does not involve organising around their selfishness. Rather, it honours their actual values and concerns – focusing on the realities of their lives and commitments, rather than talking in the language of vague and abstract ideas. And in the process of building relationships with our neighbours, and taking action with them for the good of our families and communities, we discover our hearts are expanded, and our “self-interest” becomes less and less self-absorbed. In losing our lives, we find them.
In a broad-based community organising alliance, building across different religions and beliefs is crucial. Nobody is asked to “leave their beliefs at the door” or to abandon the distinctiveness of their convictions. Action is taken only on issues that everyone can agree on, and “What is surprising is just how much diverse groups can agree on and – also how different groups can learn from one another without diluting their own core beliefs. For example, the seriousness with which Muslims take Qu’ranic teachings on usury has inspired Christians to engage at a greater depth with Biblical teaching on these issues – and so churches and mosques have been at the heart of a successful community organising campaign for a legal cap on the interest rates of pay day loans.”
The community organising vision is an embodied and practical vision. Those approaching the activity from a theological perspective are working from a place of incarnation, and a Magnificat vision of justice. It has echoes of Henry Scott Holland, who declared, “The more you believe in the incarnation, the more you care about drains”, or John Wesley’s invocation to “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.” The “soul” of the book title Caring for Souls in a Neoliberal Age is not akin to the individual “spirit” as conceived of by capitalist-inspired individualist spiritualities. Neither is it the “spirit” that Christian theology has historically hived off from the body when under the influence of dualistic cosmologies. The soul that Rogers-Vaughn suggests we need to increase inhabits a collective home. Indeed, he argues that individuality, because it is dependent upon soul, arises only in a communal context. You cannot be an individual without first being part of community. Soul, he says, is “the quite substantial fabric that weaves us all together and with all that is. We are all entangled.”… “Soul inhabits a collective body, a body that exhales hope.”
How is hope amplified in this re-emphasis on collectives and the embracing of soul as the fabric that weaves us together in those collectives? I think in two ways at least: firstly, and perhaps paradoxically, in the articulation of pain and suffering, and secondly in the discovery that change is possible, and we are not powerless.
Rogers-Vaughn says that like physical pain, psychological, relational, and spiritual suffering has a function – it calls us to take action to address a threat or a problem. Sufferings insist on finding a voice. He suggests that, “I (and we) have learned that, when unheeded, pain produces and structures alienation, injustice, ignorance, division, and isolation into our individual and collective lives…. I (we) have also learned that, when articulated and heard, pain may yield and structure connection, continuity, integrity, justice, and direction into our individual and collective lives.” We know that civil unrest arises often after many years of particular groups feeling that they cannot express their pain – and that if they could, nobody would listen and nothing would change.
Community organising gives a structure for both pain and joy to be articulated. There is the 1-2-1 listening, which can be characterised as “compassionate curiosity”. There are “house meetings”, which are small group conversations to further explore the dynamics and nuances of common issues that emerge from 1-2-1s (for example: “I worry about my child being injured outside his school because there is no zebra crossing”; “I can’t afford to buy enough food because my wages are too low”). Then, when a campaign for a specific change is being undertaken, the practice of “giving testimony” is at the heart of making the “ask” to those in power. Leaders bear witness to the issues that are affecting them – sometimes to audiences of 10 or 20; sometimes to hundreds and thousands (“My child was injured by a car outside her school: this is what it felt like, and this is how it affected my life”; “I work long hours to provide for my family, yet I do not earn enough to put food on the table. I feel that I am failing them. If I were paid the real Living Wage by my employer, it would radically affect my family and my self-esteem”). This is done through structured support. It can be both therapeutic and also political. Giving voice is, in itself, resistance.
Of course, such activity is most effective when those with the power to make change respond positively. To win can be life-transforming. It builds hope and agency. It empowers, and draws people of all ages further into a form of participatory democracy that is a constant process of learning. We learn about power: who has the power to make the change we want to see (it may be a private employer who can decide to pay the real Living Wage, a local authority who can invest in a zebra crossing outside a school, a housing association that can respond more quickly to people’s housing conditions); we learn about the power and influence we do have, as a collective, in making our “ask” (we have the power to vote for you or not to vote for you, to use your services or to go elsewhere, to enable you to have more constructive conversations and contact with your local residents); we learn effective ways to negotiate with power holders (when to compromise and when to hold out, how to agitate, how to keep up momentum through action, how to use powerful symbolic acts to draw attention to our cause).
These and many other things are what citizens can learn through community organising activities. Engaging with organising through our faith groups can enable spiritual growth and renewal as we reflect together on our actions for change – how they are transforming us and widening the horizons of those we call our neighbours and friends. Most of all, in the face of an edifice called “the world as it is” (however that looks to us), we have a place to start in working with others towards “the world as it should be”.
The call from Rogers-Vaughn is to do urgent things to challenge the individualism and competition at the heart of neoliberalism and stand up to the injustices it perpetuates. Community organising offers one such means to do this, seeking to “reweave the fabric of civil society”. The approach of Citizens UK develops the solidarity we need to overcome individualism through building long-term relationships for the common good by bringing institutions together, improving those institutions and helping them to serve their members rather than bring domination. It develops an embodied, soulful approach to practical action by giving us a communal basis from which to act. And community organising brings hope in the naming of the pain and joy – not settling for the world as it is but seeking to act in keeping with the world as it should be.
About the author
Alison Webster is mission theologian in residence at Citizens UK and general secretary of Modern Church.
More from this issue
 See www.citizensuk.org.
 Bruce Rogers-Vaughn, Caring for Souls in a Neoliberal Age (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 1–2.
 Ibid., 17–18.
 Ibid., 112.
 Ibid., 3.
 Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone (London: Penguin, 2010).
 Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, The Inner Level: How More Equal Societies Reduce Stress, Restore Sanity and Improve Everyone’s Well-being (London: Allen Lane, 2018), 5 and 9.
 Rogers-Vaughn, Caring for Souls in a Neoliberal Age, 125.
 Roberto De Vogli, Progress or Collapse: The Crises of Market Greed (London: Routledge, 2013), xi–xii, quoted in Rogers-Vaughn, Caring for Souls in a Neoliberal Age, 25.
 Rogers-Vaughn, Caring for Souls in a Neoliberal Age, 6.
 David R. Loy, “The Religion of the Market,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 65, no. 2 (1997): 276, quoted in Rogers-Vaughn, Caring for Souls in a Neoliberal Age, 79.
 https://www.citizensuk.org/, http://www.theology-centre.org/
 Angus Ritchie, People of Power: How community organising recalls the Church to the vision of the Gospel (London: The Centre for Theology & Community, 2018), http://www.theology-centre.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/People-of-Power-.pdf.
 Ritchie, People of Power, 14.
 Rogers-Vaughn, Caring for Souls in a Neoliberal Age, 122.
 Ibid., 128.
 Ibid., 215.
 Ritchie, People of Power, 13.
 Ibid., 18
 Rogers-Vaughn, Caring for Souls in a Neoliberal Age, 174, 236.
 Ibid., 5.
 Séverine Deneulin, Dilwar Hussein and Angus Ritchie, “Citizen organising: reweaving the fabric of civil society?”, The Centre for Theology & Community, http://www.theology-centre.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/ritchieetal.pdf.