catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 8, Num 21 :: 2009.10.30 — 2009.11.12


Of mission statements and manifestos

Over the past several years and in many contexts, I’ve heard a lot of people talk about personal mission statements.  Certainly, there’s some good in the inclination to take a break from our trajectories to reflect on what really matters to us, where we hope we’re going and how we hope to get there.

But something about the notion of a personal mission statement rubs me the wrong way.  Such efforts and language assume that a mission statement can ever truly be personal.  In fact, these statements of purpose, even when generated from a single mind, always affect others and require a community of accountability in order to live them out effectively.  The illusion of a “personal” mission statement can simply feed into the dominance of individualism as a way of life-a way of life that pulls at the seams of a divinely woven garment.

Of course, almost all organizations and businesses have corporate mission statements that express collective values.  I’ve written several of them.  Corporate mission statements, like their personal counterparts, attempt to define what’s important and how it will shape daily activities, as well as outcomes.

And then we have the mission statement’s misunderstood twin: the manifesto.  In contrast to the corporate mission statement, whose natural habitat is typically the brochure and the annual report, manifestos seem to emerge from passionate longing scrawled into notebooks and get distributed organically, hand-to-hand or link-to-link.  At their best, they embody the righteous anger and indefatigable hope of prophecy, calling a group of people to a better life through deeper practice of collective values.

This is not to say that mission statements are never passionate or effective or hopeful or prophetic, but there’s something about them that suits polite discourse-a kind of discourse that too often reinforces the status quo the corporate body is seeking to question even as it formulates a statement of mission.  The case is even more so for personal mission statements that reinforce our self-images as happy, content individuals in a consumerist culture designed to blind us to the detrimental effects of our actions on the well-being of others. 

Manifestos, on the other hand, intentionally push buttons.  They beckon us to see anew, and to change as a result of that seeing, and in that, they circle back in on the personal.  If a manifesto doesn’t re-shape the hearts of the individuals within a group and manifest itself in action, it fails and gets put on the trash heap of empty rhetoric.  Likewise, there needs to be a reciprocal relationship between words and actions for a manifesto to bear fruit.  More than just a list of things to do, good manifestos bespeak allegiance to a life-giving narrative that provides coherence between what we say and what we do.  As Craig Dykstra writes in Growing in the Life of Faith, “Our most important practices make sense only in the context of some overarching story that reveals to us fundamental convictions about what is ultimately real in and true of the universe in which we live.”

Lest we limit the validity of manifestos to a certain political ideology, we must recognize that expressing our collective responsibility through fiery words that both burn and heal is not firstly a human idea.  Walter Brueggeman writes, “Prophetic speech, that is, the way God’s word impinges upon human history, is concrete talk in particular circumstances where the large purposes of God for the human enterprise come down to particulars of hurt and healing, of despair and hope.”


Some of us will be the authors of manifestos and others will be the recipients, charged with bearing out the imagined world of the manifesto.  In my case, I would say there are a couple of key manifestos written by others that have found me and shaped the expression of my commitments in practical ways.  One is Wendell Berry’s beloved “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front.”  In it, Berry delivers a terrifying prophetic vision of what could be if we continue along our current path, and then proceeds to offer practical advice for realizing an alternative vision, threaded through with love and critique, rest and play, lament and ridiculous hope.  Another-not a manifesto, per se, but certainly a guiding document-is the poetic prayer “A future not our own” by Archbishop Oscar Romero.  Whereas Berry’s manifesto is a call to confident action, Romero’s prayer is a call to do whatever small thing we may be equipped to do with a proper perspective on the smallness of our ripple effects and the bigger “unto what?” vision we serve.  Both advocate action that takes a long view.

As personal mission statements, the words of Berry and Romero might give me warm, fuzzy affirmation of my subversive tendencies and my limitations, but as manifestos, they demand something of me-not unlike God, who loves and gives out of overflowing abundance, but also expects that a turning heart will share in suffering and bear fruit in changing culture on small and large scales.  Much more than being good enough, smart enough and desperate to have people like me, I’m reminded repeatedly through these voices and others that I have a responsibility to imagine and participate in that which deals life, not death.  And that responsibility is integrally dependent upon my healthy, loving engagement with a community that is the manifestation of the body of Christ, in both its suffering and joy, its lament and celebration, its words and deeds.

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