I spent this past week in Carlinville Illinois, a bit northeast of St. Louis at a Gamaliel National Leadership Training. Gamaliel is a Congregational Based Community Organizer. It is the National Organization we are involved with locally through Quad Cities Interfaith. Gamaliel’s mission is
“is to empower ordinary people to effectively participate in the political, environmental, social and economic decisions affecting their lives. Gamaliel’s diverse members apply their faith and values to the pursuit of equal opportunity for all, shared abundance, and stronger, more prosperous communities.”
For those who don’t know the word Gamaliel comes from the Bible in several places. When the Israelites first escaped from the bondage of Egypt they were in the wilderness.According to the Hebrew Scriptures there were over 600,000 people travelling in the desert. And of course as with any group we tend to think of them as monolithic, but according to the scriptures there were twelve tribes of Hebrews. Quoting from the book of Numbers
“The Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai…Take a census of the whole congregation of Israelites, in their clans, by ancestral houses, according to the number of names. An individual from each tribe shall assist you.”
whether the number was 600,000 or 6,000, the leaders knew that on a practical basis if they were to reach the promised land, they would have to be organized. Trust me as we ready to gather for Thanksgiving, I know the struggle of just trying to organize dinner for 8 people in our family, let alone March multitudes across the wilderness. And from the tribe of Manasseh, Gamaliel was the chosen on to help organize.
The second notation of a Gamaliel was in the Christian Scriptures in the book of Acts. He was a Pharisee in the Council and was considered “a teacher of the law, respected by all the people” Also according to the Book of Acts he was the teacher of Paul of Tarsas, who Saul Alinsky called the greatest organizer ever. After the death of Jesus the Apostles were arrested for preaching in the name of Jesus after organizing the people not in power including the sick and the mentally ill. After breaking out of prison, the apostles went to the temple, the seat of power to advocate for the people. It says the leaders were enraged and wanted to kill the apostles. After being re-arrested, Gamaliel in the face of the angry mob wanting to kill the apostles gave a rationale defense of the Apostles. He used his power and his influence to save the Apostle’s lives. I ask you to think how you can use your power and influence to affect change.
The teacher Gamaliel as mentioned in the Christian Scriptures is thought to be the grandson of the famous Jewish Rabbi Hillel, who said,
“If I am not for myself, who will be for me, But if I care for myself only, what am I? and if not now, when.”
And this Jewish teaching to me, this is the point of doing interfaith work for me. Much of the training was to better understand what motivates us to do what we do. I think that is important work we each need to do. We need to stand up for ourselves when we are persecuted. We cannot allow the systemic powers to crush our spirit. But alone, we are limited, both spiritually, religiously, and in our justice work. The training focused on how to organize power to bring the change we want to see in the world.
One of the first teachings during the training was and analysis of the Melian Debate.
This is a famous passage from the “History of the Peloponnesian War by the Athenian historian Thucydides.
As you can see Melian is a small island. It had been inhabited by previous residents of Sparta but had remained neutral in the war between sparta and Athens. Athens and its allies are in orange here, Sparta in Green, and little Melos in purple. Melos was important as a shipping port in the war. During a ceasefire in the war. Athens arrived at Melos with a large fleet with soldiers demanding the surrender of Melos. The dialogue is an imagination about what happened during the discussion between Athenian leaders and the leaders of Melos.
Athens appeals to pragmatism of the situation explaining that they were prefer not to destroy everyone, and it would be in everyone’s best interest if Melos surrounded. Athens would profit, Melians would survive.
The Melians argued for the higher ideal of freedom. Athens expressed they would look weak to others if they allowed Melos to be free and that would encourage others to be free.
Melos pointed out that by conquering them, it would push other neutral countries into the arms of the Spartans.
The Melians argued that they were standing up for what is right, trusting the Gods and ensuring the Athenians that the Spartans would come to their aid.
The Athenians said “so far as the favor of the gods is concerned, we think we have as much right to that as you have”
It goes back and forth for a while. In the end, the Melians would not surrender, The Athenians the much stronger power conquered them and after a couple of rebellions, the Athenians killed every Man and sold the women and child into slavery.
As a class we were asked to act this out. We each had a chance to argue from each side. People were sent out of the room. At one point I was a Melian, I left the room and tried to organize all the people outside the room to stage a rebellion against the Athenians as Spartans. Cause Im just a rebellious kind of guy. And here is the interesting thing that happened. People refused to disobey the teachers orders to stay outside. They believed they were powerless to defy authority. And that belief was manifested in their lack of action. If we accept authority unconditionally without questioning it, we are doomed.
That is why our third principles calls us to the free and responsible search for truth and meaning. But finding meaning is meaningless if we do not act on it. In our analysis of the Melian Dialogue it was clear The Athenians had an understanding of the situation, were calculating, acting strategically and with power. The Melians on the other hand lived in world of false hope. They were ideological, irrational, self righteous, believing the Gods would help them, but most of all they were powerless.
In the end we know Sparta eventually won the war, and the returning Melians became slaves of Sparta. Who is to say whether Melians sacrificing themselves drew more forces and attention from Athens which made them more vulnerable to Sparta. Upon their impending loss, Athens certainly feared repercussions from Spartans based on the way they treated the Melians. But here is the deep truth I took away from the exchange, you cannot be neutral in a war. You have to pick sides. Not picking sides is picking a side. As Archbishop of South Africa Desmond Tutu said
“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse, and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”
I can relate to the Melians. Growing up in the Bronx, in the schoolyard, I was always shorter, less athletic, less physically powerful then just about everybody. And at least when I grew up I lived in a lord of the flies type environment, where there was not much adult supervision.
I realized early on, there is no honor is constantly losing even if I was in the right. But neither could I just check out. We think we can check out, as if we are not impacted by the world. But let me tell you if we leave the fate of the world to others no one is safe and people will continue to be harmed and eventually that harm reaches us.
Just as I had to learn to build my power in the schoolyard by learning new skills, I learned as well to partner with others in the schoolyard so we could protect each other. It is why in our experiment I left to try to recruit the Spartans. And it is the same in our lives, in the community and in the world. We need others to help us make it in this world. No one makes it alone. But it is not just about protection. We have to act to bring about our vision in the world. That is the vision I want you to have. Whether it is spiritual growth, pastoral care, or social justice, it doesn’t magically happen, we have to plan for it and we have to organize around that plan.
One way we act in the world is to share our monthly collection with a social justice organization. This month we are sharing our collection is for QCI Restorative Justice Task Force working on breaking the school to prison pipeline. If you would like to volunteer on this project the next meeting will be Monday Night at 6pm at St. Peters Episcopel Church in Bettendorf. Please be as generous as you can. After you have had a chance to donate, we invite you to come down to light a candle to mark a joy or sorrow in your personal life.
The Athenians had a vision, the Melians were only reacting to the Athenians. The Melians did not plan ahead and they paid the price. That is what the Board and I do as we gather each month. We plan for our Congregation’s future. We don’t just accept the status quo but explore what we will need to do keep Unitarian Universalism relevant and strong for the long term in the Quad Cities. This is something Gamaliel has done as well. To see what the status quo is, or as they put it the dominant narrative in society and they work to change that in the world.
There are forces that would like us to believe a narrative that they want us to fit into because it benefits them but our religious values and our lived experiences tell us these narratives are false.
The false narrative that says that opportunity is available to everyone, if they are willing to work hard enough, when we know people living in poverty have little chance escaping it on their own. The false narrative that says our value as human beings is economic, and that we are judged only by how much wealth we have or what type of car we drive,
the false narrative that says corporations are people and we only benefit when they benefit,
the false narrative that says straight white cisgender Christian culture is the norm, when we know there is beauty in diversity,
the false narrative that says the government should be limited when we know it can be an organizing power for good.
Gamaliel asks us to believe and work towards a transformative narrative, and as I read a part of it, you will understand why I feel connected to it, because it so mirrors our principles.
The following are excerpts from Gamaliel’s transformative narrative.
“Every human being is created with inherent worth and dignity, Humanity and creation are inextricably linked, Human Beings have the sacred responsibility of caring for creation, ensuring its resilience, and nurturing and renewing it for future generations.
As community we order our lives together through the formation of democratic government that acts for the well being of all its residents. \
We seek to establish an economy that ensures that that the community and all of its members
and creation flourish.
We are called to critique and lament the world as it is and to continually call forth a new
world marked by justice compassion hope, shared abundance, and radical inclusiveness.
Together we act boldly and defiantly to dismantle racism and poverty, and to establish the
To make this narrative real we need to have power. Now we have often heard the phrase knowledge is power. But knowledge by itself is not enough if we do not have the ability to act on that knowledge. For some having power seems fearful. I think that is in part because having power Implies responsibility. It is a hard enough sometimes to be responsible for ourselves, let alone to be responsible for others,
responsible for your family,
responsible for your fellow members of this Congregation,
responsible for this Congregation,
responsible for your fellow quad citians. Responsible for your fellow Americans.
Responsible for all beings in the world.
I know it sounds like a lot. And so often we step back and do nothing.
But just because we cannot do everything, should not mean that we should not do the thing we can do. And if I have found out anything in my life, It is that we are capable of so much more then we realize. And it matters what we do. We have to believe that it matters what we do, or what is the point.
And although it is true the future is unknown, it is not inevitable. So to create and live out this or whatever our transformative narrative or our vision is requires us to commit and organize and be in relationship with others.
It requires us being in relationship with ourselves to know our own power,
it require us to be in relationship with those who have power to be able to affect change,
but as well we need to be in relationship to those who don’t have power and hear what their needs are, and commit to walk with them on their journey, and then we must walk with them, and show them a path to power and then we must let them have power.
As Civil Rights Attorney Brian Stevenson wrote and talked about at our UUA General Assembly,
“We must get “proximate” to suffering and understand the nuanced experiences of those who suffer from and experience inequality. If you are willing to get closer to people who are suffering, you will find the power to change the world.”
UU Theologian James Luther Adams wrote we are the prophethood and priesthood of all believers.
And so I ask you to think about what you are called to do in this world. What is it that drives you, keeps you going, what is it at the core of your being that is the most important thing that needs to be changed in the world. I ask you to look at where you suffer or have suffered in the world. And through examining our own suffering, we can transform that suffering through action and often that happens to be what needs changed in the world. So I invite you to change your world and to change the world. I want to live in a world where Melians are free and independent.
As Hillel say if not now, when. I can tell you from personal experience, tomorrow is not guaranteed. So let there be a sense of urgency in our work. The work may not be finished in our lifetime, but it will certainly take longer if we do not do our share of the work now. So as we ready for Thanksgiving let us organize our power as we journey through the wilderness to the promised land, the promised land of justice and freedom.
May it be so.