I occasionally hear people saying things like, “I could never do what you do,” or “I’m not an activist type” or, “Not everyone can be activists.” Occasionally I’ll ask, “Why not?” but mostly I just bite my tongue and put up with the slightly queasy feeling in my stomach. I’ve had no fewer than three such conversations about this in the last week, and so it seems timely to put my challenges to this kind of thinking in a little more depth. And hopefully to do so with the grace that I’m shown daily by God.
Understand that I do what I do (nonviolent direct action/civil disobedience) not because I feel a particularly special “call”, but because I look at Jesus and it seems to me to be what Jesus calls his disciples to do. Not just some disciples, not just a “hardcore” element, just “whosoever would be my disciple”. You don’t need to be special or different, it’s just the call to “follow”, and following means doing the things Jesus did (including the cross). I’m not special or different – I have the same pressures, hesitations, fears, questions anyone has. As I said to a group recently, I dislike the word “activist” being attached to me for the same reason for the same reason that Stanley Hauerwas doesn’t like to be called ‘pacifist’ – because it “sounds like you have a position that is somehow separate from your worship of the crucified Savior.” I don’t like the implication that a) activism is somehow separate from or extra to my being a disciple of Jesus and b) “Simon does activism,” as though that’s my thing and it somehow therefore lets others off the hook. “Activist” should simply be assumed in the word “Christian”.
In a sense, I resent it when people say or imply that, “Not everyone can be an activist,” because, I think, why not? I’m an activist, and goodness knows there are many days I’d like not to be. It’s had costs for me in terms of relationships, in terms of time, in terms of stress and money and a raft of other things. In many ways I’d like to find a convenient out that lets me off the hook too. I mean seriously, what’s different about me than you that means I can do it and you can’t? That’s what always strikes me when I meet people I respect or regard as heroes (like John Dear or Kathy Kelly) – at first I’m a little starstruck, and then I start to realise they’re just a normal person, and it’s not a disappointment, it’s an empowering realisation. Because when we hero worship people (or just consider them weird), it holds them at arm’s length, and lets us off the hook. But when we discover we’re no different, all excuses are gone (which is the point of Dorothy Day’s “don’t call me a saint” comment – “I won’t be dismissed that easily,” she said).
It’s just that I believe that this is what discipleship looks like (or actually, I’m a pale imitation of what discipleship looks like). In other words, ‘radical discipleship’ is not some subset of a general group called ‘discipleship’. It is not only for the ‘hardcore’. It’s for all of us. “Whosoever would follow.” If Jesus defines discipleship as taking up your cross, and taking up your cross isn’t costly, then what is it?
Of course I’m painfully aware that it’s difficult to say this without a) sounding like I’m up myself or b) sounding like the bar of discipleship is impossibly high. As far as a) goes, I’m just starting on this journey; the reality is I’ve taken very few risks, and those I’ve taken have been fairly calculated and small. But I don’t see that as anything other than unfaithfulness to the call to follow with my whole self, to offer my whole self as a “living sacrifice”. So I’m not in any way holding myself up as an example, I’m trying to hold myself to the same standard. And as far as b) goes, of course in the grace of God both faithfulness and unfaithfulness are safe places to be; it’s just that we’re invited to far more with faithfulness. So failure is always in the context of grace, with the invitation to keep trying.
I hear people often complain that those who are “hardcore” (whatever that means) separate themselves from or look down on those who “aren’t”, or treat them as lesser. That has not been my experience (well, generally speaking, though there have been exceptions). In my experience it is far more often the other way around – those with less experience feel inferior for their own reasons, not because anyone else made them feel that way – and they then project this feeling of inferiority onto those with more experience. I’ve done that. I now try to recognise it when I do.
So do I think everybody has to do civil disobedience/risk arrest? Not necessarily, though many more do, especially leaders. Leaders need to lead by example. Certainly it would help to spread the load if everyone did though. Imagine this is what the church was known for – nonviolently getting in the way of injustice and violence wherever it happened, demonstrating love that is willing to bear costs.
If Jesus saw fit to describe discipleship in terms of taking up our cross (and, as Yoder reminds us, “Only at one point, only on one subject – but then consistently, universally – is Jesus our example: in his cross”), why do we think it’s not going to cost our comfortable middle class lives anything to follow Jesus?
Do I think that risking arrest is the only way to “take up your cross”? No, of course not. Taking up your cross, though, does not merely mean any inconvenience or difficulty; it does have a particular social and political meaning. Here let me quote John Howard Yoder: “The cross of Calvary was not a difficult family situation, not a frustration of visions of personal fulfillment, a crushing debt or a nagging in-law; it was the political, legally to be expected result of a moral clash with the powers ruling his society.”
So taking up our cross does not mean any difficulty or inconvenience or frustration. It is something costly. It is something (mostly, at least in the West) we choose to take on. It is something that is done to us, usually by “authorities” (powers/principalities). It is a political and social (though not merely political and social) act, the result of laws or policies which mitigate against the quality of love being lived (what Jesus describes as “perfect” or “complete” love). It is the result of actions, not mere thoughts, opinions, or attitudes.
I’m speaking as a privileged member of the First World here – taking up our cross, I believe, looks somewhat different to what it looks like for those in the majority world. For us it means ceding our privilege, moving towards genuine solidarity with those who are victims of our country’s or society’s policies. Real solidarity (not just charity) means coming alongside people not in a position of power but in vulnerability.
(Of course in reality I can never shed my power by virtue of my white skin, education, etc. But I can refuse to use it deliberately, take steps to undermine it, and find ways to gift my opportunities to those who are not usually going to be afforded them by our systems of privilege.)
I can’t judge you or anyone else (even myself – that’s God’s job), but I don’t think I’m doing anyone any favours letting this “I can’t do what you do” attitude slide by not calling it when I see it. I hope anyone else would hold me accountable in the same way.
I guess partly I’m saying that while God’s grace is always freely available, and therefore costly action is never a prerequisite for God’s love or grace, faithfully following Jesus does demand our whole selves. That means everything – family, money, reputation, life – all of the things you’re afraid of losing when you consider undertaking costly action. So we can skirt around it and say, “Well I’m just not ready for that yet” but we can’t pretend that our not being “ready” for it is still discipleship, is faithful following of Jesus. It’s not.
There’s no use waiting for some magic moment to be “ready”, no use succumbing to what Dr. King called, “the paralysis of analysis”. We need to try stuff out. Take a step. “Experiment with truth” as Gandhi put it (experiments often fail, and that’s ok if you learn from them). Keep going. It’s only as you do that you learn how.
I like what Tim deChristopher said when someone asked him how they could keep him from going to prison. He quickly responded, “I’m not sure keeping me out of prison is a good thing. I’d rather think about having you join me.” It’s that kind of gracious, unexpected invitation to shed our privilege that I’m talking about.
What do you think? Am I just being a prat? Before you respond immediately, let me invite you to take a few minutes to think about your internal responses. Are they just cop outs? (That’s a genuine question.) I’m not asking if they’re real for you, of course they are. But are they reasons or just excuses? Then feel free to go me as hard as you like. 🙂