Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Confessions of a recovering activist

As I approach old age and look back on my life, the more clearly I can see how little my indignation and outrage have ever accomplished.

If that seems like a strange thing to meditate upon, understand that I consider such things in light of what some might consider a life of activism in the public arena. There are many causes out there; for me it's been pro-life work, the protection of human life from conception to natural death. Nor do I consider this an unworthy cause - in fact, I can find few more important ones in our current cultural and political environment. It is not the cause or the strategy that I'm reconsidering, but the tactics. I'm coming to realize that in all my activities spanning decades, the ones that were motivated by indignation and outrage, and executed in strident activism, were the least effective.

This seems to fly in the face of conventional wisdom. After all, aren't indignation and outrage the fuel for effective public activism? Isn't that how things are done? Raise "awareness" (whatever that is), provoke indignation, and encourage outrage as the force to align wills to effect political and social change.  I've seen this pattern offered as the formula for success in many venues, including the pro-life movement.

One problem is that indignation and outrage make poor foundations for lasting change, partly because they're so transient - like all emotions, they fade over time. Maintaining a certain level of indignation is like feeding an addiction: you need more and more stimulation to attain the same result. Also, outrage-driven activism often simply spawns outrage-driven response, until the discourse turns into a win/lose contest that often loses sight of the importance of the core issue. We can never admit that "they" have a point, because that would be yielding ground to the enemy.

But most of all, I've observed that activism driven by indignation and outrage simply doesn't work. I remember a pro-life colleague of mine boasting of how he accosted the staffer of a prominent pro-abortion politician at a public event. My colleague ended up screaming in the man's face about how vile and damnable the politician's stand was before storming off in high dudgeon. This was related to me as if it had been a major victory and evidence of what a courageous pro-life warrior this colleague was; all I could think was that he'd accomplished nothing other than to confirm in the staffer's mind what unreasonable radicals pro-lifers were.

This is an extreme example, but it seems to encapsulate the problem with outrage-driven activism. It seems to make short-term gains in the sense of setting back "opponents", but in the long term it often works against the goal it purports to work for. The payback seems satisfying - the administration conceded the point, the official apologized for the lapse, the staffer was rendered speechless, or whatever - but the gains are superficial or short-lived.

It seems to me that the root of strident activism is impatience. We want tangible, measurable results now, and will push until we get them. But this goes against even personal experience. Looking back over my life, I can see many times that my immediate wishes were thwarted, only to discover later that things would not have turned out as I'd wished, or there were factors in that situation that I was unaware of which made my choice imprudent. In fact, most of the regrets I have in my life stem from decisions I made and things I said in impatience.

At the root of impatience, in turn, is lack of trust in God. Impatience is what caused Ishmael and the Golden Calf. Impatience cause the destruction of Jerusalem (twice). Impatience got Jesus crucified - He just wasn't demonstrating his Messiahship quickly enough. Impatience is us seizing the reins of a situation to take charge because God isn't working quickly enough for us.

I'd always been a bit mystified that one of the attributes of the Messiah was that "He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street." (Is 42:2) I've come to understand that this means he would not be a rabble-rouser, seeking to goad people to indignation and outrage. By modern standards this would make him a weakling, ineffective or uncommitted. In our activism we imagine ourselves more fervent than Jesus Himself, more sensitive to the needs of the suffering, more willing to effect change than He is. This is a common complaint of modern times: if God is so omnipotent, why is there so much suffering in the world? Either He's not powerful enough to stop it, or doesn't care enough to get off His divine duff and get active.

If we trust what the Lord has revealed about Himself, we know this view is flawed. Nobody is more aware of human suffering than Jesus is. Every struggle of an unborn child seeking to escape the vacuum aspirator, every moan of a sex slave kidnapped from her family and imprisoned in a filthy brothel, every tear of a child whose family has been torn apart by the selfishness of her parents, every hunger pang of every forgotten old person in an understaffed care facility - Jesus hears them all. But He is patient, and awaits when the Father puts all enemies under His feet. He's the one who encourages us to work to rectify all those injustices, but we need to follow His example of perseverance and patience. It takes patience to work diligently but be willing to entrust the outcomes to the Lord, even if that means we don't get to see what they are. That's what it boils down to: if we work, will we insist on seeing the outcome of our efforts, or will we entrust the final outcomes to the Lord?

I wish I could say that coming to understand all this has fundamentally changed me, and I've given up stridency in favor of steady, peaceful, trusting effort. In truth, I've only begun to recognize the problem, and how much I'll have to change to become like Jesus. It's humbling to realize how much of my indignation and outrage stems not from my charity and strength, but from my character flaws. But knowing the problem is the first step toward seeing it resolved, is it not? May God grant me the peace and patience to reflect Him to a darkened and dying world. That is the only activism that ultimately endures.