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# Our New Podcast! The Pop Culture Salvage Expeditions

A monthly podcast about the most popular, highest grossing, mainstream culture. How we can use all that bad stuff for good? In each episode an an academic, an activist, and an artist from the Center for Artistic Activism will navigate through flotsam and jetsam looking for treasure, applying what we learn from pop culture to artistic activism. Subscribe!

# Formula for Success

The formula is quite simple: if attained aeffect matches desired aeffect, then we’ve succeeded. If it doesn’t we’ve failed. If attained aeffect comprises a fraction of desired aeffect, then we are on the right path. Expressed as a mathematical formula (that we just made up) it might look like this:

Here’s how it would work in practice: say you want to create a piece that would engage and inform and involve people in the struggle to create community gardens. Only ten people showed up at your first organizing meeting, and you would you’re your piece to double attendance. You make the piece, show it or perform it all around the neighborhood and, lo and behold, twenty people show up at your next meeting. If we plug those values into our formula it looks like this:

S = (20-10) = 10 = 1 = 100% success
(20-10) = 10 = 1

If 15 people show up:

S = (15–10) = 5   = 1 = 50% success
(20-10) = 10 = 2

If 10 people (or less) show up:

S = (10-10) = 0 = 0 = 0% success, or failure
(20-10) = 10 = 1

If 30 people show up:

S = (30-10) = 20 = 2 = 200% success, or successful beyond expectations!
(20-10) = 10 = 1

And, if we were aiming toward multiple targets, as we might if we were planning a campaign, we might set X different goals/measures and find the average success over them all. That formula would look like this:

(Plugging in real variables gets so complicated and takes up so much space that you’ll have to trust us that this works. It does.)

There we have it: the formula for successful Artistic Activism!

Are we serious?

Yes…and No.

The math works, but what it can work on is very little. At times, with relative straight-forward objectives that can be easily measured, like increasing the number of people showed up at an organizing meeting, you might be able to use a formula like this. But such easily quantifiable objectives are few and far between. We offer it here as more metaphor than mathematics, a heuristic tool to get us thinking about the aeffect of artistic activism.

Art is marvelously irrepressible. It is forever producing affects and effects that we did not predict or even desire; one could even argue that this is its strength. Art, if it’s any good, always creates a surplus, bubbling up and slopping over the sides of whatever categories we create to contain it, spilling out on the floor, making new forms and patterns that demand new perspectives to understand it and new measures to judge it. Some aeffects of our artistic activism may not be discernible, not in the short run, or even in our lifetimes – mass changes in sense perceptions or bodily patterns, for instance. How do we judge the success of, say, the Re-Distribution of the Sensible which, if we are successful, will have created entirely new criteria of success and failure?

We probably cannot. And that’s OK — we need to make peace with this. Changing the world is a long project and we needn’t get dispirited if it doesn’t happen overnight. Artistic activism, when all is said and done, is an art, not a science. There is no singular way it works, nor formula to determine if it has worked. Acknowledging this, however, does not allow us to retreat back into magical thinking where we create a piece and poof! change happens. We may not have, nor want, the one metric that can be applied mathematically to all artistic activism, but we can, and should, have a methodology. Sometimes the formula above will work; sometimes it won’t. But in all cases it’s imperative that we think seriously about exactly what we want to do and how to know if we’ve done it.

(Thanks to Professor Matt Stanley for the math assist.)

# How do people get new ideas?

On Creativity by Isaac Asimov

A recently discovered essay by the great SF writer written back in 1959, giving advice to a think tank working on missile defense projects: “How do people get new ideas?”

ON CREATIVITY

How do people get new ideas?

Presumably, the process of creativity, whatever it is, is essentially the same in all its branches and varieties, so that the evolution of a new art form, a new gadget, a new scientific principle, all involve common factors. We are most interested in the “creation” of a new scientific principle or a new application of an old one, but we can be general here.

One way of investigating the problem is to consider the great ideas of the past and see just how they were generated. Unfortunately, the method of generation is never clear even to the “generators” themselves.

But what if the same earth-shaking idea occurred to two men, simultaneously and independently? Perhaps, the common factors involved would be illuminating. Consider the theory of evolution by natural selection, independently created by Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace.

There is a great deal in common there. Both traveled to far places, observing strange species of plants and animals and the manner in which they varied from place to place. Both were keenly interested in finding an explanation for this, and both failed until each happened to read Malthus’s “Essay on Population.”

Both then saw how the notion of overpopulation and weeding out (which Malthus had applied to human beings) would fit into the doctrine of evolution by natural selection (if applied to species generally).

Obviously, then, what is needed is not only people with a good background in a particular field, but also people capable of making a connection between item 1 and item 2 which might not ordinarily seem connected.

Undoubtedly in the first half of the 19th century, a great many naturalists had studied the manner in which species were differentiated among themselves. A great many people had read Malthus. Perhaps some both studied species and read Malthus. But what you needed was someone who studied species, read Malthus, and had the ability to make a cross-connection.

That is the crucial point that is the rare characteristic that must be found. Once the cross-connection is made, it becomes obvious. Thomas H. Huxley is supposed to have exclaimed after reading On the Origin of Species, “How stupid of me not to have thought of this.”

But why didn’t he think of it? The history of human thought would make it seem that there is difficulty in thinking of an idea even when all the facts are on the table. Making the cross-connection requires a certain daring. It must, for any cross-connection that does not require daring is performed at once by many and develops not as a “new idea,” but as a mere “corollary of an old idea.”

It is only afterward that a new idea seems reasonable. To begin with, it usually seems unreasonable. It seems the height of unreason to suppose the earth was round instead of flat, or that it moved instead of the sun, or that objects required a force to stop them when in motion, instead of a force to keep them moving, and so on.

A person willing to fly in the face of reason, authority, and common sense must be a person of considerable self-assurance. Since he occurs only rarely, he must seem eccentric (in at least that respect) to the rest of us. A person eccentric in one respect is often eccentric in others.

Consequently, the person who is most likely to get new ideas is a person of good background in the field of interest and one who is unconventional in his habits. (To be a crackpot is not, however, enough in itself.)

Once you have the people you want, the next question is: Do you want to bring them together so that they may discuss the problem mutually, or should you inform each of the problem and allow them to work in isolation?

My feeling is that as far as creativity is concerned, isolation is required. The creative person is, in any case, continually working at it. His mind is shuffling his information at all times, even when he is not conscious of it. (The famous example of Kekule working out the structure of benzene in his sleep is well-known.)

The presence of others can only inhibit this process, since creation is embarrassing. For every new good idea you have, there are a hundred, ten thousand foolish ones, which you naturally do not care to display.

Nevertheless, a meeting of such people may be desirable for reasons other than the act of creation itself.

No two people exactly duplicate each other’s mental stores of items. One person may know A and not B, another may know B and not A, and either knowing A and B, both may get the idea—though not necessarily at once or even soon.

Furthermore, the information may not only be of individual items A and B, but even of combinations such as A-B, which in themselves are not significant. However, if one person mentions the unusual combination of A-B and another unusual combination A-C, it may well be that the combination A-B-C, which neither has thought of separately, may yield an answer.

It seems to me then that the purpose of cerebration sessions is not to think up new ideas but to educate the participants in facts and fact-combinations, in theories and vagrant thoughts.

But how to persuade creative people to do so? First and foremost, there must be ease, relaxation, and a general sense of permissiveness. The world in general disapproves of creativity, and to be creative in public is particularly bad. Even to speculate in public is rather worrisome. The individuals must, therefore, have the feeling that the others won’t object.

If a single individual present is unsympathetic to the foolishness that would be bound to go on at such a session, the others would freeze. The unsympathetic individual may be a gold mine of information, but the harm he does will more than compensate for that. It seems necessary to me, then, that all people at a session be willing to sound foolish and listen to others sound foolish.

If a single individual present has a much greater reputation than the others, or is more articulate, or has a distinctly more commanding personality, he may well take over the conference and reduce the rest to little more than passive obedience. The individual may himself be extremely useful, but he might as well be put to work solo, for he is neutralizing the rest.

The optimum number of the group would probably not be very high. I should guess that no more than five would be wanted. A larger group might have a larger total supply of information, but there would be the tension of waiting to speak, which can be very frustrating. It would probably be better to have a number of sessions at which the people attending would vary, rather than one session including them all. (This would involve a certain repetition, but even repetition is not in itself undesirable. It is not what people say at these conferences, but what they inspire in each other later on.)

For best purposes, there should be a feeling of informality. Joviality, the use of first names, joking, relaxed kidding are, I think, of the essence—not in themselves, but because they encourage a willingness to be involved in the folly of creativeness. For this purpose I think a meeting in someone’s home or over a dinner table at some restaurant is perhaps more useful than one in a conference room.

Probably more inhibiting than anything else is a feeling of responsibility. The great ideas of the ages have come from people who weren’t paid to have great ideas, but were paid to be teachers or patent clerks or petty officials, or were not paid at all. The great ideas came as side issues.

To feel guilty because one has not earned one’s salary because one has not had a great idea is the surest way, it seems to me, of making it certain that no great idea will come in the next time either.

Yet your company is conducting this cerebration program on government money. To think of congressmen or the general public hearing about scientists fooling around, boondoggling, telling dirty jokes, perhaps, at government expense, is to break into a cold sweat. In fact, the average scientist has enough public conscience not to want to feel he is doing this even if no one finds out.

I would suggest that members at a cerebration session be given sinecure tasks to do—short reports to write, or summaries of their conclusions, or brief answers to suggested problems—and be paid for that; the payment being the fee that would ordinarily be paid for the cerebration session. The cerebration session would then be officially unpaid-for and that, too, would allow considerable relaxation.

I do not think that cerebration sessions can be left unguided. There must be someone in charge who plays a role equivalent to that of a psychoanalyst. A psychoanalyst, as I understand it, by asking the right questions (and except for that interfering as little as possible), gets the patient himself to discuss his past life in such a way as to elicit new understanding of it in his own eyes.

In the same way, a session-arbiter will have to sit there, stirring up the animals, asking the shrewd question, making the necessary comment, bringing them gently back to the point. Since the arbiter will not know which question is shrewd, which comment necessary, and what the point is, his will not be an easy job.

As for “gadgets” designed to elicit creativity, I think these should arise out of the bull sessions themselves. If thoroughly relaxed, free of responsibility, discussing something of interest, and being by nature unconventional, the participants themselves will create devices to stimulate discussion.

# Blade of Grass Fellowship for Socially Engaged Art

Our good friends and supporters at Blade of Grass are calling for applications for fellowships. Here’s the skinny:

Online application form opens: Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Application Deadline: Monday, November 24, 2014

The ABOG Fellowship for Socially Engaged Art is an active, year-long funding relationship for socially engaged artists and artist collectives working nationwide. Eight fellows will be selected in 2015 to receive project support of \$20,000 with strategic support, assessment tools, video documentation, and other tailored resources. Click here to learn about our eligibility requirements, review selection criteria and access the online application!

Commitment to Local Artists
Beginning this year, ABOG will earmark four of the available eight fellowships for artists living in New York City. We recognize that there is a growing and vibrant community of socially engaged artists in our own backyard and we have a particular investment in strengthening our local artists and neighborhoods. The remaining four fellowships will be open to all applicants, regardless of geographic location.

How We Decide
This is a two-step application process. A panel of readers made up of an artist, a community organizer or participant in a community-based art project, a curator or arts administrator, an educator or scholar, and an ABOG representative will review initial letters of interest and recommend up to 50 semi-finalists. Semi-finalists will be invited to submit a full application with an extended narrative, budget, and a timeline for realizing each stage of their project.

# Gerry Hassan: Time for some fun with our politics — The Scotsman

Article in the Sunday Scotsman about the School for Creative Activism working overseas with Changin’ Scotland.  22 November 2013

## Radicals, leave dogma at the door – embrace a sense of playfulness and dare to dream of a better Scotland, writes Gerry Hassan

To many of the tribes and partisans who inhabit our public life, all that matters is the contest and defeating their opponents. Democracy and politics in this mindset are in fine working order, beyond the difficulty of trying to get your own way. (more…)

# Activist Art: Does it Work? — from OPEN! Journal

The first rule of guerilla warfare is to know the terrain and use it to your advantage. The topography on which the activist fights may no longer be the mountains of the Sierra Maestra or the jungles of Vietnam, but the lesson still applies. Today, the political landscape is one of signs and symbols, story and spectacle. Responding to this new terrain, there has been an upsurge in the use of creative, artistic, and cultural strategies as a tool for social change. This practice goes by many names: political art, activist art, interventionist art, socially engaged art, and social practice art. No matter the description, artists are using their aesthetic training and skill to wage battles for social change. Yet as practitioners and trainers in these forms of artistic activism, we are haunted by the question: Does it work?

So we started asking artists whose work we respect this very question:

SD&SL: As a political artist, how do you know when what you’ve done works?

Hans Haacke: I’ve been asked that question many times, and that question requires one to go around it before one really avoids it.

The above is just one example, and Haacke’s response is meant to be humorous, but in asking scores of talented and sophisticated activist artists this seemingly simple question, and in surveying hundreds of examples of activist art, we were struck by the inadequacy of the conceptualisation of the relationship between arts and demonstrable social change. Unfortunately, much of what passes for activist art seems to be aimed at four hazy targets:

The Whole World is Watching. The artist determines the success of a particular practice by the amount of media coverage it generates. If the work is covered by the mainstream news media, or the art press, or is noticed by the activist and arts communities at all, then the artist can count this as a success. This is not merely self-aggrandisement: the function of the media coverage is often thought of as a means to “raising awareness” and bringing the political or social issue to the attention of a wider audience.

The first rule of guerilla warfare is to know the terrain and use it to your advantage. The topography on which the activist fights may no longer be the mountains of the Sierra Maestra or the jungles of Vietnam, but the lesson still applies. Today, the political landscape is one of signs and symbols, story and spectacle. Responding to this new terrain, there has been an upsurge in the use of creative, artistic, and cultural strategies as a tool for social change. This practice goes by many names: political art, activist art, interventionist art, socially engaged art, and social practice art. No matter the description, artists are using their aesthetic training and skill to wage battles for social change. Yet as practitioners and trainers in these forms of artistic activism, we are haunted by the question: Does it work?

So we started asking artists whose work we respect this very question:

SD&SL: As a political artist, how do you know when what you’ve done works?

Hans Haacke: I’ve been asked that question many times, and that question requires one to go around it before one really avoids it.

The above is just one example, and Haacke’s response is meant to be humorous, but in asking scores of talented and sophisticated activist artists this seemingly simple question, and in surveying hundreds of examples of activist art, we were struck by the inadequacy of the conceptualisation of the relationship between arts and demonstrable social change. Unfortunately, much of what passes for activist art seems to be aimed at four hazy targets:

The Whole World is Watching. The artist determines the success of a particular practice by the amount of media coverage it generates. If the work is covered by the mainstream news media, or the art press, or is noticed by the activist and arts communities at all, then the artist can count this as a success. This is not merely self-aggrandisement: the function of the media coverage is often thought of as a means to “raising awareness” and bringing the political or social issue to the attention of a wider audience.

What these artistic activist aims have in common is a faith that awareness can change the world without any specific follow-through. This is magical thinking. Ironically, this sort of magical thinking is deeply rooted in the rationalist Enlightenment tradition, which holds that knowing, expressing and conversing upon the Truth leads to social transformation. Knowledge = Power. There may have been a certain validity to this point of view once upon a time. When Church and State had a monopoly on Truth to entertain opposing points of view was an implicit strike against the powers-that-be, but in the age of the Internet – of information surplus rather than scarcity – this faith in the power of mere awareness strikes us as dangerously naïve.

These aims also share a fear. For an artist, declaring they will solve a social problem makes one vulnerable; it’s difficult, art school doesn’t teach it, and it is obvious to others when you fail. But awareness is safe and comes easily for anyone trained in the arts. In art school, we are taught to use shortcuts like, “make it big, red, and shiny”. Applying this lesson to activist art, we take some controversial imagery, mix it with a hot-button issue, and make it very public. Awareness can also just be a euphemism for attention, and everyone – especially perpetually under-appreciated artists – loves a little attention. But as people who believe that art and artists not only can bring about social change and, given the cultural terrain of today, are necessary to bringing about social change, we are deeply dissatisfied with these ambitions. We support all those artists who are working to bring positive and progressive change to the world; we just insist that they aim higher and shoot further. What is at stake is the efficacy of this practice.

Awareness is important, but it is also not enough. Awareness, and its attendant components: expression, revelation, distribution and dialogue are, to borrow a phrase from the social sciences, “necessary but not sufficient conditions”. Action without awareness results in an unthinking activism with stupid, and sometimes horrific, consequences. But awareness without action is just as bad. It results in the appearance of political engagement without any of its results. It can make an action into a release valve instead of a turning point. It is an activism of bad faith.

If, as artistic activists, we are to take ourselves and our work seriously, we need to trace out the explicit connections between our practice and the change we want to see in the world. This might mean measuring the effects of our work in changing public opinion, working within larger campaigns with clear material goals, or creating art practices that constitute new communities committed to collective action. We wish we had an easy answer but we don’t. In fact, we resist the easy answers because we don’t think a simple response would do justice to the power of art (an aspect of which must always be beyond explanation) and the myriad ways in which social change happens. Nevertheless, understanding the complexities of the process does not absolve us of the responsibility of envisioning and articulating clear outcomes, goals, even dreams for what we want to have happen and the means by which this will occur. We look forward to the day when we can ask the question: Does it work? And receive the answer: Yes, and here’s how…

originally published on Open Journal

# School for Creative Activism, a project of the Center for Artistic Activism — Social Text

Overview

The first rule of guerrilla warfare is to know the terrain and use it to your advantage. No longer does this require navigating the mountains of Cuba with a rifle on one’s back, as today’s political topography is one of symbols and signs, images and expressions. From small community organizations to international NGOs, the School for Creative Activism works with activists looking to broaden their base of appeal and the effectiveness of their work through employing creative processes and using cultural resources. Our training helps these organizations meld tried and true organizing techniques with the avant-garde practice of creative activism..   The SCA is not just about “better messaging” or adding slick graphic design. Our goal is more effective organizing. Our curriculum updates the activist tool-kit through the reimagination and reconfiguration of tactics, strategy, objectives and goals in such a way that creativity and culture factors into every plan and every action.  In a weekend long workshop, we offer a broad-based education focused on the organizers and the cultural landscape upon which they operate. We teach a framework of overarching principles, perspectives, and skills of creative activism that they can apply to develop their own campaigns. Invention is required: we don’t just provide a set of cool tactics, we teach a proven methodology for developing creative campaigns. Steve Lambert is a practicing political artist and Stephen Duncombe is a recognized cultural theorist, and we have experience in professional teaching, grassroots organizing, and the arts. Our influences are a mix of all these experiences and the research around them.

Teaching

In our model training, the instructional timeline is compressed – we teach our curriculum in two and a half days. We’re not opposed to learning from “tradition” and using what we know from standard university teaching. A great deal of our trainings takes place through collaborative, “hands-on” workshops, where we work together in imagining goals, planning stategies and devising tactics. But we also believe that in order to work together effectively we need to have a common knowledge base, and in order to convey this information efficiently we use a more traditional lecture and slide format. Since we’re often working with professional organizers it helps to be able to meet them on some safe, familiar ground. However, we also push the boundaries as far as we can over the course. For example, after a long day of instruction on the history and theory of creative activism, we get out of the safety zone of activist culture, taking immigrant rights workers on field trips to a comedy night, having Occupy Faith organizers compete against each other in a game of Monopoly, or spending a night at a sports bar with anti-segregation activists. The lesson they learn here is that activists have to leave the domain they are comfortable with if they ever hope to communicate their message to, and work effectively with, a wider audience.

Our participants are generally experienced activists who are looking for new ways to approach their work. We try to create new groups of collaborators at the same time, so the activists may not all be from the same organization. To create a more creative dynamic, we often include a few local artists among the activists as well. To date the SCA has run training sessions working with local artists and Open Society Foundations organizing partners in New York, North Carolina, Texas, Illinois, and Massachusetts, as well as East Africa and The Netherlands. In the coming year sessions are planned for the United States, Scotland, and Russia.  You asked a few specific questions we want to respond to:  Questions of funding are important. For both of us, this is the most uncompromised work we do and having autonomy, in that regard, from our funders means there needs to be some barriers between money and our curricular decisions. For this reason, we decided when we founded the school to never do this work for businesses. Charging tuition can bring income and a level of “investment” from students, but this can also exclude the very organizers that we want to work with the most. So far, we have been able to win grants from Open Society Foundations and others so that all participants’ expenses (food, lodging) are covered and they are paid a small stipend for committing to the training. Paying the participants honors their time and commitment to the course. This is a core principle for us. Accreditation is not important to us. We teach the same topics in the SCA that we do in our respective universities because we feel this perspective is critical to understanding culture and citizenship. However, in the SCA we’re able to teach these ideas exactly the way we want – over the course of the weekend, with active practitioners, and without committee meetings or getting signatures from administrators. We work with the people we believe will benefit most – not college students, but experienced activists. And activists don’t really care about accreditation either (though we do have a ritualistic graduation ceremony where we play music, drink champagne and award a diploma).

Stephen Duncombe teaches at NYU and Steve Lambert at SUNY Purchase. Having one foot in these institutions while running an independent school gives us some latitude for our independent pedagogical endeavors, but also improves our teaching within these schools. Ultimately, we don’t want to feel that we need to go elsewhere to teach what we think is most important, and we’d like to bring the SCA into our university classrooms. This, however, raises the question of the purpose of the classroom versus that of the SCA. We don’t have any set goal in our college classrooms other than creating more inquisitive, creative and learned students. We strive to foster the same qualities in the participants in the SCA too, but there’s an important difference. We believe art and knowledge is always instrumentalized – it is unavoidable – it’s just a question of how and for whom. The SCA was created for the express purpose of helping activists to be more effective in challenging power and changing the world. The goal of the School for Creative Activism is, in a word, revolution.

– See more at: http://socialtextjournal.org/periscope_article/school-for-creative-activism-a-project-of-the-center-for-artistic-activism/#sthash.cKg083m3.dpuf

# George Lakoff in 3 minutes

Before anyone on the Left was talking about the importance of understanding the cognitive science of political decision making and action, and the necessity of framing, metaphor, story and association, there was George Lakoff. He’s been telling his story to anyone who will listen for more than a quarter-century. Here he is giving his rap in a little over three minutes.

# Advertiser appropriates creative activism…for good, not evil

Sometimes having your creative activist methodology appropriated by the powers-that-be has an upside. Witness the Yes Men style pro-bono campaign the Chicago-based advertising heavy, Leo Burnett, waged to save a small library in Troy, Michigan from the Tea Party.

# My Political Faith

The following is a short piece I wrote for an on-line journal called freq.uenci.es who asked me to write about spirituality. At first I said no; I don’t think of myself as a spiritual person. But then I started thinking about some of the training work that Lambert and I do in the School for Creative Activism, and the following is the result:

My Political Faith
Stephen Duncombe

Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.

1 Corinthians 9:19-22

A few Sundays ago I was in what I suppose passes for my church: an activist space in an old warehouse on the edge of the city. I was there with my partner to train a group of veteran organizers on how to employ creativity and the arts in their activism in order to become more effective political players in our media-saturated, culture-rich world. Standing in front of the organizers, I got to a point in my stock presentation where I introduce Jesus as an example of a creative activist. My proselytizing was of a secular rather than religious nature: it wasn’t the spiritual figure of Christ I was interested in but the purely historical Jesus, a radical Mediterranean Jewish peasant building a revolutionary movement two millennia ago. Jesus, I explained, understood the fundamentals of using story and spectacle, signs and symbols as means to criticize the status quo and offer up an alternative vision. When, for example, he entered the main temple of Jerusalem and overturned the tables of the money changers and sellers of ritual objects he was staging an effective political performance. He could have stood outside and harangued the passerby with his opinions, the ancient equivalent of the activist on the soapbox, but instead he demonstrated his politics though a spectacular act of civil disobedience. Through such an action he not only demonstrated visually and bodily his political ideals, but did it in such a provocative way that news of his deed, and therefore his message, was sure to travel. In modern parlance: Jesus went viral.

I then spoke of Jesus’ use of parables and how, by employing these often oblique stories, he created an opening for his audience to make the message their own. Unlike a list of grievances or demands, easily understood and just as easily ignored, the parables asked listeners to puzzle through the mystery of the stories and their meanings. It was an “invitational form of speech” to quote the Bible scholar Marcus Borg, which does not command, but instead works in its “ability to involve and affect the imagination.” One can almost imagine the scene following an impromptu teaching by Jesus: people walking away, debating amongst themselves exactly what this crazy holy man meant by comparing the kingdom of heaven to a mustard seed. But with every argument and counter-argument, Jesus’ words ceased to be his alone and became the common property of his audience.

Finally, I discussed how Jesus was able to prefigure his vision of a better world tomorrow though creative actions situated in the present day. By sitting down to dinner—a deeply meaningful ritual in Biblical times—with women, tax collectors, sinners and the ill, he enacted in the here and now the egalitarian community he prophesized for the future. Similarly, by entering Jerusalem on a donkey, the titular “Son of God” seated upon a lowly ass, he acted out his ideal of a world turned upside down in which “the last shall be first, and the first last.” Jesus, I concluded, took the ideal of a political “demonstration” quite literally… and thus employed it very effectively.

I was done with this lesson and ready to move on to a discussion concerning the use of creative tactics in the American Revolution when one of the participants raised their hand and asked me if I was a Christian. The question threw me, and I had to think for a moment. I was raised Christian and I know my Bible, my father and grandfather were both ministers and, most other Sundays, I attend a “real” Church with my family. But am I a Christian?

By way of an answer I explained that a large majority of Americans—anywhere from 76 to 83 percent, in fact—identify themselves as Christian and that many of the guiding myths, symbols and ideals of the United States have their roots in the Hebrew and Christian Bibles. I argued that religion, as a compendium of stories, a system of ethics, and a model of behavior could be drawn upon as a popular alternative to norms and ideals of competitive consumer capitalism. I admitted that there’s much to condemn in religion, its bigotry and intolerance for starters, but also pointed out that most religions also extol such virtues as love, community and responsibility for others. Good material for an astute organizer to work with.

I also reminded the activists in the room of the first rule of guerilla warfare: know your terrain and use it to your advantage. Whether we approve of it or not Christianity forms the contours of much of American life and consciousness; it is a, if not the, lingua franca. If you want to be an effective activist in the this country you need to be able to talk the talk, even if you are uneasy walking the walk. We might profit, I concluded, from the words of the Apostle Paul, the crackerjack community organizer of the early Church, who wrote: “Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible… I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.”

By the end of my jeremiad I realized I had my answer. I am a Christian, but only because I believe it makes me a more effective political activist. In a word, I am an opportunistic Christian. (A public admission made more awkward by the fact that the minister of my—albeit activist—”other” Church was participating in the workshop). So much for the authenticity of my faith. But sitting down to retell this story now I realize something else. I do have faith in Jesus, but a particular and perhaps peculiar faith. Do I believe that Jesus walked on water? No. Do I believe in the divinity of Christ? No. Do I believe in God? No. But do I believe that Jesus cared about those who are used, abused or forgotten by society? Do I believe that Jesus wanted to radically transform the world? Do I believe that Jesus can teach me something about how to be an effective political organizer? The answer is Yes, yes and, again, yes.

I believe. I believe that all history, to paraphrase Marx and Engels, is the history of social struggle. It is a bloody and brutal history of those who use their power and privilege to kill, oppress, demean and regulate others in order to maintain and increase their own power and privilege. But there is another history too: a long tradition of people who have stood up to those in power and teached and preached and organized and demanded the redistribution of power and privilege. And there is an even more radical history of those who have envisioned and demanded a world in which power and privilege are abolished altogether.

Jesus is part of this history, as is Moses and Buddha and the Prophet Mohammed; Karl Marx, Emma Goldman and Martin Luther King too. This is my community of faith. I may be opportunistic in the material I draw upon for inspiration and lessons. I will readily become a Christian amongst the Christians, a Jew amongst Jews, and a Muslim amongst Muslims, not to mention a Communist or Anarchist amongst Communists or Anarchists—“I have become all things to all people.” And while this sounds coldly instrumental, I can assure you it is not; it’s something deeply spiritual. I feel impossibly yet intimately connected to those who have fought, and continue to fight, to radically transform the world. Their history is my history and mine theirs. Together we share a faith that we can make heaven here on earth.