Why I am a hesitant activist
“I don’t think your church is enough of an activist church for me.” Unsolicited, a friend of mine recently gave me this explanation as to why he and his family wouldn’t be coming to my church anytime soon. I wasn’t too surprised. These days activism seems to be the core value of my friends to the left and right of me. They’ve all geared up for battle in the streets, online, and even in their families. Of course, they’re going to look for a congregation to match. And my friend was right. I and my church aren’t much for activism.
Now before you label me a coward of unjust silence, perhaps you’ll give me a chance to explain why I hesitate to take to marches and political movements. So as not to lose anyone, I’ll stick with the hypothetical from here on out:
Let’s imagine that the Bible strictly condemned the practice of tomato farming. Let’s say that there were many passages that detailed the grave injustices of tomato farming. Now imagine that for centuries people ignored said passages or twisted their words in order to prop-up the financially lucrative tomato market. But now in the age of re-thinking, aided by mass-information, a movement is growing to challenge the tomato farmers. Marches are held. Politicians launch campaigns based solely on the evils of the red fruit. Blogs pop-up devoted to the deconstruction of pro-tomato propaganda.
|Behold, the foul and contemptible fruit!|
Meanwhile, the well-funded and highly organized tomato market harnesses the fullness of its economic and political resources to squash this movement. TV commercials flood primetime, featuring beautiful smiling tomato-eaters. Conventions pop-up around the country highlighting longtime well-respected Christian leaders casting doubt on the rather obvious meaning of the anti-tomato passages.
As these two groups clash, the common folks divide into camps and set to work on their social media campaigns. With alarming ease, Christians on both sides learn the political talking points, master the art of poking opponents in the virtual eye, and find ways a plenty to shame any and all who do not join the fray on their side. How many times I’ve read over these last years, “If your pastor doesn’t mention suchandsuch this Sunday you need to find a different church!”
All the while, across the street from my church lives a tomato farmer. Let’s say his name is Tom. For Tom, I decide to be very cautious in how I engage the tomato controversy. Not because I’m afraid of Tom. Not because I think Tom’s right. No, because I feel called by the Spirit to pastor Tom. He doesn’t come to church on Sundays but he does come to our weekly meal. We eat together sometimes. At first, we engage in simple small talk. Then one day he’ll tell me about his daughter’s miscarriage. I’ll tell him, with all sincerity, that I’ll be praying for him, his daughter, and his family. Next, he’ll tell me all about how he wanted to be a dentist, but his father insisted he go into the family business. Then he’ll tell me that he’s worried about his son. On and on this goes. He learns to trust me and to know that I care about him.
Then it all falls apart. His wife leaves him. He comes distraught to my office. We pray. He kneels himself before the throne of God’s grace with his hand in mine. He and I’s relationship will never be the same. One day he comes to me and says, “So Matt, what do you think about tomato farming?” I tell him. He actually listens.
Now rewind. Imagine that just as Tom and I were getting to know each other I decided to go to an anti-tomato march. After all, the Bible is very clear on the subject. But the march is organized by a Christian group devoted to winning at all cost. The organization includes in its marketing disparaging caricatures of tomato farmers. I agree with the anti-tomato platform, but I also find myself swept up in their very un-Christian approach to spreading the message.
Then one of my friends on social media, of the pro-tomato ilk, challenges me on my attendance at such a march. Because I’m human, I throw rationality and impartiality to the wind and decide to defend the march in its entirety. I include something to the effect of, “If tomato farmers don’t want to be treated this way they should vie for a less offensive occupation.” I could have toed the line and said that I regretted the messaging at the march. I could have distanced myself from the egregious actions of the organizers. Instead I let fear of failure overtake me to the point of defending something I knew in my heart to be wrong.
This, of course, gets back to Tom. Maybe he sees a picture of me with my anti-tomato placard. Or maybe he silently reads my social media post. What will he do? He’ll stop coming to our weekly meal. He’ll intentionally disappear from my life. We will never have that golden moment of prayer. We’ll never get to look one another in the eye as we talk candidly about the Bible and tomatoes.
Which is greater for a pastor in a small neighborhood context like mine: taking a stand and losing interpersonal opportunities? Or being called a coward by ardent activists, all the while engaging people behind the scenes in a way that leads to prayer and conversation? I’ll take praying with the tomato farmer just about every day.
I do protest from time to time. Not in the marching format. Sometimes it’s from the pulpit. Sometimes it’s this blog. Sometimes I hold no capacity for self-control on a subject. Sometimes I’m quick to speak/write and slow to listen. Sometimes I do the very thing I do not want to do. However, sometimes it is wholly appropriate. When I judge it to be appropriate I take pains to be careful in my speech and writing . . . seeking to conform my activism to the mind of Christ. At least, that’s the goal.
I want you to know that I haven’t written this to shame protestors. I hope that every Christian will make decisions about how they engage in this era based upon a concern for Jesus and for human beings. I can respect people who take this approach, yet come to a different philosophy of engagement than my own. It does, however, worry me that so many have thrown in their allegiance to large issue-groups. It pains me to see the message of the group become wholly the philosophy of the individual. I worry that the group-think attitude of this moment is burying or distorting our sense of the ethics of Christ. That said, I actually happen to believe that God might just be using my approach and the protestor’s approach to do his work in the world. My reason for writing is to describe my own general method, because I think it is an method misunderstood by some and needlessly disrespected by others.
 Activism is a bit of a tricky word. In some ways, believing in and trying to live the Gospel of Christ is an act of activism. It’s a choice to stand for something altogether different than the typical cultural streams. But in the vernacular, activism refers to public activity devoted to the tearing down or propping up of a particular cause. In that sense, neither myself nor my church fits the activist bill.
 And I do care about him. I’m not just in it to change his mind.
 Tom is entirely fictitious, but I can’t tell you how many times such conversations have unfolded in my office, a coffee shop, or a living room.
 When we attach ourselves to these movements we tend to give away control over the message we ourselves speak. Our own reputation kneels at the mercy of the movement’s marketing. I find that to be far too high a price.