The Common Good
May-June 2000

Cutting Classes for Christ

by Ryan Beiler | May-June 2000

Youthful idealism can grow into life-long commitment to justice.

Ariel, the son-in-law of the Guatemalan couple that hosted me when I traveled to Central America in 1997, spoke nostalgically of his days in the student movement—even though it had gotten him roughed up and shot at by security forces. He left such dangers behind when commitments to wife, children, and church became his highest priorities.

Though most U.S. activists risk far less than Ariel, often the same kinds of commitments push justice work to the back burner—or off the stove entirely. These commitments don't excuse "grown-ups" from doing activism, but awareness of them points out the importance of encouraging the radical impulses of those who often are without such pressing responsibilities—such as, for example, students.

Compared to Ariel's risks, getting arrested for protesting the U.S. Army's School of the Americas (SOA) in Georgia—the school that trains the soldiers who've caused so much suffering in Latin America—was the very least I could do. Last November, students from more than 232 colleges and universities made the same choice and did civil disobedience to protest the School of the Americas. Interrupting my "busy" academic schedule for such events was not only possible but, in the big picture, an even higher priority than classes.

SOA Watch and other emerging student movements are impressive for their "love thy neighbor" attitude. Many of the most popular causes—sweatshop labor, a living wage, and freeing Tibet—defend the rights of others. And though passions may wane after graduation, youthful idealism can grow into life-long commitment to justice.

Students, however, need more than a call to action. We need encouragement to integrate faith and politics without feeling that one must be sacrificed for the other.

IN COLLEGE I struggled with, and eventually left, a Christian fellowship whose attitude toward social justice was either apathetic or patronizing. Fortunately I found a more supportive fellowship. A student I met at a Christian university's peace conference wasn't so lucky. She had come to reject any use of the Bible to pursue justice, citing its use as a tool of oppression.

For those radicalized in the postmodern university without the support of a faith community, there is a danger of pluralism becoming confused with relativism; that respect for others' beliefs is gained only by watering down one's own. As students answer the call to activism, we need encouragement do so in the context of the Christian's highest call: Love God with everything and before everything (Matthew 22:37-38).

At another conference of Christian activists, a speaker followed his question "Why do followers of Jesus need to do activism?" with its converse, "Why do activists need Jesus?" There was an awkward silence.

We may squirm at the salvation talk we learned in Sunday school because of its association with fundamentalist hellfire, brimstone, and reactionary agendas, but are we now ashamed of the gospel? Jesus calls us to tell others about him ("Go therefore and make disciples," Matthew 28:19) and work for peace and justice ("Obey everything I have commanded you," Matthew 28:20).

As a young Christian activist, I wrestle with the proportions of "show" and "tell" in my faith and with how to remain rooted in the gospel that first called me to action. But I believe that we must be able to march for justice arm-in-arm with Buddhists, Muslims, or atheists who are firm in their convictions while remaining equally firm in our own.

As students swell the ranks of activist movements, our churches must not react to such radicalism with hostility or condescension. Instead, they can echo the challenge of Paul: "Whatever you do, in word or in deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus" (Colossians 3:17)—even if it gets you arrested.

Ryan Beiler is web editor at Sojourners.

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