Last year, I made one final stab to conquer the nonprofit world by aggressively volunteering my way into a PR department. It was a ludicrous fit. But I tried it, anyhow.
Like my previous nonprofit, these folks were also Catholic. Or, at least, they were Catholic-originated. They billed themselves as revolutionaries, of a kind. They “raised awareness” about international justice issues.
I believed in awareness. I knew awareness could not exist unless it were raised. So I came aboard as a writer. I composed their e-blast for Giving Tuesday. I also created a zine. I wrote an article for it.
In the article, I discussed the suffering caused by U.S. militarism and the School of the Americas. Both I and this nonprofit were opposed to militarism and to the SOA. My article pivoted around a major liberation theologian, whose class I had taken.
One of the nuns who worked for this nonprofit enjoyed my article, on the whole. But she quarreled with one portion, in which I had referenced the theologian. The reference implied God was personal, and capable of personal reactions. The wording had originated in my class notes, as filtered through this blog post:
Jesuit theologian Fr. Jon Sobrino, with whom I studied this summer, argues that God is principally present among the “crucified people,” the “real reality” that constitutes most of humanity. God is the ultimate one who accompanies them, the one who shares their victimization on the cross, the one who never requires more victims, but who is a God of life. Meanwhile, the decisive real-world test of an anti-god, or idol, is not simply that it “absolutizes the non-absolute.” Idols are distinguished by needing something to devour. “Idols,” Sobrino says, “demand sacrificial victims in order to survive.”
The nun didn’t like that. She said academic theology had since moved on. She said we now knew God wasn’t a person who acted like a person. Applying “victimization” and “requiring” to God were remnants of an anthropomorphic theological age.
She said she realized the idea hadn’t come from me. By this statement, she implied she’d throw down a harsher judgment if I had clearly come up with such ideas myself. She urged me to remove any references to God accompanying, suffering, requiring, or not requiring. God was beyond all that.
I nodded. I wondered if she remembered that she was Catholic, that I was Catholic, or that the nonprofit was Catholic. I nodded until she walked away. I made sure the paragraph stayed in.
In retrospect, my career in nonprofit administration ended at that moment. Absorbing that insight, however, took several months. The insight, and the absorption, needed an accelerant.
I received such an accelerant when, lacking enough writing and editing to keep me busy, they relegated me to an old horror from my previous nonprofit, which I thought I had escaped forever: entering scads of donations into a corporate-style marketing and membership database.
But, at any rate, it was the end. And in the back of my mind, I knew it was the end. Not only that, I knew it was the end for a deep theological reason, not just because I didn’t fit the 501(c)(3) suit. I came in less and less. Finally, I sent my security badge back in a manila envelope.
There seemed no moral imperative do it in person. That would be a relic of an anthropomorphic volunteering age.
God, of course, transcends us. It is dangerous to identify ourselves too much with God, or God too much with us. I share Susan B. Anthony’s suspicion that people who know so exactly what God wants them to do are in fact protecting their own dark desires from outside challenge. I share her suspicion because I’ve lived it out in various ways over the years.
But that’s one thing. It is quite another thing to end up with a God who, for all intents and purposes, isn’t capable of acting or expressing an opinion, thereby removing the raison d’être from your nonprofit’s daily grind.
The nonprofit considered itself prophetic. In some ways, I suppose this was true. But ultimately, how can you be prophetic if you cannot use the language that prophets use? Amos came down from the hills bellowing: “The LORD roars from Zion, and raises his voice from Jerusalem; the pastures of the shepherds languish, and the summit of Carmel withers. Thus says the LORD: For three crimes of Damascus, and now four—I will not take it back…” (Amos 1: 2-3).
The thing about Amos: he meant all of that. It gave him enough force to still be remembered, read, and acted upon three millennia later. It is the same language, and the same force, that faith-based leftwing social justice movements need today. But in my observation, they tend not to have it. Nor do they wish to have it.
Perhaps it’s because the people who have the access to join these movements as professional full-timers are more inspired by the classrooms than by the streets, where they would only be visitors rather than residents anyhow. Perhaps it’s because once you professionalize a justice movement in 21st century America, you must necessarily tie it to 501(c)(3)s, boards of directors, and grant monies, all of which thrive best when everyone speaks in low tones about best practices and good governance. Perhaps it’s because you’d have to concede that people who rant about God and the devil while speaking in tongues and handling snakes have a point about God and the devil, if not about the tongues and the snakes.
Whatever the reason, it’s a problem. Amos will be remembered in whatever wreckage is coming. Most of my compatriots on the religious left won’t be.