Humility as the Essential Element of Partnership

One of the Uniting Church in Australia's monthly journals asked me to write an article about partnerships between faith communities and other community groups. Here is the full text of the result:

Typical Christian community should be fertile ground for practicing partnership with a great diversity of other parties. After all, the way of Jesus later came to be called the incarnational way. And that means accessing divinity – the truly called life – here and now by living up to our potentials, recognising our limits and hence making room for others to do the same. This is a truly humble (or non-violent) notion of divinity. And this humility is the active ingredient in effective partnership.

In most neighbourhoods, there are typically a range of individuals and groups trying to bring about a world that’s less violent and more humble. They come to this task with a range of motivations and in varying degrees of intensity. But they are potential partners for Christian communities in furthering our audacious vision of a different world order.

So if Christian community should be well primed for partnership, and there are willing partners aplenty, why don’t we see a plethora of diverse, creative partnerships emanating from faith communities? Here I offer five stumbling blocks to partnership that I often observe, and I hope that reflecting on these will offer readers practical ideas for reform of future partnership initiatives:

1) Functional atheism: Behind the flowery terminology is a simple concept. The Christian partner sees their motivations to partner as “the ultimate kind: God ordained.” Other partners motivations are human and, at best “interesting.” Such thinking actually denies the mystery of an ineffable God and replaces that mystery with a functional human description. I see no evidence in scripture of Jesus engaging in detailed technical descriptions of the ultimate. He did however use a relational term for it (Abba) and couched his conversations about it using earthy, everyday-life metaphors. So following Jesus too is a relational, earthy, day-by-day shift towards non-violent behaviours. It “describes” God through these humble practices and behaviours, which help partnerships thrive. Functional one-upmanship kills it stone dead.

2) The rest of the world don’t get it: “There’s no other group pursuing the non-violent way, with whom we can partner.” To some extent that is always true. Even groups that profess to follow Jesus, regularly fail in that pursuit too. Partnership is not a search for perfection in a partner. It is a recognition of humble intent, the granting of space to each other to try and fail and a commitment to keep trying in line with the original intent. I was once part of a partnership between a tiny faith community and a bulging multinational corporation. As you might expect, they were not on the UCA’s list of the world’s most just organisations. But a small group were committed to improving the organisations practices in a particular area, and the resulting partnership created the opportunity for some refreshingly frank conversations.

3) We are the true confessors: Effective partnerships need a confessional mindset. I certainly don’t mean personal guilt trips or self-flagellation over tiny moral infractions. Real confession is a healthy practices of recognising where individuals and groups name the ways they have not lived up to their potentials or where they have exceeded their natural limits, denying opportunities to others. It is a crucial practice for engendering the humility of wrote of earlier. But while Christianity wears its confessional heart on its sleeve, how effective are Christian communities at the practice? Often those who suffered deep hurt, marginalisation and acute life complexity can be real practice leaders in this area, whether or not they are part of Christian communities.

4) Biblically monolingual: The stories that shape faith communities in the way of Jesus, can of course have relevance to shaping partnerships. But effective use of these stories with our partners will require creative shaping of our language. I’ve heard Christians, in multi-partner projects, bemoan the use of business jargon. Yet in the same meeting I hear significant use of unmoderated religious jargon. Some business jargon doesn’t excite me either but let’s be careful when we judge one culture’s terminology as “alienating and shallow” lest ours appears the same. I sometimes conduct an activity with groups where we take a riddlesome biblical parable. We discuss its context and possible meanings and then the participants rewrite it in their own language. Before we do that however, we all agree on sets of “religious jargon” we’ll avoid, to force us to find other access points for meaning. Some find the exercise abhorrent. Others are keen to find words (and often no words) that communicate to a different audience. I believe the latter orientation is crucial for partnership.

5) Jesus Inc: So the partnership gets going and good things begin to happen. It’s time to tell the story of the partnership to a wider audience. I was once sitting in a meeting where multi-disciplinary partners were discussing a media release. One Christian partner kept pushing a line about Jesus as crucial to the statement. It seemed to me that transformative effect of the partnership was being usurped by a sound bite. It seemed to some of our non-Christian partners that Jesus wasn’t an inspiration but a brand name. In scripture we attribute to Jesus several calls to “follow me” but I can’t attribute anything to him that might be interpreted “shout my brand from the rooftops.” Perhaps to paraphrase St Francis the best approach for partnerships is to “express the inspiration of Jesus always. Where necessary use words.”

No comments:

Post a Comment