Activism as Christian Practice

Since moving to Chicago, I’ve participated in many marches and rallies downtown to raise awareness of various causes and show solidarity with minority groups. I’ve also called, emailed, written to, and faxed my representatives back home in Texas about issues near and dear to my heart. I’ve shared many of this efforts on Facebook, with most responses showing support for my efforts. However, there’s also some who believe that it’s a waste of my time to try and challenge my representatives to be better at actually representing ALL of their constituents. Basically the mindset boils down to the fact that they believe what I’m doing isn’t going to make a difference, and that I should just accept the status quo.

Recently, some of my housemates and I attended the Spring Activist Council of the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship (and maybe accidentally joined some committees, but that’s a story for another time). One of our opening exercises led by the facilitators was to respond to several statements on an imaginary matrix: was this a violent or nonviolent action, was it effective or ineffective, and would you personally do it? Would we attend a letter writing campaign? Would we attend a rally downtown? Would we link arms and block traffic? Would we throw a smoke bomb back at police to protect other protesters? One of the most stark divides in opinion was between the younger half of the group and the older half of the group. Again, much of the hesitation revolved around questions of efficacy, and what our role as progressive Christians should be in these kinds of actions.

This year has helped me better articulate why it’s important that Christians continue to show up for our oppressed brothers and sisters and challenge harmful practices. A possible legitimate answer to the question, “What would Jesus do?” is found in Matthew 21: 12-17: Jesus overturns the tables of loan sharks and merchants, turning out those who had taken over the temple in the name of profit to make room for the blind and the crippled to be healed. Jesus dining with the sinners and the tax-collectors did not do much to increase his popularity at the time either. With the lens of perspective, of course we can see that this was the right thing for Jesus to do, and for his disciples to continue. But at the time, these were very controversial actions that led many to question why Jesus bothered.

We can look at a more recent example as well in the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. For a time, Dr. King resided in the Lawndale neighborhood of Chicago and kept in an office in the church that coincidentally owns the building I live in in East Garfield Park. In history books today, Dr. King is a clear hero and martyr, a man who selflessly fought for civil rights. But what is left out is just how much push back Dr. King received for his actions. Even then, when protesters shut down bridges marching to Selma and boycotted buses in Montgomery, many counseled patience and considered Dr. King’s actions “unwise and untimely.” In “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Dr. King admonishes those who would wait for legal negotiations to bring change, saying that the “white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice” is a larger obstacle to the course of civil rights than any outright racist organization at the time. He goes on to say “Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

I’m not trying to make the lofty claim that I am on the same level as Dr. King or Jesus. Rather, I seek to provide grounding for why I believe that as a progressive Christian, I should and must continue to fight to protect the rights and dignity of others, even and especially those who don’t look and think like me.

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