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Responsible Activism and Social Change

If it's up to this generation to save the world, what will happen to our faith lives if there's still saving to be done when we're finished with it?

The World Is Not Ours to Save is a book you should read. It is timely and wise, forthright and charitable. Above all, it is hopeful—hope-full. Comment editor Jamie Smith sat down with author Tyler Wigg-Stevenson to discuss the challenges of Christian activism, the pursuit of justice, and what it means to remember that we can't save the world. This week is Part I of our interview. Check back next week for the conclusion of the interview.




Jamie Smith: You praise a new activist energy amongst evangelical Christians. You also see a new appreciation for the complexity of problems like poverty and war. But you also worry that the activism of young Christians might become—though this isn't your word—sort of "Pelagian," as if our efforts are what's needed to fix the problem. You also worry that when we fall into this habit, we end up just becoming "progressives." That is, we get overconfident in our own abilities and assume, as your title is alludes, that "the world is ours to save." Is that a fair place to start? Does that sound like a fair summary of your thesis?

Tyler Wigg-Stevenson: Yes, I think that's just right. The only thing I'd add is that the book is also intended to comment on what I see as a generational movement. So these trends are highly particular to what I see as a rising generation of especially American or Western Christians, who would tend to operate within a mindset that has become very familiar to me. And it's familiar because I, to some extent, have participated in it myself.

I see it in terms of this generational aspect: they are the grandchildren of the Religious Right and the Religious Left. They're the grandchildren of the 1960s generation who have completely internalized a commitment to widespread social change, but who are engaging an agenda that's entirely twenty-first century. And this agenda is broader and different than the one that was driving, say, their grandparents' or their parents' generations.


JS: Do you mean young evangelicals are reacting to a previous generation? Or is it just a way of saying we are in a different time, we're in a different moment so their activism looks different?

TWS: Probably more the latter informed by the former. I think part of our moment is a reaction against previous generations. One of the ways that I started to think about this—and this is not hard and fast—but, if the 1960s generation largely lined up along the battle lines that were familiar for that decade (questions of identity around sexuality, gender, race, the conflict in Vietnam, and the peace movement), then you've got this broader cultural mandate that emerged with the subsequent generation, and now there's a new generation that's just starting to come of age. I think it's as yet undetermined, though, which way it's going to go, what their activism is going to look like. Yet I think it's impossible to understand where we are without understanding that sequence.


JS: Is it the generational difference then that requires your gentle but forthright critique of a tendency for new activists to look for quick fixes or feel-good fixes or some action that will excuse us from personal complicity? Is that a new problem do you think?

TWS: I don't know. I'm thirty-five so I wasn't around during the 1960s. I don't really have a sense of what the appeals were like back then. My hunch is that we're witnessing the decline of what I would call political commitments, commitments to a politic, to a sense of being part of a whole in which one's individuality is negligible, that there are these big identities that matter and that need to be advocated for in substantial ways. I don't want to put this at technology's feet, but it's certainly exacerbated by social media which has a hyper-individuality to it. The reason it exists is for niche marketing.

Contemporary activists operate within this tension: the fracturing effect of technology and wanting to be individually significant. I can write a tweet and, theoretically, be heard by anybody on the planet. But at the same time, this capacity for everyone to speak in their own ways maybe mitigates against the more difficult political commitments, solidarity, that characterized the activism of the past.


JS: I wondered whether technology and the reality of mass culture is already unbelievably different than it was in 1960s activism. It's funny: you think of watching Mad Men and you're really just starting to see the beginnings of the power of that mass culture messaging. But now that mass culture is so comprehensive that it can master niche marketing, which must change the identity of how we think of our activism.

TWS: I think that's right. I don't have any in-depth analysis of what that means, but I think that defines the contours of what we're looking at today, yes.


JS: This relates to some of the strongest parts of the book. They hurt the most because they hit so close to home. You have, for example, this brilliant analysis where you deconstruct the typical cause video—where you can just lay out the beats and you know exactly the formula of how that works. The takeaway from that, though, is not just negative. You're cautioning us, but you're also trying to free us up from a burden of thinking the world is ours to save.

Instead you're saying, "No, look: we need to get caught up in what God is doing and this is God's world and only God can bring about the kingdom." I really appreciate the constructive aspect of the book, too, where you locate activism in the soil of discipleship and vocation and Christian formation.

TWS: I'm really trying to address an anxiety that pervades the work of activism today because the book hopefully offers a dose of reality—or a dose of tragedy—that people recognize as an unavoidable part of life. You can't design your way around that.

In some ways, I think the contemporary inheritor of 1960s movement culture is probably the TED movement, which, in its very name, says the way to a better world is through technology, education, and design. It's all technique. But what it lacks is any sort of substantive undergirding big idea. That big idea is about the nature of the human condition and that is precisely why I am ambivalent about the TED movement. In some ways it is highly admirable and laudable: great, innovative things come out of there. I celebrate that kind of creativity. I wish Christians were often as creative in their thinking.

At the same time, from a confessional point of view, we can never design our way out of the fundamentally tragic character of living in a fallen world. That's the piece that I think shoves us towards vocation, shoves us toward discipleship, because it's not simply, "How do we make the world a better place?" Of course, we should do that. But there is a quality of living in a fallen world that can only authentically be addressed or lived out through the modes of discipleship and discipleship and vocation. I think these are postures toward living in a world with this tragic character.


JS: What I loved about your book is that it made me ask questions I had never asked myself before. For instance, what's the difference between discipleship and activism?

TWS: A whole host of things. I think discipleship is the comprehensive posture of living a life that seeks to follow Jesus. Of seeking the discipline of the confession that Christ is Lord, of the living person of Christ. It seeks that discipline over every aspect of our lives.

Activism, on the other hand, is a posture toward social realities that presupposes that coordinated activity can make a difference in the social realities that we live in. One's discipleship might very well lead one into acts of activism or to a career as an activist or to times spent in activism, but discipleship can never be evacuated into activism. Activism is never a substitute for discipleship. It's at best a subset of the sort of activities that one might do as a disciple of Christ.


JS: So let's say that activism is something like "coordinated social effort to affect social change." Now you've got me wondering: I'm here at a conference of agencies that serve vulnerable and marginalized populations (agencies that serve the elderly, the developmentally disabled, the poor, and so on). These are Christians who have coordinated efforts and established organizations, to effect social change. Are they activists? This might help us refine what we mean by activism a little bit more because they would never describe themselves as activists. Yet I would say they shared this in common: they obviously coordinated social efforts to improve a problem, to work on a problem. They are clearly doing so with a vision of justice and shalom in mind. So I wonder: is there some other element to activism that makes it unique?

TWS: I think that's a really insightful theoretical wedge to drive because I would agree:
I wouldn't necessarily jump to think of, say, social service providers as activists. They're doing something. They may be changing the world that they live in. People are living better lives. People are feeling more loved. These are all good things.

It would be quite easy I think to say, to come back at me and say, "You constructed a strawman. Look at the social providers. They're not trying to save the world. They're just trying to do their bit where they are and they have no illusions that they're going to perfect anything; they're just faithfully toiling while they've got breath in their lungs." I would say amen to that, that's exactly right. What I'm trying to drive at, I think, is that contemporary activism as I see it is a bit more macro than that. It's going to aspire to a certain form of agency regarding our larger social realities, that we should get this kind of economy, or this kind of legislation.

Activism also often assumes that we're moving in this irreversibly progressive direction. I'm not meaning progressive versus conservative. I mean "progressive" in a philosophical and historical sense that we, as a species, are learning and the past is the bygone days of ignorance and we're gradually fixing it little by little. Whether or not someone consciously articulates that, I guess that's what I'm thinking of in terms of a social mindset around activism that would distinguish it from, say, a simple provision of service.


JS: Are you saying that activism is inherently progressivist?

TWS: That's a live question. I don't know that it has to be. I do think that activism is a posture toward living in society that is unimaginable without progressivism at large. I don't think activism is an ahistorical phenomenon. I don't think there were activists during the Renaissance. Modern life is in many ways, I would say, inherently progressivist even when it's got conservative politics. I don't know if that gets us anywhere, but that's how I'd tackle that question.


JS: How do activists know when they've been successful?

TWS: This is a hobby horse of mine these days. It's one of my grievances with a lot of contemporary activism is that I feel like it's messing with forces that it takes very lightly. It's like, we want to accomplish this goal so "like" us on Facebook. But let's look at this seriously. What you're really talking about is the concerted effort or the concerted product of coordinated social power to change social realities for other people in ways that are pretty significant, that often involve the exercise of coercive power.

The more activism I do, the more committed I am to highly specific goals—where you can make a case in public and it becomes a public good that's available for critique and engagement.

For example, the Two Futures Project is a movement of Christians for the abolition of nuclear weapons. But that's a goal that is not within the domain of Christianity to achieve. Christians are perhaps a necessary but insufficient part of achieving that goal. So, how do we know if we're successful? We say what our goal is and then you make a case that we're going to aim for these achievable steps A, B, and C; here's why they're relevant toward the end goal. And then we're going to work for them in ways that can be strategically planned for. That, I think, is responsible activism because it's not simply saying that we're in this perpetual process of fixing the world. Earlier in my activist career, I was more about the big, ambiguous goals and the further along I go, the more committed I am to actionable tasks that I think can be defended.


JS: Do you think that what you call "responsible activism" would be activism that is wise about discerning the institutions it needs to impact? What you just described got me thinking: there's something a little bit "parasitic" about activism, just in this sense that activism is a strategy or a tactic that is trying to change social realities, but usually those social realities are changed by institutions, agencies, laws, things like that. It seems like, ideally, responsible activism is eventually going to find success when it impinges upon and maybe partners with, collaborates with, institutions. Is that possible?

TWS: I think that's dead on. I do think that good activism or responsible activism is going to look at a problem and all its component parts. It's hard to imagine a social problem small enough that institutions are irrelevant to it. Responsible activism is going to ask, "Who are the parties that need to be moved on this?"

For example, with the Two Futures Project again, one of the things that drove me in this was the sense that for the elimination of nuclear weapons really isn't even the end goal. The end goal—and what's driven by a Christian conscience on this—is the sense that the use of nuclear weapons is theologically and morally unacceptable. So what's the way to prevent their use as best we can—because we can't ever do it with 100% predictability? I'm convinced for a variety of reasons (and this is a political argument) that abolition is the state of management of this technology that is the most likely to produce nuclear non-use.

Well, how do we get to abolition? Among other things, it's a global quest, but the United States' leadership is absolutely critical on that. And I'm convinced that the U.S. will never be able to take leadership if there's significant division among moral stakeholders in the United States about the desirability of this goal. That's why the Two Futures Project is engaged primarily with evangelicals who haven't historically been on the same side as mainline Protestants and Roman Catholics vis-á-vis nuclear weapons.

So I'm hopefully not claiming that we, Evangelicals, are going to get this thing done. Rather, it's to say: here's an institution, "Evangelicalism," whose support for nuclear abolition will be important to any lasting capacity to enact change. So let's work on that. Then you can break that down into its component parts. What's that support look like? Who do we need to engage with? That's how you design a campaign.


JS: That's a great peek at a concrete problem and concrete strategy that will be illuminating for a lot of people working in different areas.




Be sure to visit next week to read the conclusion of our interview with Tyler Wigg-Stevenson when we'll explore the intersection of activism and justice.

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Tyler Wigg-Stevenson Tyler Wigg-Stevenson
Tyler Wigg-Stevenson is the founding director of the Two Futures Project. ... read more »
James K.A. Smith James K.A. Smith
James K.A. Smith is a Senior Fellow with Cardus, and the editor of Comment Magazine. ... read more »
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