My 2 weeks with the Waiters Union and the Christian Anarchists (2010)
Written for Wildcat - 2010
As some of readers who enjoy left-trainspotting may know, Brisbane has a reputation for being a hot-bed for Christian Anarchists. The mention of this term evokes a variety of responses, outrage, curiosity etc. Regardless of what you think, there’s so many of them in Brisbane that you’re bound to come across one eventually if you’re involved in any sort of campaign or community work. What follows are some of my notes from the Waiters Union 2 week community camp back in 2010 and I aim to shine a bit of light on the Christi-anarchist milieu. The Waiters Union camp happens twice a year at the House of Freedom and other locations across West End.
Not being raised a Christian, I’ll say from the beginning that I took this as a bit of a cultural exchange – there’s a lot that didn’t sit well with me both politically and spiritually but plenty of inspiration as well. There were sessions everyday throughout the two weeks (such as on violence & non violence and the dichotomy between the two, how words like ‘love’ and ‘hate’ can be coopted and are not class neutral, Gerard Winstanley and the True-Levellers/Diggers, direct action – and one by me on community responses to homelessness)– but I’ll focus on a few of the sessions given by Dave Andrews.
A bit of a background on Dave Andrews, an all round solid bloke and organiser who’s well known and respected both in West End and internationally. I relied on Dave quite heavily as a mentor early on in my activist and community work days. Dave gave away all he had in his early 20s, moved to India and lived in a place in the slums where he invited people rejected by mainstream society to live in community with him (self harmers, those with mental health issues, addicts, those with disabilities, homeless, people being hunted during the fights between Sikhs and Hindus etc). During this time Dave was frequently placed into life and death situations, was kicked out of the church community and helped set up a variety of counter-institutions – stories which I wont recount here. Up to 40 people at a time were living with him and his partner Ange in the slums, and they both continue to do inspiring work across Brisbane. I consider them both to embody the qualities of eldership - people who have tempered their life experience into wisdom - gifts which they share with others - something increasingly rare in our age.
Dave gravitated towards Anarchism through being inspired by figures like Tolstoy, Noam Chomsky, Peter Kropotkin - and Jesus. Along with a few other people, he helped start up the Waiters Union network (which contrary to popular belief is not a union for waiters – the concept being a union of community minded people who are willing to ‘wait’ upon people), which in turn assisted in setting up famous spots like the House of Freedom, Place to Belong and Kropotkin’s Books (now Shibui in West End). They had a few radical newspapers and operated a printing press. The House of Freedom now hosts a variety of groups – A Place to Belong, a reading & writing adult literacy group, men’s groups, Survivors of Psychiatry, Hearing Voices workshops, Food not Bombs and Brisbane Solidarity Network being some of them. The Waiters’ Union are basically a network of ‘Houses of Hospitality’ dedicated to practicing community as ‘radical inclusivity and hospitality’. A lot of people that identify with the Waiters Union are known as solid people in the West End neighbourhood. For a small network they have real links with hundreds if not thousands of people in Brisbane, particularly those who are struggling/socially isolated, largely because of their real effort to do outreach, whether through BBQ’s or visiting boarding houses – and because their doors are always open. At the time of writing they run mainly out of their center at 69 Thomas Street, individual peoples homes, the basement of St. Andrews Church and Black Star Coffee, a shop they helped start up as an (at first) social enterprise.
I won’t go into the problems with a class-neutral conception of ‘community’ which runs the risk of ignoring the tensions of class divisions/class collaboration in organising for social change and the fact community workers often serve a double role of ensuring social peace, co-opting social struggles etc. There was a lot of useful discussion critical of professionalisation which I won’t go into; Dave’s website has some great articles on care work/social work and professionalization which I've linked below.
What follows is a summary of a few of the sessions which people may find interesting.
SESSION ONE: CHRISTI-ANARCHY
To begin with, this is their definition of ‘Christian-Anarchism’. Hang in there and i’ll go into how they see God and Christianity further down.
“A way of life characterized by the radical non-violent sacrificial compassion of the Christ way of life distinguished by a commitment to love and to justice, working from the bottom up to empower people, particularly the marginalised and disadvantaged, so as to enable them to realise their potential as men and women made in the image of god, through self directed, other orientated intentional community groups and organisations.”
The first session was an exploration of Christianity’s history, which went from being an unorganised ‘open-set’ grouping of pacifist ‘christ-like’ principles informed by Jesus’ life, to becoming an oppressive, brutal organised religion characterised by tyranny, domination, colonisation, evangelism and state collaboration, shattering entire worlds and creating wounded spaces across the globe.
In this session Dave said that religion, more than being simply the ‘opiate of the masses’, has more often than not been a ‘Benzedrine for brutality’ with the most demonic and diabolical acts committed under its name. This was refreshingly honest.
"At its best religion has raised spirits and lifted hopes at worst it has turned entire civilizations into cemeteries. Religion is not the opiate of the people – opium suggests something soporific, numbing, dulling. Too often religion has been the aphrodisiac of horror, a Benzedrine for brutality. Churches too often are small totalitarian societies with a library of just one book. The missionaries these churches send out practice a scorched earth policy in their proselytization, a cultural uprooting of local faiths from which many societies have never recovered. Wary if not hostile to many religious institutions and practices, as they tend to perpetuate an ideology which is closed off to the ‘other’’, ruthless in its colonisation of the mind and land, antisocial, institutional conformity. So locked into their dogma that they simply can’t relate to an ‘Other’ and any sort of social change becomes impossible."
A lot of crying and squirming went on at this stage, particularly from the fundamentalists in the room (3 of them left the camp!). It was an interesting space to be in – to see the powerful grip religion had on some people; it’s not a section of society I encounter very often. One person in particular considered what Dave was saying to be the work of the devil and would immediately begin reading the bible and praying afterwards. This fellow came from a very sheltered background and was blown away during the session on Christianity and its relation to the oppression and it’s attempt at the cultural genocide of Aboriginal peoples – he also refused to go to an ‘interfaith’ dialogue night with a local leader form the Muslim community. Nonetheless he was a good chap to speak to and I think a lot of seeds were planted in his mind that will hopefully shake loose some of his ignorance and add a bit of depth & dimension to his world-view. The space when our projections of the world meet reality is always a space of purification.
A lot of time was spent examining Bible verses politically (something that went on every morning). For example, the idea of ‘creating heaven on earth’ etc. One interesting point was the exploration of a verse that went something like “Give me cold water or hot water and I will drink it, but give me luke-warm water and I will spit it out.” Dave used it to interpret religion and its relationship to prejudice as follows:
Dave showed a graph that went something like this:
COLD ———————————-LUKE WARM——————————HOT
Imagine a bell-curve. The horizontal axis represented the level of involvement with religion and the vertical axis represented the level of prejudice. The basic idea was that it was better to not get involved with religion at all (a-theist) than to get involved with religion at a luke-warm level (ie: ceasing critical thinking and taking everything literally ala fundamentalism – which results in high levels of prejudice). He went further to argue that if one goes beyond religion to spiritual principles (ie: the ‘hot area’) one ends up being even less prejudiced than atheists. This ‘luke warm’ principle applies to all things.
THE TRINITY AS A SUBVERSIVE PARADIGM AND ‘TRINITARIAN’ COMMUNITY ORGANISING.
For those who don’t know what the trinity is really about, God is explained in the bible as a trinity of ‘father/son/holy-spirit’ – In this session Dave rejected organised religion’s view of the trinity as a legitimation of hierarchy and patriarchy and reinterpreted it as a ‘subversive paradigm for social change’. More on this in a minute.
God and the trinity were explored through bible versus (eg: the mention of Sophia – meaning wisdom and the ‘feminine’ within God) and this classic picture of the trinity (see image for reference).
Through the above picture (and accompanied by versus), God (and the trinity) is reinterpreted as ‘3 people living in perfect harmony forever’, which is then interpreted on a practical level as equality, community, hospitality and inclusivity. This is God. In terms of relating this to the picture, here are a few notes of interest: Although their looks to be a hierarchy, they’re in fact sitting level at a table, sharing a meal, and the painting is done in a way to make it look like you could be ‘invited’ to the table to share with the three (gender-neutral?) beings. You’ll see why this is important to his idea of the trinity as a model both for community and radical community development.
So on this idea of the trinity (3 people), imagine a triangle with its three points of connection..
Starting with the idea of ‘Love’ :
One person alone can think about and make a point about love..
Two people can incarnate love through their relationship together..
But it’s only when you have three people that you can create a space in which people can ‘step in’ and experience the love – a space through which you can incarnate an alternative (eg: resisting dominant values) and invite others to experience that alternative.
The whole idea of this approach to community development rests on the necessity of having three people to begin with, who can create a space (counterculture) to which other people can be invited into.
He then compared three approaches to micro-level community development/social change..
1) Charismatic community development
Involves one person trying to create social change – doing everything by themselves (eg: Creating a program for people who are socially isolated). This is usually unsustainable and thus leads to..
2) Institutional community development
Upon finding the initial approach unsustainable the ‘charismatic’ community developer will bring in other people to help in providing the particular service or program. This results in your typical ‘service’ or institution – a top down structure characterised by one way relationships where people are essentially expendable and can be replaced. This approach provides a service for community but does not create community.
3) Trinitarian community development
Using the ‘socially isolated peoples’ example again, what Dave calls ‘Trinitarian community development’ essentially involves visiting someone who is socially isolated and asking if they know others in a similar position or seeking to bring together others in similar situations – the aim is to develop relationships and achieving the desired ends through matching means; ie: even though the approach is messy and fragile, if done right it results in a self managed form or organisation which creates community, mutuality and reciprocity.
On a broader level Dave gives an example of how he used a ‘trinitarian’ approach to turn the St.Andrews church into an inclusive and hospitable place for marginalised peoples. This is an amazing achievement in itself, and every Sunday the church’s basement hosts a horizontally run ‘service’ which serves as a hospitable place, lots of people attend, particularly those who are homeless/peeps with disabilities etc – a testament to the waiters union’s effective organising. During the service they share food, discuss politics, discuss various issues and sing songs about creating heaven on earth, John Lennon’s ‘imagine’ made an appearance etc. Unfortunately the character of the service very much depends on who runs it - the one night I went there was a sermon given where the presenter drew a line, on one end it had the word ‘love’ and the other end ‘truth’ (a strange spectrum) – basically the sermon was that we can ‘love’ people from other religious traditions but we can’t get too far away from the truth.. eughh..
Dave’s guide for ‘subverting hierarchical (top down) structures and systems’ goes something like this..
1) Having a dedication to transformation
‘Being prepared for blood, sweat, tears and humiliation – playing helpful roles and suffering for just causes – the constant dialectic between privacy and proximity, collectivity and individuality – aiming to go the marathon not just the sprint’
In this part he explored the role of faith or ‘spirit’ in sustaining long term dedication to social transformation and looked at some practical tips for not burning out… one of these being the idea that you have to constantly ask yourself the question ‘What can I risk today’ – some days you might only have enough energy to ‘risk’ saying hello to someone, on a good day you might be able to risk having a deep chat – the point being that its never all or nothing. Essentially the advice was that before you engage in any social change type activity you should ask yourself “To what degree can I be vulnerable to reach out to people, where if what I do is not reciprocated or appreciated, will not destroy me, leave me bitter, twisted or resentful.” We were asked to reflect on this statement.
2) Look for a ‘sponsor; within the system and find supporters
Essentially this involves finding someone up higher in the hierarchy than you to sponsor your idea (In Dave’s case – to open up the church to be inclusive) and find a supporter or supporters (‘creating a counterculture within the structure’ as in the trinity mentioned above)
3) Long term Strategy
The commitment to reframing hierarchy one relationship at a time towards mutuality, creating spaces within the structure that are mutual and supportive for people to grow – a counterculture.
In Dave’s case this involved creating an ‘experiment’ outside of the church (A picnic for marginalised peoples associated with the St Andrews church but outside of it). Once the experiment had become successful the person at the top of the hierarchy (the Pastor/Priest/highest church figure) was invited into that experiment both to experience it and to develop a personal relationship (basically befriending the boss). He made the point that its important at this point not to let the ‘experiment’ be co-opted. The aim is to eventually bring the experiment into the structure and let it act like a virus. This was done by eventually asking the ‘highest church figure’ (not sure of the term) if they could bring the marginalised picnic group into the church to lead their own service. This was agreed to and slowly the radical culture infected the church to the point where now every Sunday St Andrews run a service where people sit in a circle, anyone can have a go at running it (when I went it was a manic depressive guy), political-religious songs are sung, food is provided etc. The point of it is to be inclusive of everyone and anyone (the only rule being ‘Bizarre is OK, Abuse is Not’). He made the point that there are convicted offenders etc who attend the service, and that its actually safer than any other church because everything is out in the open and there’s a strong culture of accountability and everybody knowing each other.
4) Short Term Strategy
In the case that things don’t go so smoothly, this is the area that involves solidarity, direct action etc. Much of the discussion revolved around pacifism at this point (relating to social revolution, their should be no defence, only loving the enemy and turning the other cheek – the idea is that faith is of the highest importance – if your brother is being crucified pray that the oppressor will see his mistakes, violence can only be solved with love etc). Not something I agreed with as the process and outcome are often sacrificed on the altar of faith - veterans of the Jabiluka anti-uranium protests often go on about Catholic Worker disrespecting local elders etc. Nonetheless there was a good discussion of violence/non-violence and the state.
We also visited the Catholic Worker farm. Just to make it clear, Catholic Worker and the Waiters Union are two separate entities. Catholic Worker began out of Dorothy Day’s movement and bases itself on principles of ‘Christian anarchism, non-violent direct action and personalism’ (radical lifestyle).
You probably will know Catholic Worker through their Ploughshares actions (turning swords into ploughshares..They’re the ones who did the actions on the US spy base in Australia/the Waihopi spy base in NZ etc). Unfortunately you might also know them as the annoying Christians who hold up the anti-abortion placards at the Mayday rallies. There was a lot of tension around this and also honest discussion. The Catholic Worker crew ran a House of Hospitality in West end for about 10 years (sharing their home and bed with marginalised people/self harmers/homeless etc) and had some amazing stories. Jim, a Catholic Worker, has also refused to wear shoes for over 20 years, an impressive feat in itself. A lot of discussion revolved around their activism, and it being about ‘witnessing for god’ rather than effectiveness or outcomes.
The Catholic Worker property reminded me of Crass’ famous Dial House. They’re completely off the grid, solar panels, a windmill that pumps water, they make their own fuel out of vegetable oil, their toilet converts the waste into compost and methane which powers their stove etc. We left with complementary Catholic Worker home-made soap and home-grown pumpkins.
This short reflection doesn’t do justice to a lot of what the Waiters Union are about or their activity. If you’re interested in doing the community course or want more information on the Waiters Union/Christian-anarchism see:
For More see:
‘Christi-Anarchy’ by Dave Andrews
The Idiot’s Do-It-Yourself Guide to Turning Your Congregation Upside Down And Inside Out
The Special Fools-Rush-In-Where-Angels-Fear-To-Tread Change Agent’s First Aid Kit
Vocational Professionals – Amateur, Radical and Revolutionary Professionals
Anarchist Work Groups and 1-to-3 Organising: Inspired by Trinitarian Community Development