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On Big Lies, Prophetic Truths

and Ham Sandwiches


Ben Fink



We’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business!

—Hillary Rodham Clinton,
March 13, 2016[1]


If I had a dollar for every time that sound bite was played on local radio, TV, and social media during the fall of 2016, well, I might be able to put some of those miners back to work. For many of my neighbors in Letcher County, Kentucky,[2] this was the critical moment in the campaign. It’s what finally swayed their vote,[3] despite significant and lingering doubts.[4]

To dispense with the punditry: yes, it was probably an honest mistake. Yes, the quote was certainly taken out of context.[5] And yes, I would agree with many who saw it as another incident in a well-funded, cynical campaign to align the interests of coal miners and their families/friends/neighbors with the interests of their oppressors.[6]

The question I want to pursue here is, I think, a little deeper. It was put to me by a USA-Today reporter last December: “But…isn’t that why they say they like him? Because he talks straight even when it isn’t politically correct? Wasn’t she just doing the same thing? Telling the truth right to the people in West Virginia who’d be most affected by it?”

He was right, of course. Yet there’s a reason the remark misfired so badly. It wasn’t because my neighbors are all closed-minded or prejudiced. It wasn’t even because she was telling people something they didn’t want to hear. The unexamined issue—and the subject of the reflection to follow—is that there is more than one kind of truth. And she chose… poorly.

My immediate response to the reporter, as usual when these questions come up, was to offer him some paraphrased wisdom from Saul Alinsky: If you want to organize in an orthodox Jewish community, don’t go in eating a ham sandwich!



Two Types of Treyf


Despite achieving fame largely outside the Jewish world—the communities he organized were predominantly Christian, and his Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) was a national network of community organizations rooted largely in church life—Alinsky found room for this most stereotypically Semitic of references in both books that bookended his career: Reveille for Radicals (1946) and Rules for Radicals (1971). And it will be enlightening, for our purposes, to look at how the sandwich is situated in each.

Most people who are familiar with Alinsky—considered one of the godfathers of American community organizing—know only the context of Rules:


If I were organizing in an orthodox Jewish community I would not walk in there eating a ham sandwich, unless I wanted to be rejected so I could have an excuse to cop out. My “thing,” if I want to organize, is solid communication with the people in the community. Lacking communication I am in reality silent; throughout history silence has been regarded as assent—in this case assent to the system. As an organizer I start from where the world is, as it is, not as I would like it to be. That we accept the world as it is does not in any sense weaken our desire to change it into what we believe it should be—it is necessary to begin where the world is if we are going to change it to what we think it should be. That means working in the system.[7]


This is Alinsky as most people remember him: a hard-edged tough guy, agitating the New Left to stop “copping out” and start doing the hard work necessary to build power and make change. This was the context for the founding of IAF Ten-Day Training, in Chicago in 1969, the origin of the “weeklong training” that has shaped generations of organizers ever since.[8]

The earlier, lesser-known Reveille expresses the same idea, but in a very different register:


In the building of a People’s Organization the agencies and local traditions are to an important extent the flesh and blood of the community. It is impossible to overestimate the importance of knowledge of the traditions of those people whom it is proposed to organize.

This does not mean that one has to have a complete knowledge of all their traditions, but it does mean that the organizer should have a familiarity with the most obvious parts of a people’s traditions. And it does mean more than the organizer’s recognition that he does not go into a Catholic community on a Friday eating a roast beef sandwich or into an Orthodox Jewish community with a ham sandwich.

Many organizers will speak of the difficulties of trying to overcome local traditions and local taboos in creating a people’s movement. One should be constantly on guard, however, against attacking local traditions. After all, if the organizer believes in democracy and is concerned with what Jefferson referred to as “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind” there is no reason to oppose or try to break down local traditions. Furthermore, this course of activity only leads to hostility, conflict, and the creation of an impossible condition for a real People’s Organization.

Those who build People’s Organizations begin realistically with what they have. It does not matter whether they approve or disapprove of local circumstances, traditions, and agencies; the fact remains that this is the material that must be worked with. Builders of People’s Organizations cannot indulge in the sterile, wishful thinking of Liberals who prefer to start where they would like to begin rather than with actual conditions as they exist.[9]


This is a younger, less cynical Alinsky, drawing not on the failures of 1968 but the successes of the Popular Front. This is the Alinsky who defined a “radical” as someone “who really liked people, loved people—all people.”[10]

From the perspective of Rules, the ham sandwich is a simple matter of tactics and transaction: eating it will interrupt “communication” with “the people in the community.” This is community organizing at its most shallow: a relationship of transaction bordering on manipulation, where the ham sandwich (or West Virginia comment) would be seen as a misstep, a gaffe, a chet (חטא, “sin”). This is what most people think of as “community organizing,” and what has given it a bad name in many circles.

Yet the context of the ham sandwich discussion in Reveille suggests another path. In the kind of organizing described here—far more challenging and less often practiced—the organizer functions not as a rhetorical manipulator but as a catalyst or midwife of a whole different approach to politics and public life. This approach is rooted in a deep-if-dialectical love of actually-existing people, the communities they have made, and the traditions that structure their lives. These traditions are inevitably flawed, but the organizer considers it an article of faith that they contain strands of democracy and justice, and undertakes the hard work of collaborating with the rest of the community to draw them out.[11]

This approach to organizing has received less scholarly attention, until relatively recently. In one of the most comprehensive accounts, the ethicist Luke Bretherton locates the roots of the young Alinsky’s approach in his upbringing as


a child of Russian Jewish immigrants… within a close-knit Jewish community in Chicago that had its origins in the shtetl traditions of Eastern Europe. Central to the pattern of life in the Maxwell Street area where Alinsky grew up were traditions of self-organization and mutual care… [But] Alinsky was part of the last generation to grow up within this environment. By the time he left college, it had all but disappeared as the Jews of Chicago moved from ‘the shtetl to the suburbs.’[12]


It is worth noting how the shift from Reveille to Rules mirrors the trajectory of Alinsky’s own family—and that of so many other midcentury American families from working-class and ethnic backgrounds, including many Ashkenazic Jews. The severed bonds of tradition, solidarity, and interdependence that accompanied the trend toward suburbanization and consumerism—and relatedly, whiteness—left a cultural and interpretive void in many communities.



Two Types of Truth (and Lies)


Into this void, all too often, rushed the very “sterile, wishful thinking of Liberals” (as opposed to radicals) that the young Alinsky decried, “who prefer to start where they would like to begin.” This is the way of thinking on display, for instance, in an endless parade of “think-pieces” about “what’s the matter with Appalachia,” like Kansas before it. The gist: my neighbors should accept that coal isn’t going to come back. They should accept that their century-old traditions are now obsolete and useless. And if they don’t, well, they have only themselves to blame for their troubles.

This was the kind of truth Hillary Clinton was telling in West Virginia. We can think of it as a technocratic truth, approaching problems from the perspective of a manager overseeing them rather than a worker or citizen in the midst of them.[13] Technocratic truths afford only two possibilities for action—or actually only one, with two different inflections: social service, the moderate variant, where my neighbors in coal country become helpless consumers of programs administered by experts who know what’s best for them; and social justice, the radical variant, where they become obstructions to be “called out” and removed by a different sort of expert class. This is the kind of truth wielded by activists, artists, and academics who believe speaking it repeatedly and radically enough will in and of itself effect the desired change;[14] and also by governments and nonprofits seeking to “engage the community” in various sorts of predetermined programs designed by professional staff in collaboration with wealthy donors.[15]

For many of us, technocratic truth is the only kind of truth we can imagine. This may be especially true for my generation of Jews, raised in the suburbs by the first generation to enter the management class and to enjoy the full fruits of white privilege.[16] But to break the impasse of culture wars, call-outs and consumerism, we must practice another kind of truth, hearkening back to the younger Alinsky.

My path to this other form of truth began when I met a handful of people in social justice circles who weren’t like the rest. I never felt guilty when I was around them, like I had to hate myself for being a straight white man. In fact they would agitate me, lovingly yet firmly, to get over that guilt so I could stop focusing on myself and actually enter into serious relationship with different kinds of people. When they asked (or rather “propositioned”) me to go to weeklong training, I nervously accepted.

There are lots of stories I could tell about weeklong.[17] It’s basically organizing boot camp, designed (as per the proclivities of late Alinsky) to turn well-meaning but powerless do-gooders into strong, grounded, power-seeking and ultimately powerful leaders. It is one of the most powerful pedagogical experiences I have ever encountered; for nearly fifty years it has shaped the lives of tens of thousands of organizers across the country and abroad.

For present purposes, I’ll confine my story to a single session from my training, hosted by the Ohio Organizing Collaborative in June 2011.[18] It was an unusual session, not part of the standard late Alinsky-derived program, taught by Troy Jackson, evangelical pastor and historian and self-described Alinsky skeptic. It was called “The Big Lie.” Its origins, he told us, came from a lesson organizers in the Black Freedom Movement had learned from Gandhi: “Any injustice involves a Big Lie, told often enough and in so many ways that people come to believe it’s true.” In the Jim Crow South, that Big Lie was some people are worth more than others. To explore this concept, he broke us into small groups and told us to articulate “the Big Lie in your community that everyone believes.”

The results: America is the land of the free. We live in an equal-opportunity society. The American Dream. Anyone can do anything if they work hard enough. Something was wrong; I felt it immediately. There was something categorically different between these untrue statements and some people are worth more than others, something important.

It took me a long time to figure it out: these were (what I’ll call) technocratic lies, myths describing the world as it should be but never has been: America should be the land of the free; we should live in an equal society; etc.. The corresponding set of technocratic truths is thus a disenchanting series of call-outs: America is not the land of the free; we do not live in an equal opportunity society. Working toward change, in this formulation, means scurrying to remedy all the rifts where disappointing reality diverges from abstract ideal—an endless and exhausting game of whack-a-mole known to all who work in social service or social justice. Hence the technocratic proclivity toward defining our work in terms of never-ending lists of issues to address and problems to solve, and toward labeling ourselves based on what we’re not: non-profit, non-governmental organization (moderate/service variant); anti-racist, anti-capitalist (radical/justice variant).

Working from technocratic lies, we begin floating in heaven and experience each (technocratic) truth as a deflation. As paradise fades away, we continue to fall and eventually collide, exhausted, with cold hard ground. Is it surprising, given a political discourse saturated in such truths, that some of the folks hardest-hit by such truths wanted to lessen the impact with a little hot air? As one neighbor and colleague told me: “At least he cared about us enough to lie to us.”

Working from Big Lies, we go the other way. The Big Lie grounds us in grim reality—and leaves us nowhere to go but up. When we begin by acknowledging we’re in a world where some people are worth more than others, we experience every incremental improvement as a victory. This is the logic behind the much-maligned IAF strategy of working on “stop signs,” i.e., small, local, winnable issues, like getting a stop sign placed on a street corner. The stop sign itself isn’t the point, though it may address a genuine need. The point is for everyone involved to feel the thrill of building enough collective power to move ourselves one step closer to a reality aligned with a better truth.[19]

This “stop sign” strategy reveals three related attributes of this “better truth,” which can counter a Big Lie. First, it is imagined as it is enacted: the stop sign on that corner, or a world where all people have equal rights and opportunities, will remain a myth until that time when a sufficiently organized, committed, and powerful group makes it real. Second, conversely, it is enacted as it is imagined: for it to get made real, those inside that group first need to imagine—know—it as real. Third, it can only be fully experienced from within that (expanding) group, as it is enacted: even “a world where all people have equal rights and opportunities” can feel cold and bureaucratic when read off a page. Hence the wickedness of the Haggadah’s second son: not asking critical questions, but doing so while exempting himself from the group.



Prophetic Communities, Prophetic Truths


What sort of group is this? It’s not your usual “cranky community of endless protest, dissent, and confrontive ‘social action’”—to quote Lutheran Hebrew Bible scholar Walter Brueggemann. Echoing the above critique of technocratic truths, Brueggemann is wary of such “ad hoc liberals who run from issue to issue without discerning the domestication of vision in all of them.”[20]

It is, rather, a group focused precisely on dedomesticating that vision: intended “to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us.”[21] This alternative consciousness, wrote Brueggemann:


on the one hand, serves to criticize in dismantling the dominant consciousness. To that extent, it attempts to do what the liberal tendency has done: engage in a rejection and delegitimizing of the present ordering of things. On the other hand, that alternative consciousness to be nurtured serves to energize persons and communities by its promise of another time and situation toward which the community of faith may move. To that extent, it attempts to do what the conservative tendency has done, to live in fervent anticipation of the newness that G[-]d has promised and will surely give.[22]


The critical practice in such groups is building relationships. Unlike typical activism, which seeks to onboard community members toward a predetermined goal, this is the iterative process of a community slowly discovering its own agency and priorities, and working toward them together. Technocrats may (and often do) criticize the work of such communities as inefficient. (Why organize three congregations to build a homeless shelter when the United Way can just give you one?) But unlike the technocrats, these communities understand that every given issue is a means as much as an end. Theirs is “a politics that one plays one game”—winning issues—“in order, more importantly, to enhance another one:” building deep and lasting relationships, toward developing collective power and ultimately a democratic culture.[23]

Brueggemann calls this kind of group a prophetic community. Following him, I will call the kind of truth they create and practice—the antithesis of a Big Lie—a prophetic truth. (Troy Jackson, who taught the Big Lie session at weeklong, appears to be thinking in the same direction; he now directs the Amos Project in Cincinnati.)[24]

Prophetic truths, despite their lofty name, are not universal or incontrovertible. It is not they but the technocratic truths that attempt such godly status, smiting technocratic lies from on high and sending hopeless dreamers careening back to earth. (America is not the land of the free! Your coal jobs are dead!)

Prophetic truths are inherently contextual, rooted in the harsh reality of their corresponding Big Lie.[25] They function as Heschel describes prophets: “The prophet’s task is to convey a divine view, yet as a person he is a point of view. He speaks from the perspective of G[-]d as perceived from the perspective of his own situation.” They grow not by convincing outside spectators of their empirical reality, but by growing the power and reach of their corresponding prophetic community, including to counter the less prophetic truths proffered by other organized, often powerful communities. A prophetic truth, then, isn’t something one believes (in the detached, post-Reformation sense) so much as enacts (where faith and action are inseparable).[26]

So how does all of this help us?

Consider Black Lives Matter—a contemporary attempt to offer a prophetic truth countering the Big Lie some people are worth more than others. It is a prophetic truth that has done considerable work on reality—through a rapidly-growing (if somewhat Internet-ethereal) community capable of experiencing collective memory, joy, sorrow, and effective and distinctive discourse—Brueggemann’s four markers of a prophetic community.[27]

Like all prophetic truths at the moment when they are actively at work, Black Lives Matter is controversial. (Recall that Heschel described prophets as “some of the most disturbing people who have ever lived.”)[28] And as always, that controversy lies at the border of the prophetic community. Those inside understand Black Lives Matter as followed by an implicit “too.” But many of those outside—including not only some of my white neighbors but also our African American police chief—understand it as followed by an implicit “more.”[29]

The solution suggested by this analysis is not for those working under the banner of Black Lives Matter to be less vocal, less active, or less insistent in putting forth and working toward their prophetic vision. It is rather to create more and easier pathways for folks with shared values and traditions—again, including many of my neighbors—to cross that border and join. There is historical memory to draw on here, including the stories of my teacher Harry C. Boyte, who was assigned by Martin Luther King, Jr. to organize poor white millworkers into the Black Freedom Movement.[30]

Absent this kind of effort, especially in a media-environment dominated by culture war, call-outs, and consumerism, it is easy for those outside the prophetic community to mistake a prophetic truth for a technocratic one. Absent an experience of prophetic community, the prophetic truth Black Lives Matter can easily get perverted into the technocratic lie Black Lives Should Matter. (Corresponding technocratic truth: But They Don’t.) Thus can the collective, sorrowful, joyful work of prophetic truth-making fall back into an experience of deflation and liberal guilt. And as long as (white) people conflate Black Lives Matter with deflation and liberal guilt, many will continue to oppose it. (Even though they shouldn’t.)



Don’t Debunk; Organize


To conclude: The problem with the West Virginia ham sandwich (no doubt stale by now) was it implicitly told the proverbial Jews they weren’t welcome at the table—that their lives, in other words, didn’t matter.[31] This is generally the problem with technocratic truths: to the extent they function by deflating and debunking, they set themselves against those whose lived realities they cause to crash down.

What could a prophetic truth have looked like, in the same situation? Well, first we’d have to identify the Big Lie. A greener economy means we lose our jobs? Moving away from coal means losing who we are? The more [they] gain, the more we lose?

The fact is we can’t figure it out right here, any more than any politician can on her or his own—because articulating a Big Lie is itself an organizing process, an act of an emerging prophetic community. Prophetic work can’t be done by tweaking a speech or conducting a focus group, with ordinary people consigned to the role of consumer/audience. It can be done—I am honored to work with people and groups in the process of doing it[32]—but it takes a serious and sustained investment: to build a broad base of relationships and foster leadership among ordinary citizens, to work together with these new leaders to develop a prophetic vision, share it with the candidate, and hold her/him/them accountable to it. One might call it an act of collective bargaining with a higher power.

Or as Alinsky once put it: a minyan.[33]






Ben Fink is lead organizer of the Performing Our Future project at the Appalshop, a grassroots media organization in the east Kentucky coalfields. (The nearest shul is two hours away; he attends when able.) Fink has organized with faith, labor, community and statewide networks in Minneapolis-St. Paul; directed youth theater, creative writing and community engagement programs in rural southern New Jersey; and taught high school in Berlin. He holds a Ph.D. in cultural studies from the University of Minnesota. His writings have been published by the National Endowment for the Arts,, AlterNet and Moyers & Company; his book The Problem With Education Technology (Hint: It’s Not the Technology), co-authored with Robin Brown, is available from the University of Colorado Press.

[1]    “Full Rush Transcript Hillary Clinton Part//CNN TV One Democratic Presidential Town Hall,” CNN Press Room, March 13, 2016., accessed January 20, 2018.

[2]    Ben Fink, “Building Democracy in ‘Trump Country,’” Moyers & Company, March 10, 2017., accessed January 20, 2018.

[3]    Heather Long, “Hillary Clinton might lose Ohio because she badmouthed coal,” CNN Money, October 13, 2016., accessed January 20, 2018.

[4]    Richie Davis, “Conservative Kentuckians, Leverett counterparts reach across the political gap,” Greenfield Recorder, October 18, 2017., accessed January 20, 2018.

[5]    David Roberts, “Hillary Clinton’s ‘coal gaffe’ is a microcosm of her twisted treatment by the media,” Vox, September 15, 2017., accessed January 20, 2018.

[6]    Prianka Srinivasan, “Appalachia’s Fickle Friend,” Jacobin, December

  1., accessed January 20, 2018.

[7]    Saul D. Alinsky, Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals (New York: Vintage, 1989), p. xix.

[8]    See Harry C. Boyte, CommonWealth: A Return to Citizen Politics (New York: Free Press, 1989).

[9]    Saul D. Alinsky, Reveille for Radicals (New York: Vintage, 1989), pp. 76-77.

[10]   Ibid., p. 9.

[11]   In the words of my colleague Dudley Cocke, a veteran of several decades of multiracial organizing in the American South: “our nutrient was our Southern communities,” though “none was free from poisons.” Dudley Cocke, “rootes, routes, alternate,” unpublished manuscript (2017), to be published by Alternate ROOTS in 2018. See accessed February 7, 2018.

[12]   Bretherton, Resurrecting Democracy, pp. 21-22.

[13]   For an overview and bibliography of the critique of technocracy, see Harry C. Boyte, “Civic Agency and the Cult of the Expert” (Dayton,

OH: Kettering Foundation, 2009), accessed February 7, 2018. The heterodox economist Amartya

Sen has developed a similar critique of what he calls “transcendental institutionalism.” See Amartya Sen, The Idea of Justice (Cambridge, MA:

Harvard, 2011.) First chapter available at, accessed February 7, 2018.

[14]   The fallacy of this belief may best be demonstrated in satire: “Former Conservative Recalls Belittling Tirade From College Student That Brought Him Over To Left,” The Onion, September 1, 2017., accessed January 20, 2018.

[15]   For an exploration of this phenomenon, see, e.g., Vu Le, “Are you or your org guilty of Trickle-Down Community Engagement?”, accessed January 20, 2018. For deeper historical background, see also William Henry Watkins, The White Architects of Black Education: Ideology and Power in America, 1865-1954 (New York: Teachers College Press, 2001).

[16]   See Gil Steinlauf, “Finding our true Jewish identity can begin by questioning our whiteness,” Newsday, September 22, 2015., accessed January 20, 2018.

[17]   For many more, see Ben Fink, “Organized Ideas—or, Defeating the Culture Wars (What We Need to Know, and How We Need to Know It” (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Minnesota, 2014), pp. 249-282.

[18]   See

[19]   See Romand Coles, “Of Tensions and Tricksters: Grassroots Democracy between Theory and Practice” in Perspectives on Politics 4:3 (September 2006), pp. 547-561.

[20]   Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination, Second Edition (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2001), pp. xvii, 3. For a controversial application of this critique, see Tom Slater, “‘Black Lives Matter Has a Plantation Mentality,” Spiked, October 19, 2016., accessed January 20, 2018.

[21]   Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination, p. 3.

[22]   Ibid..

[23]   See Coles, “Of Tensions and Tricksters,” p. 547.

[24]   See

[25]   Abraham J. Heschel, The Prophets, Vol. 1 (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1962), p. x.

[26]   In a passage quoting a book about the Argentinian dictatorship, Brueggemann explains:


the contest is not between imagination and the real, but between two types of imagination, that of the generals and that of their opponents. The nightmare world of torture and disappearance of bodies is inseparable from the generals’ imagination of what Argentina and Argentines are…. So long as we accept what the men in the car imagine, we’re finished…. We have to believe in the power of imagination because it is all we have, and ours is stronger than theirs.


See Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination, p. xix.

[27]   See ibid., p. xvi.

[28]   Heschel, The Prophets, p. ix.

[29]   Mattias Lehman, “When Not All Lives Matter,” Gentleman Gustaf blog, November 26, 2014., accessed January 20, 2018.

[30]   Harry C. Boyte, “My story of the Klu [sic.] Klux Klan, Martin Luther

King, and Populist Politics.”, accessed January 20, 2018.

[31]   There are also actual Jews in West Virginia, but that’s another story.

[32]   See Peter Slavin, “After Coal, a Small Kentucky Town Builds a Healthier, More Creative Economy,” Yes! Magazine, June 6, 2017., accessed January 20, 2018. For a broader perspective on the work, see also

[33]   In a 1968 interview Alinsky referred to a minion as “sort of collective bargaining with G[-]d” and criticized other organizers who “couldn’t even get a minion together!” See Stephen C. Rose, “Saul Alinsky, the Industrial Areas Foundation and the Church’s Millions” in Renewal (March 1968): pp. 4-9; quoted. in Bretherton, Resurrecting Democracy, p. 313, n. 15.