It is easy to slip from defending the weak to attacking those Paul describes as the "weak person,” those who are attached to rituals and rules that are unnecessary but benign. If I allow myself to be drawn into self-righteousness, I find myself casting judgment for every little disagreement. I want to stop thinking of my opponents as my siblings in Christ. I want to do exactly what Paul cautions against when he says, "let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother" (Romans 14:13.)
So much in the world needs to change, but the people doing the most to change the world are often zealous. I know I was — and self-righteous, too. Yet perpetual effort to forge a new world did not heal my soul; rather, it deepened my soul’s sense of separation from love. To put it theologically, a friend involved with left-wing Catholic Worker style communities describes a subtle culture of “not enough,” as communal embodiment of what Martin Luther called “works-righteousness.”
When did we all become activists?
Was it when social media made it accessible for us to change our profile pictures?
When we realized we each had a platform to make our voices heard?
Was it when pictures of refugee babies drowned ashore shook our moral core?
THREE RECENT FILMS portray heroism as ordinary people behaving with conviction under extraordinary circumstances. In Sully, an airline pilot lands safely in the Hudson River; in Snowden, a man speaks truth to power when he realizes it has been lying to him; and in the three-minute short We’re the Superhumans, British Paralympians and others with disabilities dance, jump, run, and fly to a big-band soundtrack. They are changing the world by challenging dominant cultural images of “able bodies,” “normal,” and “strong.”
Musician and activist David LaMotte has a theory about effective activism: An individual hero single-handedly overturning monstrous injustice isn’t a harmless cliché trotted out in TV or film dramatizations. Projecting near-supernatural power on such people is not only inaccurate, it denies them an even greater power: to truly influence others. If Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King Jr. were merely magicians, how can any of us respond other than applaud their tricks and despair of our capacity to challenge the oppression we discern in our own times? In World-Changing 101 (a book whose title is both serious and ironic), LaMotte suggests that this harmful fantasy ignores the strategic preparation and community support that nurture effective activism. Montgomery bus boycott handbills were printed by a group led by a teacher, Jo Ann Robinson; she had worked for years as a civil rights activist, including preparing for such a boycott. Printing handbills, sharing cars, telling hopeful stories, serving lemonade to tired marchers—all were vital parts of the body of change. Rosa Parks sat down alone, but she got up with many.
The cinematic heroes who don’t look like real-life activists avoid community, tending to act alone (Batman at least has a butler). Instead of painstaking planning (trial and error too), they spring into action or reaction when the bad guy is already halfway to victory (the villain often confidently explaining his dastardly plan just before it is foiled). They’re typically not around for the work of integrating the aftermath.
But Sully sees heroism as doing what you are trained to do—repudiating the notion that an emergency landing is a “miracle” rather than an act of human skill. Snowden tells how a whistleblower enlisted distinguished journalists so his revelations could be ethically told. And in the most glorious image of the year, We’re the Superhumans parallels one man in a flying wheelchair with another cleaning his teeth. Just getting out of bed can be heroic
Bree Newsome, a Christian activist from North Carolina, climbed into history last year when she scaled the flagpole of the South Carolina state house and removed the longstanding Confederate flag. One year later, Sojourners caught up with Newsome, an honoree at The Summit 2016, on what her action helped bring down — and build up.
Cáceres' family and other activists fear the Honduran government may be too close to interests that persecuted Berta to properly investigate the murder.
Mormons teach, preach, and sing about families being together forever in heaven, but some members of the Utah-based faith want to exclude one group from that promise, at least on Earth.
And, while the LDS Church supports immigration reform that keeps families together, its leaders have not pushed that idea in worship settings where Mormons are gathered. Nor has it called out those who disagree. In other words, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has gone largely silent on the issue.
Young people ignited by injustice, refusing to back down. A nation waking up to the reality of racial disparities. And a church that can no longer remain silent. This, says Eden Theological Seminary professor Leah Francis Gunning, is the real “Ferguson Effect.” As she protested in Ferguson over the past year, Gunning collected interviews from clergy and young organizers. The result is Ferguson and Faith: Sparking Leadership & Awakening Community (Chalice Press, 2015), a behind-the-scenes look at the role of the church in the Black Lives Matter movement. Sojourners interviewed Francis to learn more about the religious community’s role in supporting and sustaining a racial justice movement started by young activists.
When Ireland became the first country to legalize same-gender marriage by popular mandate, double rainbows appeared over Dublin, and an Irish rock band transformed their Arizona concert into a gay-rights celebration. Almost 30 years ago, Bono endured threats from angry Arizonans for his support of the U.S. national holiday for the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. But on Saturday, Bono invoked King as peacemaker as U2 celebrated the victory of love, turning the song “Pride (In The Name of Love)” into an anthem for gay pride.
Bono shared, “This is a moment to thank the people who bring us peace. It’s a moment for us to thank the people who brought peace to our country. We have peace in Ireland today! And in fact on this very day we have true equality in Ireland. Because millions turned up to vote yesterday to say, ‘love is the highest law in the land! Love! The biggest turnout in the history of the state, to say, ‘love is the highest law in the land!’ Because if God loves us, whoever we love, wherever we come from … then why can’t the state?’”
It’s hard to be optimistic about changing the world when our news cycle is dominated by terrorism, violence, and disease. When world events shock us, sometimes our best hopes cave in to our worst fears. Even the most radical activist may be tempted to give up.
But there is a different narrative that summons those of us who dare to care. It begins when we confront the things that have kept millions from breaking free from poverty and injustice. It ends when we find the courage to change how we change the world.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo, which consistently ranks among the poorest countries in the world and the most dangerous for women, a group of peacemakers are changing the narrative. Last year I met a Congolese woman who told me how her husband was killed in crossfire between warring militias, how she was violently assaulted by the soldiers who were supposed to protect her, and how she fled her village with her eight children under the cover of night. In the wake of her suffering, she joined a group of women to save small amounts of their own money each week. From her savings, she launched a soap-making business. Over time, she employed others and taught her sisters how to do the same. She helps others to forgive their perpetrators and, together, they are determined to stop the violence against women in a land known as the rape capital of the world.
Today thousands of peacemakers like her are changing Congo, and their numbers continue to swell. They are “waging peace” to save Congo one village at a time.
I went to college thinking political activism was sexy. Living in a large city gave me unparalleled access to protests for countless good causes. Chanting at anti-war marches and getting arrested on behalf of climate change legislation would make interesting party stories, I thought. I quickly hopped on the Occupy Chicago bandwagon, a movement which calls for a more equitable wealth distribution, but whose leaders and participants were largely white college graduates. None of my organizing work focused on racial inequalities, but stayed in the realm of money in politics, equitable banking practices, and climate change.
My journey took a profound turn at an organizing training where I proudly stated I was there because my faith called me to advocate for the least of these. In response, a powerful, albeit brash, leader in Chicago’s movements angrily characterized me as an “activist do-gooder” who was fueled by the need to be a good white person. This label devastated me. I’m outspoken, passionate and willing to lead, I thought, so why can’t people see me as a resource? I took a break from the organizing world feeling disillusioned and miffed.
This attitude forced me to ask myself, why was I drawn to political activism in the first place? What was it that drew me to the movements in which I involved myself? And why was I so offended that someone had questioned my motives?
Witnessing: Prophecty, Politics, and Wisdom;edited by Maria Clara Bingemer and Peter Casarella / Forward Together: A Moral Message by Chalice Press / Waging Peace: Global Adventures of a Lifelong Activist by David Hartsough / The Salt of the Earth directed by Wim Wendres and Juliano Salgado.