7 Rules for Reformers

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A generation ago “community organizer” Saul Alinsky famously penned his Rules for Radicals, and it is my conviction that those interested in reformation should match his craft and self-awareness without trying to compete with the speed and depth of his revolutionary destructo-vision.

Some revolutionaries are patient and some are not. Gramsci argued for the “long march through the institutions” and Lenin wanted the massive meltdown all at once. Most revolutionaries have what Billingsly described as a “fire in the minds of men,” but some are willing to go for the slow burn. So more than just simple patience is required to distinguish a revolutionary from a reformer.

So what are the basic rules for reformers?

1. Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today, and forever. Reformation of culture is either a species of salvation or sanctification, and you can’t have either one without Jesus. Secular conservatism will sometimes buy you time, but that is about all it can do — that and lure you into the complacent notion that it can do more than this. Secular conservatism is like trying to use your pocket handkerchief to slow you down after the main chute has failed. The person and work of Jesus is not optional.

2. Always remember the distinction between principles and methods. Say that the principle is to win the war against the enemy — the methods would be navy, artillery, air force, ground troops, etc. Someone enamored of method would think that the war can be won by their branch of the service alone, without any help from the others. Those who latch on to the methods being employed, without any awareness of the principles being served, are either simple-minded or partisans. The simple need leadership; they can make great foot soldiers, but don’t ever make them generals. The partisans need a peculiar kind of leadership, but you have to be careful — they are the ones who are already a tad too gung ho about your leadership. And they think you are as gummed up about particular methods as they are.

3. Reformers are conservatives, which means they must prefer the concrete to the abstract. The past is concrete, just like the future is going to be. The goal is to preserve and defend everything the Spirit has done in history in such a way as to carry it forward into what the Spirit is going to do. Given our time-bound nature, we must conserve some things, and we must progress toward certain things. But what do we conserve, and what do we seek to build? Our duties are always in the present, but we must read the past, as well as the future (albeit more dimly), and we must do so by the performance of concrete duties. Love your neighbor, not mankind. Build an actual school for your children, and do not love the notion of educational great concepts in some Euclidean eschaton.

4. Reformers must cultivate a high sense of humor. Reformation involves conflict, as we shall see in a moment, but how you fight makes all the difference. Should you fight like a cavalier, with swift sword play and witticisms, or like a thug with a club and a wart on your nose? The besetting sin of ostensible reformers is the sin of shrillness and officious forms of uplift. We need reformers, not another round of bossy-pantses. We also need someone who knows how to form the plural of bossy-pants.

5. Reformers must be combative. There is no way to do any of this without involving yourself in the rough stuff. This means that courage is required. The adversary fights back, and they know how to fight back. Not only that, but because this is a battle between good and evil, and you are fighting for the good (right?), the other side gets to cheat, and you don’t get to. You have to fight, and you have to fight clean, and you have to fight fair. When you enlist in the army, you cannot feign surprise when you find yourself in battles.

6. Reformers must play the long game. We are not laboring for a convenience store reformation, where you buy and consume your “item” before you pull out into traffic, depending on how troublesome the shrink wrap is. If we have Christ, we have all things future, and so we can leave the outcome of our present labors to Him. We don’t have to see the larger end to perform our part in that larger end. And our part is now.

7. Reformers must remember always that religion shapes culture, and culture trumps politics. The plug-in ought not to go straight from reformation in the church to legislation. Legislative battles are important in the meantime, but mostly as a defensive measure. The offense won’t happen until we make the connection between our faith and culture — the kind of culture that forms apart from laws. Just as you can’t fight a naval war without ships, or tank warfare without tanks, you can’t fight a culture war without a culture. The reformation of the church must occur so that there is a reformation of our subculture, and then our subculture will affect the larger polis. Expecting our faith to affect the larger polis when it has not yet changed the average shelf at the local Christian book store is expecting something that is not going to happen. With the weird exception of baseball, where the ball is handled entirely by the defense, you can’t score points until you have the ball. And reformers will not have the ball until they have a culture.

That’ll do for the present.



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