We Ought to Know What We’re Getting Into

This is a response to David’s response to my response to David’s response to my response to something Brandon posted to Twitter.

David Knopp generously took time out of both his school and sleep schedule to write a 3100-word response to my post “You’re Not the One to Save the World”, an attention I’m grateful for. At the same time, he seems to have misunderstood me in a few important ways, many of which I feel are partially my fault for failing to adequately clear. So this post will be a more systematic laying out of what I think, and will hopefully clear away some confusion.

First, if you’re reading along, let me make explicit that I see this as a prolonged conversation between friends, not a debate between rivals. I assume David does as well. We’re pursuing truth together, not dogmatically defending truth we’ve already laid claim to.

What Do We Mean By Helpful?

Reading through David’s response, I soon realized that he and I seem to be using the word “helpful” in very different ways.

David writes,

I want perpetrators of injustice to be met head-on by perpetrators of justice. And I advise perpetrators of justice to focus and confront instances and individuals because I think that’s the most effective way to do it.

Later, he says that he doesn’t see a systematic focus on injustice as being “practical”, and later still:

You win the war by winning battles. So you tell the troops to focus on their battles, not the war– because putting their energies into the battle is putting their energy into the war.

Thus, David’s position seems to be that what’s “helpful” needs to be pragmatic and effective. And on those terms: well, yeah. Obviously. There’s no virtue in being ineffective considered by itself. But that wasn’t what I was claiming. My purpose in writing was to reframe how we think of activism as a response to systematic injustice. As such, most of David’s criticism thoroughly and carefully refutes a point I wasn’t making.

As I said before, though, I will gladly take some of the blame for failing to be adequately clear. My first step should have been to clarify what I mean by “helpful” in the conversation. Therefore:

My Position in Summary

First, by “helpful”, I mean a better, morally rigorous, and more realistic understanding of both activism and systematic injustice. To the end, I think I can boil my position down to six basic points:

  • Questioning the “progress” narrative.
  • Keeping a realistic understanding of the complexity of the problem.
  • Understanding our complicity in the problem.
  • Maintaining a posture of epistemic and vocational humility.
  • Realizing that fixing the problem isn’t sufficient for justice.
  • The necessity of grace.

I’ll tackle these, briefly, in order, without rehashing too much of what I’ve already written.

Questioning the “Progress” Narrative

We ought to question, again borrowing Wigg-Stevenson’s great phrase, the “temptation of a pure futurity of progress”. Or, more simply, the belief that we can ultimately, finally, and absolutely fix the world. This isn’t cynicism, but rather a rejection of utopianism and human-realized eschatology, the sort that seems implicitly held by both conservative culture warriors and liberal social justice warriors alike.

While David doesn’t use the word “progress” in his post, he does uses words like “win” and “solve” throughout. I wouldn’t suggest in the slightest that David holds to a utopian vision of progress, but I do want to push back on those terms a bit and ask what “winning” or “solving” would look like a world that has yet to be set right by Christ.

For my own part, I don’t see this as cynicism, just realism, and consistent with long-standing Christian theological and conservative principals.

However (and this gets to the heart of David’s criticism) I would keep the concept of progress separate from the concept of good. It’s impossible to make “progress”, that is, to move in a generally linear direction from injustice to perfect justice, but we can do “good” and participate in the in-breaking, already/not yet of redemption, and even, in a sense, make things “better”. This could easily become a book-length digression if I’m not careful, so I’ll leave that distinction unexplored (for now).

The Next Two Points

By “keeping a realistic understanding of the complexity of the problem,” I mean simply that if we’re going to do activism, we ought to know what we’re getting into. Paying attention the cultural nature of problems, rather than personal, means realizing that how we try to pursue an individual who holds an incorrect belief may look different in practical ways from how we try to pursue someone whose family has held that incorrect belief for five generations, and for whom that belief has been ingrained in habits and practices. I don’t think David and I disagree about this.

If being realistic about the extent of the problem is important practically, it’s more important morally. Realizing that the problem of injustice isn’t just an us vs. them affair but one in which we’re deeply complicit ourselves is necessary for true Christian activism. (On another practical note, it’s often best, though not easiest, to start with “The Man in the Mirror.”)


David had a lot to say about my use of the word “blind” (and I think he even compared me to Immortan Joe from Mad Max: Fury Road, a first for me.) I wrestled with which word to use, and “blind” may not have been the right choice. But it was strong, and the point I was making called for strength.

The point is epistemic humility. I think of Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert’s 2009 book When Helping Hurts: Alleviating Poverty Without Hurting the Poor. . . and Yourself, which, as the title suggests, details the way Christian groups attempting to fight poverty have, with the best of intentions, done harm. Or Mark Noll’s haunting and essential book The Civil War as a Theological Crisis, which tells, in part, the stories of Christian pastors convinced that slavery in the America was biblically permissible.

It’s easy to “other” such stories — to say that those pastors couldn’t have been true Christians if they believed (and taught their congregations!) that slavery was acceptable. And in some individual cases, I think that’s justified.

But to do so generally, and cast out all slavery-supporting Christians as outside the pale while we sit smugly in 2017, seeing all things clearly, is let ourselves off the hook. The terrible truth is that we, like them, could be faithful Christians and still get something so utterly important dead wrong.

So too our activism. Our best and most sincere efforts could be challenged by a new book that opens our eyes to how we have wounded in our ignorance. It has happened before; history is full of examples. It could happen to us.

I emphasize this point so strongly because humility of this sort is often treated as a disclaimer. We say “I could be wrong” and “I’m open to criticism” meaninglessly, often to shut down or stave off criticism, without ever reckoning that we ourselves, in our ignorance, could be a part of the problem.

Humility is doing good with fear and trembling. It is not forsaking the task because we cannot know for sure that what we do and teach is good and not evil. It is taking the stakes seriously and doing our best, relying on grace and open to correction.

The Last Two and a Half Points

These will be briefer, I promise.

By vocation humility, I mean simply that not everyone is called to every form of activism. Part of humility is knowing our own limits, even for doing good, and to accept them. This, I think, is something like what David suggested from Playing to Win.

Tied to the narrative of progress is the assumption that justice will be satisfied when injustice is no more. But that means justice is only for the survivors, and that is no justice. Again, quoting Wigg-Stevenson, it is trying to “pour tomorrow’s foundation over the broken gravel of yesterday’s sins.” Divine redemption alone can overcome past injustices, and to borrow from Tolkien, make every sad thing come untrue.

If you’ve read this far, the necessity of grace should be clear by now.

Jo Ann Stover, Immanuel Kant, Kierkegaard, and a Conclusion

I don’t want to detour too far into the philosophical weeds, but I do feel like David’s reference to Jo Ann Stover’s children’s book If Everybody Did (which I have not read) deserves a special mention. The Amazon summary of If Everybody Did describes the book as a cautionary tale of the “hilarious and terrible consequences of everyone doing his own thing”. It asks, what if everyone did X?

Which is funny, because it seems to be just a more adorable and charming version Immanuel Kant’s concept of the categorical imperative. From Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals:

Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.

The categorical imperative is an attempt to find a universal moral law by human reason, not by revelation. Anything like an adequate reckoning with Kant is completely outside the range of this post, but it’s very interesting, and the entire Groundwork is available for free online if you’re into that sort of thing.

Of interest to our discussion, though, is Søren Kierkegaard’s critique of Kant from his letters and journals, which I quote at length:

Kant was of the opinion that man is his own law (autonomy) — that is, he binds himself under the law which he himself gives himself. Actually, in a profounder sense, this is how lawlessness or experimentation are established. This is not being rigorously earnest any more than Sancho Panza’s self-administered blows to his own bottom were vigorous. It is impossible for me to be really any more rigorous in A than I am or wish to be in B. Constraint there must be if it is going to be in earnest. If I am bound by nothing higher than myself and I am to bind myself, where would I get the rigorousness as A, the binder, which I do not have as B, who is supposed to be bound, when A and B are the same self.

To Kierkegaard, the problem with an autonomous, universal concept of ethics lies in ourselves. We cheat; failing to do what we can and ought to do, and powerless to do what we cannot but ought to do. Without a constraint or help from outside ourselves, we can neither know nor do good.

That impulse — to question whether the individual can be trusted to make ethical judgments and to be willing and able to do good apart from God — is close to the heart of what I’ve written today.

This post should be read as a corrective, or a stepping back, or a reframing. Nothing here is intended to take away our responsibility to address systematic injustice, as individuals and especially as churches, and nothing here should dimish the importance of such. Nor does it suggest such effort is wasted. I simply want us to think with more clarity and moral circumspection as we work for good, knowing our limitations without questioning our responsibility to do good, relying and dependent on God’s grace and redemptive work.

To labor, not from a belief in progress, but in love. To work humbly, knowing we plant but God gives the harvest. To be realistic, both the world and about ourselves, without shirking. To mourn, knowing that no future human good is a sufficient recompense for injustice. To long for the day when all sad things will really come untrue.

This is how we need to understand activism.




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