On Friday thousands of Aussies took to the streets for the "Sack Scomo" climate protest. It's a natural move for progressive people. We have no other rituals for dealing with grief and sorrow, no shared spaces to gather to console each other. We don't have a network of buildings in which to regularly meet, commemorate, support, uplift and organise for the political future we want. So, on cue, given the current bushfire crisis, we hit the streets and disrupt.
I support the freedom to associate, and the right to protest. But I worry that the climate movement is too heavily reliant on street protests when there are other, less eye-catching but incredibly powerful ways to organise for social change.
Every weekend, about one and a half million of our neighbours quietly come together. They gather in suburbs all across the country - black and white, old and young, rich and poor - in a radical political incubator called church.
Yes, some church brands are progressive. But the majority skew conservative when it comes to politics. For example, the electorates with the most "no" votes in the marriage equality plebiscite were those with the strongest religious affiliations.
There are more churches in Australia (about 12,400) than schools (about 9000). In the ACT where I live, there are 175 houses of worship for a population of about 400,000. While overall church attendance steadily declined over the 20 years from 1991 to 2011, the fundamentalist Pentecostal movement (of which Scott Morrison belongs) has been rapidly growing. Weekly church attendance is still sitting somewhere between 4 and 6 percent of the Australian population. This number matters.
Research by Erica Chenoweth, a political scientist at Harvard University, shows that it takes around 3.5 per cent of the population actively participating in a protest to ensure serious political change.
The progressive movement could benefit from broadening our definition of what it means to protest. We think it looks like flooding the streets with signs and chants. But we're fighting slogans with slogans. We're excluding everyone who doesn't like big crowds, can't take time off work, or lives too far away. And street protests are inherently unsustainable - as the Occupy movement showed, you can't protest forever.
What if we directed the big burst of energy from protests into smaller, more frequent gatherings? What if a life lived in protest involved taking time out every weekend to gather and serve your local community? To join together under a more unified story, young and old, to sing songs, read ancient wisdom literature, mediate, serve the poor, and develop dense networks with people beyond our immediate interest groups? Because that's what conservative religious organisations - arguably some of the most powerful and protected groups in Australia - are doing.
Churches offer belonging and meaning. They have teams whose job is to welcome and befriend new people, every weekend. They have incredible sound systems and talented rock bands that perform, every weekend. They make thinking philosophically fun, every weekend. They encourage you to explore your life's purpose, every weekend. They'll give you a break from your lovely but exhausting children, every weekend.
In spite of dogma, religious communities offer positive mental health benefits. According to social researcher Hugh Mackay, community service, faith in something larger than oneself, and creative expression are all calm balms to anxiety. So, in the wake of the bushfire crisis, while we progressives stoke our anger, vent on social media and get more stressed and depressed, they use ancient practices to care for souls. They make music, share food, read, pray and play, all the while reinforcing their core beliefs.
Religious people don't need to bring a city to a standstill to make a point. Because they're organised. They have a common story that connects them to the same fight, whether they're in Perth or Parramatta. They know who they are. The challenge for progressives is this - can we find a grand narrative, faith or practice to draw a larger circle that can include more of our fellow Australians? Can we unify typically fragmented, issue-based groups into an open, belief-accepting community?
And then there's the issue of money. The outpouring of donations around the bushfire crisis shows there's a lot of generosity in both religious and secular communities. But as progressives, do we really give as much as we could?
Progressive activists (rightly) demand the government redistributes wealth through tax. Religious people just do it. Tithing, the act of donating 10 percent of your income to your local church, is common. Hillsong's congregation donated $52 million in 2018 alone, and they've been doing this for 35 years (is it any wonder a Pentecostal is now running the country?). However, cashed up megachurches are not the backbone of faith's power base. It's the independent local church.
121 people is the average size of a weekly church gathering in Australia. Even at this level, with an average wage of $55,000, a community committed to tithing generates $665,500 per year. This pays the salary of a few dedicated community servants (priests, pastors), pays a building's rent or loan, and then provides seed capital for whatever new charitable ventures the local, independent community decides to pursue.
Once they get big enough, most churches choose to fund new churches through venture capital ("church planting") funds. There is no secular equivalent to help fund new, densely networked secular or interfaith communities, despite the fact that 20 percent of Aussies now identify as "spiritual but not religious".
Progressive change is hard in Australia. But instead of blaming conservative people who think differently to us, let's look in the mirror. Our only ritual is the protest. We stomp and shout and wave painted slogans on cardboard to grieve horrific national disasters. How strange this is. And then we demand removal of the person who, despite his foibles, has lawfully achieved the highest possible office in our democracy, thus ensuring we repel some large portion of people we would like to persuade, and further eroding trust in our most treasured institutions.
Don't blame right-wing religious people for being more organised, generous and active than us. We need to get smarter. Let's learn from how they build spiritual community, and start doing it. Because it's good for wellbeing, and it works.
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