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The case for disorganised religion

The case for disorganised religion -Dec 22, 2005

By Simon Barrow

The time of end-of-year recollections is fast approaching, so here goes. Back in the summer of 2005 I found myself being interviewed outside the Houses of Parliament in Westminster. And I was decidedly uncomfortable.

The occasion I had been asked to comment upon was a large Christian demonstration against the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill, which those taking part believed would directly imperil their free speech.

But it wasn’t freedom of speech per se that provided the main inspiration for these Christian warriors, as far as I could see. After all, a number of them, according to their own account, had been fully in favour of trying to ban Jerry Springer – The Opera.

No, what really got them whipped up into emotional bouts of chanting and singing was, I gathered, a small taste of power and a large whiff of self-assertion.

Maybe that sounds unfair. I don’t for a minute want to doubt the sincerity of those who rallied to the cause, and as it happens I think the Bill they were opposing is a worrying piece of legislation too – though for rather different reasons.

Nevertheless, I found the atmosphere of evangelical certainty and righteous power more than a little off-putting. When someone asked me what I thought, I found myself saying “I think I prefer disorganised religion to some of the very well-organised kind.”

What did (do) I mean by that? I’m certainly not commending un-togetherness, in either a spiritual or logistical sense. After all, much mainstream Christianity suffers not from over-efficiency, but from a lack of conviction and the courage to sustain it.

No, what I’m suggesting is that when enthusiastic conviction gets shaped by a self-interested form of church and the intoxicating prospect of wielding power, it can rapidly degenerate into just the kind of unattractive bullying which many of a secular mindset understandably fear to be the true nature of all religiosity.

The signs were certainly there on this occasion. “We are Christ’s army and we will triumph!” shouted one woman at a slightly startled passer-by who she had never met before. No doubt that was exactly the sentiment of the follower who raised his sword to defend Jesus at his arrest, too – except that according to St John’s account he was asked firmly to put the weapon back in its sheath.

Jesus may well have caused division, kicked up a bit of a fuss. He certainly wouldn’t have found himself on trial before the ruling authorities if his only crime had been to be too blandly reassuring.

However the real shock of Jesus was not that he rudely pushed forward his own interests and his own tribe through his confrontations with authority – but that he didn’t.

Instead, in words and actions that disturbed the comfortable and comforted the disturbed, he showed that God’s ‘weapons’ against wrong are disarming love, unadvertised truth, difficult peace, costly forgiveness and indiscriminate table fellowship.

None of these Gospel gestures is undemanding or un-political. But the demand they make is not for recognition, influence, privilege and power on our own behalf. It is for transformation, starting with us.

The tough virtues which Jesus exhibits are ones which dis-organise and re-orient our natural human disposition towards self-interest. The movement he creates is not an Imperial guard, it is an odd group of misfits and unfortunates (described in the Beatitudes) who are prepared to see in one another, and in the God who loves without favour, the hope of a new world coming.

The church is supposed to be made up of those who recognise Jesus’ transformative agenda and are willing to implement it – not by seizing power, but by redistributing it and turning it into something that gives rather than takes.

That is what I mean by ‘disorganised religion’ – a movement among God’s people which resists what doyen US economist John Kenneth Galbraith called ‘institutional truth’: that version of events which makes sure that ‘we’ end up being the winners.

You’ll find ‘disorganised religion’ in small Christian communities; in peace-making teams; in Catholic Worker houses; in pastoral support programmes; in initiatives for reconciliation and restorative justice; in church work alongside the landless, the homeless, and the refugee.

You’ll find it too in mundane lives shaped by prayer; in Spirit-driven hopefulness; in living, open engagement with those of other faith or no faith; in millions of hidden actions and words which few seek out and no-one counts.

It is out of this apparent disorganisation, this holy disorder, that the true kingdom, the one based on loving invitation rather than violent domination, grows.

Going back to that demonstration outside the House of Commons, these comments are not a condemnation of those who sought, as they saw it, to defend the right to preach– though few but them believe that this is really what is at stake in the Bill concerned.

I certainly have no right to judge them. After all, I struggle with my anger too, and given the chance to impose my will on a number of issues, I might well be tempted. But I should definitely resist, and so should they.

Organised religion – like any power lobby – is about structuring ourselves to win. Disorganised faith (and healthy church) in the sense that I’m describing it is, by contrast, about how to disrupt forms of human organisation – be they political, religious, cultural or psychological – which put people at the disposal of ideology.

This requires new approaches, unexpected tactics, surprising gentleness, table-turning politics, and the ability to recognise that Jesus’ friends are often among the institutionally disreputable.

At the high point of his own trial, Jesus chose to be silent before Pilate, the Emperor’s delegate, says St Mark. Pilate was a man who held life and death in his hands. But he was a frivolous moraliser. He worried about minor court infractions while ignoring major calumnies.

So Jesus refused to play his game, which was all about colluding or answering back with force. Not much of a choice there. In the face of such injustice, no true word could be spoken. So none was offered.

When my TV interview finally got underway outside Parliament, I tried to say that the difficulty with this particular protest was that the question about whose life was really at stake in the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill was in danger of being submerged underneath the ready slogans.

Was trying to out-shout the supposed opposition really the only or best way to proceed, I asked, citing Jesus’ awkward subversion of power-speech? The interviewer looked at me as if I was slightly mad. I guess I can’t blame him. (They cut that bit out).

“Well it would be a pretty short interview if you just decided to be silent for 20 seconds”, he smiled off-camera. He had a point. But so did Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, when he went quiet for almost that period of time during a BBC radio interview with legendary media rottweiler John Humphries.

The reason was that the only way he could take the difficult question he had been posed with adequate seriousness was to wait and say nothing for a while. It was later described as “compelling listening” because it communicated so much more than spin and self-justification – those archetypal tools of the highly organised.

I’m not saying Christians shouldn’t speak in the public arena. Far from it. But I am suggesting that how we speak, when we speak, and – yes – whether we speak, will often say just as much about whether we really have Good News to offer (rather than just another product to sell) than anything we say.

I’m also saying that resisting the temptation of ‘organised religion’ is a jolly good thing.

Simon Barrow ( is co-director of Ekklesia. His background is in journalism, adult education, politics and theology, and his weblog is:


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