How should we think about social activism in this season?

My heroes tend to be believers who courageously stand for righteousness regardless of the cost. Corrie ten Boom and her family hid Jews from the Nazis. For this they were arrested and sent to a concentration camp. Corrie was the only family member who survived the camps. Yesterday, we celebrated Reformation Day, the moment when Martin Luther nailed his famous 95 theses to the door at Wittenburg Castle church. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Nazi dissident and was executed for his bravery.

There is something about those in history who were willing to stand against injustice, which very often involved taking a stand against the current empire, the current cultural momentum, and certainly the current status quo. They were brave and, for the most part, history venerates and vindicates them.

One of the dynamics of history involves the tendency to praise the brave acts of heroes and prophets in the past, while failing to recognize that we likely would have been among those who opposed and even villified them had we lived when they lived.

Jesus ran into this same dynamic.

Woe to you! For you build the tombs of the prophets whom your fathers killed.” (Luke 11:47, ESV)

Building memorials to the prophets of old, the very prophets your ancestors persecuted and put to death.

We are good at recognizing heroic action in hindsight. But in the present, standing for justice is upseting. It challenges our worldview. It asks hard questions about who the good guys are and who the bad guys are in the story we are living. Such bold activism threatens that in which we find security.  It prophesies against the corruption that benefits us. It subverts the empire within which we are protected. It requires a level of empathy from us for which we are ill equipped.

We live in a season of activism which corresponds to a 24 hour news cycle and the reality of social media. I think it’s important that we think clearly and biblically about activism within this context. Here are 6  thoughts that are helping me.

  1. Not every activist cause is just, but some are. It’s no good to be swept up into the contemporary momentum of protest and activism and anger just because it feels good to identify with a cause, or just because it feels good to associate with the group that identifies with that cause. Careful thought is required.
  2. Not every cause that offends you is unjust. Likely the opposite is true. I am a white, middle class, southern, evangelical. I am part of the empire. I am, as such, the most likely to be offended by just activism, because it threatens my own power. It undermines my own security.
  3. Not every method of protest and activism is helpful, but be careful about this area of judgment. The narrative where those in power feel compelled to tell others just what they are and aren’t allowed to be offended by and how they are and aren’t approved to address the issue is a bit tired. It’s really more part of the problem than the solution. I tend to think that the days of white guys like me  – putting “uppity” people that don’t look like us in their place – represents the very injustice that should be corrected. If we are not careful we will wind up being offended when Jesus protests in our temple.
  4. Empathy is powerful. Not everyone venerates the symbols you hold dear. Not everyone is living out the same narrative as you, with the same context, the same setting, the same backstory, the same characters, the same good guys, the same bad guys, the same goals, the same assumptions, the same solutions. Your capacity to really understand the story someone different that you is living and how their story differs from your own will determine much about your ability to discern truth.
  5. Local is better. For most people, real change happens in friendships, in the home, in the workplace. Change is primarily local. Don’t get trapped in the feeling of activism because you trumpet opinions about national level issues and incidents. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. But it likely makes zero difference. But sharing a meal with someone who thinks differently. Really talking. Really seeking to understand. Really offering the vulnerability of your thoughts without anger or defensiveness. That might actually make a difference.
  6. Communication is 90% non-verbal. About 10% of communication involves the words themselves. The rest is tone and touch and body language and eye contact and proximity and volume and the list could go on. Social media filters out 90% of what makes communication effetive the moment you click submit. Because of this, it’s a very ineffective tool for communication about worldview level issues. Use social media to connect and launch you into real conversations with real people live and in person.
  7. Not all change is progress. In a cultural scene where activism is cool, where challenging the status quo positions one as wise and enlightened, it is important that we recognize that not all change is good, not every repositioning of moral boundaries is freedom.

If we don’t approach these times and issues carefully, we risk playing the role of the self-righteous religious people who so vexed and perplexed Jesus. Woe to you, he said. You are able to recognize heroic activism in the past, but you stand on the wrong side of it far too often in the present.

At the very least, we should be quick to hear and slow to speak.


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