Let’s get rid of the phrase “Preaching to the Choir”

By Joseph Orosco

A few weeks ago, I listened to Walidah Imarisha and Gabriel Teodros share their writing from the new speculative fiction collection Octavia’s Brood. They both spoke about using science fiction as a vehicle for sparking the imagination to think about liberation and a socially just future.

During the Q & A, someone asked whether or not their work was just “preaching to the choir.”Presumably, this meant that speculative fiction with a social justice edge is something that only appeals to sci-fi geeks who are already disposed to the message. Walidah dismissed the concern and said she really hated that particular phrase. I agree.  I think those of us interested in social justice organizing ought to declare a moratorium on it.

The phrases “preaching to the choir” or “preaching to the converted” (the former seems to be more US American while the latter appears more common in the UK) are usually used as a dismissal of ideas or a plan of action. They suggest that it is waste of time to engage in some talk or deed because all they would do is reinforce beliefs among people who are already persuaded of them. The implication is that it is more important to be the missionary—trying to persuade the unbelievers– than the preacher.

I think it is important to recognize, like Andy Cornell has done in his excellent essay “Dear Punk Rock Activism”, that activists can sometimes become too insular and self-focused. Cornell points out that punk and anarchist activists in the 1980s and 90s got fixated on identity politics and certain patterns of actions, such as building infoshops and throwing together concerts, that were largely about serving the interests of small groups of the counter culture. He concludes by advocating for a kind of “missionary” politics that is about organizers moving beyond their comfort zones and trying to connect with other communities who may not identify with “alternative” culture. He calls this “organizing”.

While I think Cornell’s idea of organizing is tremendously important, I don’t believe it means we ought to undervalue the idea of “preaching to the choir.”  If we continue with the Christian metaphors underlying this phrase we understand that a preacher is also called a pastor, someone in charge of a religious congregation. The word “pastor” is from the Latin “pascere” which means: “to lead to pasture, to set to grazing, to cause to eat.” The job of the pastor, then, is to help to nourish, to sustain, to uplift, and to rejuvenate a group that gathers with common cause.

Too often activist groups take on an organizing ethos that emphasizes a dour kind of seriousness, or sacrifice and suffering, as the mark of someone who is really committed, who is really down for the cause. This can mean neglecting family and friend connections, or stifling emotions, while one focuses on “the work.” Chris Crass reminds us that this is an unhealthy kind of ethos, one all too often that is grounded in capitalist and patriarchal ideas about the scarcity of power, resources, time, and recognition.

Instead, Crass advises that we ought to work hard at infusing our movements with a feminist sensibility of care. We should attempt to build movements with cultures of appreciation and gratitude for one another. This would involve celebrating one another more, reaffirming that our efforts and our ideals are important messages that are worth repeating. Creating such celebration and joy in one another is a way of building and sustaining a group’s own power-with so that it may feel supported to go and do the tough work of reaching out to diverse groups.

“Preaching to the choir” and “missionary work” are both part of a strong social justice organizing. The choir sometimes needs to feel the love and admiration too.

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