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On the Corner

BY ROBERT DOCTER – 

This vision you are seeking to actualize will always be “a work in progress.” It will never be completely realized. The Salvation Army is a dynamic, ever changing, multicultural, living organism that, by and large, is relatively unknown. It continues to be a work in progress as well. Because of this dynamism, you will continue to see this Army from different perspectives ­ different points of view. This will happen because just as the Army changes ­ so does its membership. So do you. The glimpse of the Army grabbed by those outside its membership will lock it into a stereotypical box unless you communicate your vision to them.

We must be who we are. So, who are we? While our mission is clear, there is no single set of words to describe what we are or the means we seek to use to accomplish the mission. In our multiculturalism, our internationalism, our wide range of programs and activities, we are not easily definable. Broad terms illuminate our basic ethos ­ our guiding beliefs, but we define ourselves and are defined by others according to personal perceptions.

Our history suggests we are a very human expression of Christianity in action. We are compassionate and caring. We are willing to sacrifice on behalf of others. We seek to present the good news of Christ’s love to the world by revealing it in our own lives. By the way, is this true about you? Is this your vision of your corps ­ of yourself?

Recent data suggest that the gap between the “haves” of this world and its “have-nots” is widening dramatically. Much of this relates to the communications revolution taking place around us in this postmodern age. No way exists to stem the tide of the future. Its defining elements, however, are very much up for grabs. Its values appear vague. Its beliefs uncertain. What will they be? How will the difference between good and evil be determined? What set of criteria will guide the decision making? Who will choose it? Will the Army’s voice be heard?

Not if we continue with our present course of action.

Possibly, because we find precise definitions of the Army difficult, we tend to communicate our essence by what we do rather than what we say. This is laudatory, for much of the time we do good. This approach to communication, however, is a necessary but insufficient means to participate in shaping our world’s future. If we are to be a “relevant and vibrant expression of Christianity” ­ we must speak out with a loud voice as well as with a caring heart the message of love and forgiveness ­ the message of grace and hope ­ the message of justice and equality articulated by Christ.

We are perceived by the world as a group of people seeking to confront man’s predisposition to sin and to alleviate poverty, human despair, misery, hunger, homelessness, etc. In the process, we engage in social interventions based on judgments about what ought to be. But what are our criteria for distinguishing what ought to be from what ought not to be? Have we thought this through ­ or do we even want to?

Mankind seems always to believe that the following generation is allowing the world to “go to the dogs” ­ that moral decay is everywhere. If this is the case, is it right or good or just or noble for the Army to keep silent in the face of this moral decay? We seem to. Perhaps we believe that there is no moral decline ­ that it’s a myth? If this is true, why are we reluctant to share this point of view? Because we are almost totally silent on social issues, people have little idea what we believe. Perhaps we feel we might offend someone. Perhaps we believe that some members might disagree with a stand we take. Perhaps, because politicians advance certain positions, we define the issue as “political” and cop out to a policy of avoiding politics. Even worse, perhaps we believe some donors might cease giving if we take particular stands.

Of one thing I’m pretty sure. If we were to articulate a position ­even an unpopular one ­ we would be respected and listened to.

We do make decisions, and we do act on many issues for which we ask public support. Perhaps we are guided by hunches ­ by the transmission of unstated cultural values about which we are unaware but which cause us to “know of a certainty” what is right and what is wrong. For instance, is it ever “wrong” to speak out against hunger? Probably not. But we seem unwilling to speak out against the values of a society immersed in luxury which allows hunger even to exist. Those words might cause us some difficulties. But do they need to be heard ­ I believe so.

Of course, in trying to confront this matter of silence, one problem we have yet to resolve concerns the “who”. Who should articulate the Army’s position? We have not even organized ourselves sufficiently to have appointed a spokesperson. Should it come from the General ­ from the National Commander — from the Territorial Commander ­ from the Divisional Commander ­ from the Corps Officer ­ from some public relations firm we hire to tell us how to deal with controversy? Should it be all of the above?

The answer to the “who” question, of course, is very simple. It depends on the issue. Not so simple is the “what”. What position should be expressed ­ with what words and to whom?

Should we limit what we say to an articulation of positions on moral issues alone? That’s harder than one might imagine. Certainly, we need not speak out on matters of simple controversy. For example, In Los Angeles’ San Gabriel Valley, one of the major issues concerns whether or not the 710 freeway should be extended through South Pasadena to complete the unfinished, disconnected segments. This argument has raged for several decades and is still unresolved. I don’t think the society needs our input on dealing with this issue. These are areas out of our expertise. We need not take a position.

Conversely, I remember about 35 years ago when the police turned powerful fire hoses on civil rights marchers as they crossed the bridge into Selma, Alabama. I don’t have to wonder too much what side of the hose Jesus would have been on. This was a moral issue, and the Army’s voice was silent at the time.

The example above reveals another difficulty in examining what is moral. It is a true moral dilemma. Two values conflict. Those with the fire hoses were defending the law. They believed the law should be preserved. Those marching believed the law cited was illegal in itself. They articulated a higher law based on freedom and equality. Both can be argued as to being right. Fortunately, in this country we are guaranteed due process that affords one the opportunity to test the validity of laws. Often, however, one must take a moral position and speak out prior to court action. What is required in this situation, then, is an examination of the principles on which each value in the dilemma rests and choosing what one believes to be the principle most closely related to Christ. When participating in this kind of exercise, therefore, one must strap tightly around their hearts the WWJD (what would Jesus do?) bracelet.

From almost any perspective it can be argued that there is no single Salvation Army. Its diversity is such that values are far from constant ­ whether around the world, within the nation ­ or in different parts of town. This might be true. I value this diversity. I seek to nurture it. Do moral universals exist? What, if anything, is relative to the culture? For instance, Western culture values individualism over community. It seeks to foster self-realization and allows the individual to define it independently. This, of course, allows some to develop the capacity to inflict suffering on others en route to their goal.

Before we speak out, this Army, in this culture needs to identify the values it enshrines and the principles behind those values. We need to know who we are. Moreover, beyond statements of faith, we need to know what we believe to be right action in a society developing so rapidly it has almost lost sight of itself.

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