Activism, Justice, and Longing for Shalom

I care about justice; must I be an activist?

May 17th, 2013

This week we continue our conversation with Tyler Wigg-Stevenson, whose book, The World Is Not Ours to Save, is a rich theological reflection on the importance and limits of Christian activism by someone who has spent time "in the trenches," so to speak.

Jamie Smith: Clearly, activism is bound up with a deep passion for justice. I could be imposing my own lexicon on this, but when I think of what really moves Christian activists, it's actually longing to see God's Kingdom break into our present, in furtive foretastes, longing for shalom—that kind of full flourishing of creation. That got me wondering: are activism and the pursuit of justice the same thing or is activism a particular way to pursue shalom? Do I only care about justice if I'm an activist?

Tyler Wigg-Stevenson: The short answer to that last one is "no." I hope that we've established early on in our conversation is that the objective of activism is to change social realities. But clearly justice is bigger than just these big social realities. It's interpersonal, too. Our interpersonal realities are certainly informed and inflected by our social realities, but nevertheless they are a separate thing.

The way I comport myself as an individual, I can be pursuing justice in my more intimate spheres without being an activist at all. I actually think that most people probably aren't and shouldn't be activists. It's a very specific set of behaviours and set of concerns to be dealing with. It only deals with a section of human life. Yes, absolutely you pursue justice if you're not an activist.

But while I'm on this, can I talk for a second about the pursuit of "justice"? Because this is clearly the activist watchword in many evangelical circles today. I think that justice represents maybe the most pervasive and "on the rise" set of commitments. You could walk into any evangelical church and find people who have re-discovered the centrality of justice to the gospel. (I feel compelled here to acknowledge that there's also a whole set of Christians whom evangelicals often turn up our noses at who never forgot about justice—who have been quietly at it through the long haul when it wasn't glitzy or cool.)

So praising our sisters and brothers who have been faithful for the long haul, let's celebrate that evangelicals are re-discovering justice. Let's lift up an organization like the International Justice Mission which, as far as I'm concerned, is about as good as it gets. Sorry—that makes it sound like it sounds like it's not quite good enough. That's not what I mean. They're fantastic.

JS: Exemplary.

TWS: Exemplary in what it means to take a Christian posture toward social realities and then work in a world that's broader than Christianity itself. I think they do extraordinary work and I think they're at the cutting edge and I couldn't be more admiring of them, both as an organization and of their leadership. When I talk to people about activism today, this question of justice always comes up, largely thanks to them. Western evangelicals have been at the justice game now for, let's say, about fifteen to twenty years. It's been growing. It was a minority when Gary (Haugen) was first trying to promote his book (Good News About Injustice) and he could only find five people listen to him in church basements.

But this also means that this is a movement that's maturing. I think it will mature into a commitment to peace. What's interesting to me is you asking the question, do I pursue justice; am I pursuing shalom? I would say the better translation for shalom certainly involves justice, but more accurately it's peace.

This is the hurdle that I'm anxious to see whether contemporary evangelical activists can jump over. The case that's on my heart right now is the folks in Guantánamo Bay. It's a travesty of justice that there are these individuals who have been cleared for release, but because of other legislation and the fact that the government has eliminated the bureaucrat who gives those individuals waivers within the State Department, there are people who are stuck indefinitely, detained by a government in a legal no-man's-land. This is blatant injustice.

It is very easy to advocate justice for subjects who are fundamentally sympathetic: children, victims of sex trafficking. And we should be advocating for justice for those folks. But the question for me is: will our passion extend to hating injustice even when the people against whom injustice is being perpetuated might actually hate us? Who might be thoroughly unsympathetic characters and yet, nevertheless, be victims of injustice? That's why I think the next step for the justice movement, as it were, is growing into a commitment to peace, which I think is much harder because it involves places where people are committing violence.

I started with IJM, so let me return to them as an example. To the extent that he's a leader in the broader justice movement, this is where I see Gary pushing all of us, because he talks about injustice as the perpetuation of violence. I think it's that consideration of violence in all its forms that's the next step for the movement. This is something I'm a little fixated on and I may have co-opted the question you asked. I think it's going to be one of the operative questions for contemporary Christian activism to see where it goes.

JS: I can totally appreciate that. In my tradition, the language of justice was sort of put on the table for us back in the mid-1980s in Nicholas Wolterstorff's book, Until Justice and Peace Embrace. "Justice" (shalom) there includes that peace that is flourishing. But it's also peace, not just as the absence of conflict, but as right relations with God, with one another, with the environment, with nonhuman creation. That can then start to incorporate and unfold all kinds of concern wherever there are disordered relations. I hear what you're saying and it's helpful for me because it clarifies this is one nagging worry I had when I read your book. Maybe I read the book too quickly, but sometimes it felt like, if you're really serious about justice, you'll be an activist. But I hear you saying now that activism can be one expression of being concerned for justice, but it's not the only way to pursue shalom.

TWS: That's exactly right. Two thoughts on that relatively briefly. I don't want to give away the book, as you say, but the second half of the book is showing what a comprehensive orientation toward the Kingdom of God must take into consideration. That includes peace with God, peace among the peoples, and peace in community. This threefold peace is something we should be comprehensively oriented to. So, if you're going to be an activist, you may be focused in one of these domains, but it cannot be at the personal cost of a life lived out in orientation to all three.

Second, I'm interested to see the response to one part of the book. I have no idea whether it will land, but I'll be very curious to see what kind of reaction there is to what I call a new typology of Christian activism. I think often Christians approach activism with a very limited imagination and it boils down to mobilization or moral arbitration. I think this limited imagination amounts to saying, "How can we use Christianity as a force to fix these problems?" If that's your approach, there's really no daylight between you and a secular organizer on that score.

What I'm proposing instead asking is, "How are we faithfully the church in the midst of a world that is full of social problems, and what does that look like?" If we broaden our sensibility of what activism is, this is actually what it would look like. It might include a number of activities that we wouldn't necessarily think of as activism. In a sense, I'm doing a bit of a game here. I'm saying, let's redefine the word to mean all of these things. I think what's necessary is the captivity of the modern activist mindset to this historical progressivist "consciousness-raising" concept.

JS: That's the part of the book where you talk about there being a prophetic role, a priestly role, and other roles that activism plays, right? I appreciated that. You don't say, "Here's the one new right way to do it." It's more like, "Here are the complex, many angles and fronts on which we would carry that out."

TWS: Thanks. That was the aspiration and it's not meant to be an exhaustive list either. It's more spit-balling. What are the gifts that the church has to give to a hurting world? And this is what it looks like. Some of it might be part and parcel of what you really think of as traditional activism. Others might push the boundaries. The second half of the book is really a push against the person who would want to live out their Christianity entirely in an activist frame, which I think loses some things that are indispensable. Activism can't simply pick up Christianity and carry it along.

JS: One of the reasons you wrote the book is because you're worried that in ten or twenty or thirty years, if we fall into this trap of thinking the world is ours to save, but thirty years from now the world still needs saving—well, you worry about the church at that point. What will happen to a generation of Christian activists who thought they were going to save the world, only to later realize they couldn't? What is that going to do to their faith?

So let's say everybody reads The World Is Not Ours to Save (which I think would be fantastic). They are convinced by it. They start undertaking responsible activism, good activism of the sort that you've described. How will we be better equipped thirty years down the road? What will the maturity of our faith look like thirty years down the road? I think that what you're saying actually will continue to keep us open to the fact that this is God's work.

TWS: That's a really fascinating question and I'm embarrassed to say it has never occurred to me that the book might be successful! (Laughs.) This is a good visioning exercise for me. What if people actually read this thing and listened to it? Okay, so if we went in the direction that I would hope we would go in it would be this: we would see revitalized local congregations. That's what would be success.

By that, I don't mean simple numbers of people coming to worship, although that would be great. What I mean is families of faith who come together weekly to remember the gospel story. To hear it in its purity, not its ethical consequences, not what it means for politics, but straight up and down—Jesus died for our sins and was raised on the third day and here are the thousand and one different reasons why this is meaningful to your life and you will never exhaust them. But here's the rub: that people will do this, and that those churches will understand themselves as the means of equipping their congregation's vocational sense. People will live comprehensively in a Christian sense in whatever it is they do, and that attentiveness should spill over into Christians at work, will spill over into Christians in politics (in the broadly political, whether or not you are involved in political campaigns or anything like this), in business, in the NGO world, in raising families and living among community with Christians and non-Christians alike.

The hope for the book is that if we accept that "The world is not ours to save," then we fall back on the sense that there's a necessity of living a comprehensive kingdom orientation that can't simply be evacuated into or exhausted by a good work in this direction. Rather, it is a congregation living a life of peace with God, which spills out into its pursuit of peace among the peoples, and facilitating peace in community.

Maybe, in part, the reason that's my answer is because I'm concerned that the para-church will become a substitute for the church—which it never could. I'm worried that people would see participating in this or that activist movement like, "That's worship to me." Well, it is, but it's also not. The worship of service is great but all of us need word and table, prayer and praise, too. To some extent, I think this is actually something that I've gotten from your writings as well: the answer to what we face is not all novelty, but a return to what is actually quite old.

JS: Tyler, thank you very much for the book. And thanks for making time to talk with us here today. I really appreciate it.

TWS: Thank you. This has really provoked my thinking and I'm going to be mulling on this. I really appreciate the care with which you read it. Thank you.


Tyler Wigg-Stevenson is the founding director of the Two Futures Project, a movement of American Christians for the abolition of nuclear weapons that has been recognized by secular and religious media including PBS, Christianity Today and The Washington Post, and which was also named by Relevant Magazine as one of "50 Ideas that Changed Everything." Tyler also chairs the Global Task Force on Nuclear Weapons, an initiative of the World Evangelical Alliance.


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