The Upside-Down Kingdom: learning from the margins

February 28, 2017/ Article

My dad was a Baptist preacher.  A “classic” sermon of his was the “upside-down kingdom” — the message that God’s kingdom reflected different values of this one.  While the values of today might be for money and military and power, the kingdom of God reflected the marginal voices that put love first.  He would preach that for God’s kingdom to come a new set of values must emerge — and not from the powerholders of today, but from the downtrodden and the disenfranchised.

Years I later, I find new ways this unfolds in my work as a trainer:

The group had been mostly smooth over the 4-day training.  State groups working on ending the death penalty had come to build up their organizing skills to take on that challenging work.

By day three, things were getting a bit rocky.  One state group became — from my perspective — obnoxious.  They started distancing themselves from the group, occasionally saying things like, “We already know this!”  (You might be shocked to find out it was the New York state group — imagine obnoxious New Yorkers!)

The irony was that this group was a battle-scarred group which, while having lots of experience, had been unsuccessful in reaching their goals.  But rather than supporting the learning, they seemed to be taking away from it.

That last night my co-facilitator and I put our heads together.  It would be entirely possible to finish the last day of the workshop without the New Yorkers fully on board — and the others would still benefit.  But as I thought more about it, I realized maybe they had something to teach us that we were missing.

In our planning session, I asked my co-facilitator to scrap our agenda for the next day so we could be completely open to what those “obnoxious folks” might have to teach us.  We tried for several hours to put together an agenda that would work for them — even asking several of them from the state group to give us some guidance.  By the end of the night we didn’t have a clear answer and I suggested we sleep on it.

The next morning the answer was unexpectedly clear to us.  We guessed the New Yorkers had some wisdom to share, but were unable to find a format to share.  I knew some of them had mentioned they wanted to “share stories,” so we would follow their lead.

The design itself was simple: having people share stories and debriefing about what makes for a good story.  The official goal was consistent with the goal of organizing — afterall, story-telling is important for outreach and organizing.  But there was an underlying goal, too: supporting the New Yorkers to share their wisdom.  And they did in a huge way.

What showed up was insight about how stories could be effective at gathering momentum (which the New Yorkers had done successfully) and pitfalls about how relying on stories without follow-up action would not build social change.  Whereas before they had taken a back seat and were snide commenters on the sideline, now they generously participated.  With their untapped wisdom now tapped, they were able to make use of the workshop — and the other participants learned tremendous insights from the now-only-slightly-obnoxious, mostly savvy, New Yorkers.

(I might add, a few months later those organizers in New York, who had been mostly ineffective before, made huge strides in getting a moratorium on the death penalty in their state.)

How is this the upside-down kingdom?

In every group there are complex interactions between “insiders” in the group and the “outsiders.”  Those insiders, the mainstream of the group, tend to see themselves as generous and thoughtful.  But to the margin, like the New Yorkers, their exclusion is by the clueless mainstream.  The upside-down kingdom says that the new and innovative wisdom comes not from the mainstream, but from the margins.

Every group has mainstreams and margins.  By nature, the mainstream is clueless about the experience of the margins.  Every mainstream group I’ve ever worked with always starts clueless about the margin’s experience.

To the margin, however, they experience the rejection of their insights.  Think about the amount of women’s insight lost because of sexism and women’s collective anger at that.

From a pedagogical perspective, then, my responsibility as a trainer is to follow the margin and interrupt the apparent smoothness to allow margin’s wisdom to show up.

Doing that is not easy!  From my mainstream vantage point I could most easily follow the New York margin by their “obnoxiousness.”  But when I remembered that every margin has something to teach me, I could take a learning perspective (something so difficult for us teachers to often do!).

Simply doing this is already “upside-down” by nature: teachers actively learning from their students?  Even seeking out the wisdom from the most annoying students?

And then the next step is important: engaging the margin’s wisdom to show up.  In many cases, the group will have to be ready for the pain and anger to handle this.  When mainstreams ignore and oppress margins for generations, as with sexism and racism, the collective anger is great.  But the interaction between mainstreams and margins is needed because only then can the mainstream get a new perspective on itself that will allow it to grow.

And my dad agrees.  Replacing an ethic of love is not easy, he says.  But the kingdom of God is worth the effort.  And for us to begin, we must look around and find the margins around us and begin.

Republished in The Journal  of Curriculum and Pedagogy (Volume 2, Number 2, Winter 2005)

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