A Few Thoughts on Activism
What does Scripture say?
I am an individual who is very guilty of reacting and then researching whether I reacted correctly at a later date. As a believer, who is indwelt by the Spirit of God, I believe that to not always be sinful behavior. At times it certainly can be as I react based on my feelings, my emotions, my ideals, or even just my desires.
As Jesus prepared to leave His disciples he assured them that they would not be alone, He was sending a Comforter. He further encouraged them by telling them that the purpose of this Spirit, part of the Triune God-head, was to lead them into all Truth. So that they weren’t confused as to the source of this Truth, they were told that Truth was found in God’s Word. (John 16-17, loosely)
Therefore, on the issue of activism I want us to consider it from God’s Word. Were there activists in the Bible? What was their focus/goal? How did they teach and promote their agenda?
The first thought that came to my mind concerning activists in the Bible was the prophet, Elijah. 1 Kings 18 tells us the story of God’s great victory on Mt Carmel as Elijah was obedient to him. I think that this point is very important as we understand that it was God that poured out the fire and not Elijah.
Elijah stood on top of Mt Carmel surrounded by 450 prophets of Baal, a king who was complicit in his worship of Baal, and a portion of the Jews of Israel. Elijah mocked as these “prophets” sought to bring fire down from heaven. He taunted them as the cut themselves and became frantic in their behavior. Ultimately God poured out fire on Elijah’s offering after Baal failed to respond to the pleas of his “prophets.”
There are a few things about Elijah’s behavior that I want us to notice. First, Elijah made it clear that the people were choosing between two different leaders. Either the children of Israel would see the power of Baal or they would see the power of God. Secondly, Elijah committed to only one thing, prayer. Thirdly, Elijah mocked them, because they depended on their idea of god to save them. “He is busy, he is sleeping, etc.” He did not mock them personally, but rather how their behavior represented the shallowness of their “god.” I believe that this is very important as we consider some of the dangers of activism for a believer.
Lastly, and most importantly, Elijah had a sincere desire for the people of Israel to return to true worship of God. He brought the people before him and used their attention to focus them on the Lord. He certainly could have used this time for self gain or even for continued mockery of the prophets of Baal. With grace, he reminded them that they were the chosen people of God, Israel. He took twelve stones to signify this truth and used it to build an altar. Now the Jews were looking at a man who was determined to serve God personally. To signify his trust in God, and to remove his name from the equation, he had the wood, altar, and sacrifice completely covered with water. God showed his mercy and poured out fire from Heaven.
The Apostle Paul was another man who was fervent in his convictions. When the Jewish church struggled with the acceptance of non-Jewish believers Paul was determined to act without their blessing. In fact, he stood face-to-face with what we now know was one of the most recognized of the church leaders, Peter, and told him that his behavior was destructive to the church. (Galatians 2)
In each of these cases, Elijah and Paul, there is a concerted effort that the true God not get lost in the shuffle. Do you remember what Elijah did after he confronted the prophets of Baal? He went and hid in the wilderness and God sent him encouragement through an encounter with Him, and by sending another prophet to serve with him, Elisha. Paul left the Jerusalem church and immediately embarked on another missionary trip. None of these men stood around to admire their work, their ability, or even the aftereffects of their actions.
It is not that I don’t believe that Scripture doesn’t advocate activism but rather it is very clear that it should never be about the individual. When Paul asserted that he was a Roman citizen to keep the Jews from stoning him in Jerusalem, he then willingly allowed himself to be subject to Roman law, corrupt as it was. He did not use his time in prison for self-gratification or self-promotion but each time that he was called forward he gave his personal testimony of God’s grace in his life (Acts 23-28, Philippians). The focus was always on God’s grace. When Elijah stood on Mt Carmel prepared to call down fire from God he looked at the Jews, and said, “You are Israel, the twelve chosen tribes.” (1 Kings 18 – paraphrase)
In fact when Scripture speaks of acting many times it is prompting us to “defend the weak, feed the hungry, etc.” (Psalm 82) Oftentimes though, we are acting out of defense to ourselves, our sensibilities, our agendas, motives, etc. If we are going to be people who are willing to take a stand on issues then we should be prepared and understand the consequences of our actions.
The Dangers of Activism
The number one danger that I have both experienced and seen is the danger of arrogance. We are right, they are wrong; let me have my way no matter others. In some cases it may actually be that simple. However, there is a danger here because of our tendency to grow arrogant in our conviction. We think that our position makes sense. We think that others positions do not make sense. We begin to think that their intelligence meter is lacking, and that they simply just don’t grasp things as we do.
WARNING! When that happens our position moves from a position of seeking to reveal the grace, mercy, and yes, even judgment of God, to justification of our actions. Arrogance in any position leads to a dependence upon self and is the exact opposite of the reflection of Christ that should be happening in the life of a believer. An arrogant person cannot and does not desire to show the love of God to others. Once we have switched to arrogance we are outside of the grace of God and have removed ourselves from the opportunity to stand as a witness of God’s grace. Once again Paul writes in Colossians 2 about the dangers of becoming focused on our actions to the point that we are disconnected from Christ, and are actually serving our flesh.
This does not mean that we have to lack passion or remove it from all that we do. Not at all, it simply means that we are more reluctant to stoke the fires that stir us and instead humbly seek the face of the Lord. A coach can arouse passion and dedication from his football team by cursing and demeaning them – it does not make him a good (morally upright) person. A good coach may not arouse the same passion but his goal is not just to teach football but teach how we should live and react in the circumstances of life. For this reason I always appreciate when a coach pulls a player off the field due to their antics and spends time discussing and working with that behavior. Most of us could stand to be pulled off the field many times over and would spare our cause and our testimony an unsportsmanlike penalty that we incite. (Proverbs 18)
The second danger in activism among believers is the danger of a non-believer joining with the crowd and feeling as if this solidifies their position with God. Are we able to clearly articulate the need daily for the grace of God so that anyone who joins with us sees this dependence in our lives? There also may be a young believer or one who hasn’t matured in their walk with Christ and they begin to think their spiritual life is measured by some algebraic equation as defined by their “work” for God.
Think about this honestly for a moment. When is the last time that you sincerely corrected yourself? Now I correct myself but usually it is fussing at me for staying up to late watching the Olympics, finishing the double-cheeseburger, etc. How often do I correct myself for sin in my life? Anger, bitterness, lust, jealousy, and the list goes on and on. Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 9 that he lived a life that was so focused on reaching others that he was constantly examining his life and the way he behaved. Interestingly he says this after he corrects the church at Corinth for not seeking to care for him materially. See, you can have a cause, speak to it, and still minister.
Do we hold in contempt those who do not approach the issues of activism as passionately as we do? If we do so then I would hold that there is a possibility that we are depending on our actions to endear us to God. Also, the reverse would absolutely be true as well.
The last danger that I see in a focus on activism is the fact that it pulls our mind away from Heaven and places it here on the earth. I spent some time with someone not long ago who wanted to reassure me that very few things affected them as much anymore – they were spiritually mature and just waiting on an opportunity to show it. Yet, there were a few opportunities during my time with them when a simple opportunity to allow another to go first, speak first, hold up the line, etc were presented to us. In each of these situations this individual fussed at the one who cut them off, spoke up first, or in any way impinged on their space. They are kidding themselves – they are still absolutely focused on themselves – something we all should be battling.
When Peter attempted to procure the head of the High Priest’s servant in the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus rebuked him and assured him that what was happening was permitted. Later, in the presence of a corrupt and wicked priest Jesus assured him that if his kingdom were of this world then his servants would fight. (John 18) In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus stated that we are either building treasure on earth or treasure in Heaven. Later he reminds his disciples that you cannot serve two masters because they will tear you apart. (Matthew 6)
I’m not particularly an activist. Some would say it is laziness, others disinterest, but the reality is that I think confrontation is overvalued. So often I have seen confrontation used as a tool to empower the confronter and as a means of self-promotion. I struggle enough with this in my own life that I choose to avoid it where I know it lies. I believe that a believer in Christ can perform the role of an activist but that they must closely examine their motives and actions to see who is being served – Christ or self?