Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Acting in Faith: Activism
distributed 3/7/14 - ©2014

"What good is it ... if you say you have faith but do not have works?" So asks the New Testament letter of James (2:14)

From a very different place and time, the Dalai Lama has said, "It is not enough to be compassionate -- you must act."

Joanna Macy & Chris Johnstone, in their marvelous book, Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We're In without Going Crazy, wrote, "Active Hope is a practice. Like tai chi or gardening, it is something we do rather than have. ... we take steps to move ourselves or our situation ..."

Acting. It is an essential component of faith, of hope, of genuine compassion. Acting is essential in maintaining our personal integrity, and it is essential in living out our mandate to embody God's shalom. But "acting" opens up a vast range of possibilities.

I think of my grandfather, who was a fairly accomplished woodworker, and his gentle insistence on using the right tool for the job. (Like when he caught me using a screwdriver to try to pry out a bent nail.) The splendid variety of tools carefully hung in his workroom gave him easy access to the right equipment to get the job done well.

In this time of eco-justice crisis, as people of faith and conscience, as responsible citizens, we must act, yes! But we can, and must, be intentional about selecting the right tools for action, so that our work fits well with both the occasion and our particular gifts.

This year, through the season of Lent, I'll be exploring a variety of ways that we can act. I'll sort through the toolbox, and suggest some of the styles and practices that are available to us as we act -- individually, as congregations, or in other settings.

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It is just a small linguistic step from "act" to "activism," but that shift moves us into the narrow realm of one particular kind of action. Activism is a valuable tool, but it is not the only one. And yet activism is the meaning that often jumps into our minds when we think of engaged and intentional action. As Macy and Johnstone wrote, "it seems strange that the term activist should be reserved for just a few of us rather than being an identity we all take pride in or aspire to."

So I often try to add some adjectives to be clear about the appropriate realm of activism. I'll speak of "political action" or "issue action" because those are specialized kinds of engagement. They are good, respected, and highly polished tools, well suited to particular varieties of change work in the public realm.

It is fitting, I suppose, to lift up issue activism as the first tool in this series, because I called on you to do some of it just two days ago. On Wednesday, I urged you to submit a comment to the US State Department opposing the Keystone XL pipeline. (The public comment period still is open until 11:59 PM EST today, March 7 -- act now!)

In the Keystone XL cause, we see some of the core characteristics of political activism. As I learned many years ago, in a course on community organizing in the style of Saul Alinsky, an "issue" is a matter where a specific choice can be presented to a single decision-maker for a clear-cut answer. In the community organizing model, an issue is defined by your ability to declare a win (or recognize a loss) within a short period of time.

The Keystone pipeline brings specificity to debates about climate change and energy policy. It will be decided by President Obama, sometime in the next few months. Part of the reason why people are so passionate about this issue, from either side, is that it won't get muddled into some sort of compromise. The pipeline will be approved, or (hopefully!) not. It is a clear-cut "issue" that is ideal for activism. Citizens and interest groups are lobbying hard on a yes-or-no choice on an urgent matter of great importance.

Issue activism is what is needed when working to pass legislation, or to force a polluter to clean up their mess, or to get a grocery store to sell more organic produce, or to have a church install solar panels. The activists have to do a good job clarifying the issue, building a constituency and a power base, and getting the decision-maker to understand why the choice is a good one for them to make. (Their decision, by the way, may have very little to do with the merits of the cause. Campaign contributions can be far more persuasive than eloquent moral arguments.) Issue activists will frequently be far more concerned about the outcome of the decision than on the principles or strategies used to get there. It is activism that creates the "strange bedfellows" of diverse coalitions working for a similar outcome.

One of the strengths of issue activism is that it keeps us accountable. We can tally up the wins and the losses, see how many constituents wrote letters or came to meetings, and tell our funders how effective we have been with their contributions. Because of its clear focus on narrowly defined issues, political activism is immediate and measurable.

Issue activism does have some drawbacks, though, especially when it becomes the dominant form of action. My primary concerns with activism have to do with the way activists can come to understand themselves.

Passionate issue activism fires us up to bring about change "out there" somewhere, and denies the need for change in ourselves. As we put pressure on decision-makers, it is easy to present ourselves -- either genuinely or as a matter of strategy -- as virtuous and enlightened. We are the ones who have the right values and solutions, and the needed changes have to come somewhere else -- in legislation, or corporate practices.

An activist approach tends to be confrontational. It divides people into the opposing sides of allies and enemies. Strategically, an activist will have a hard time admitting to any uncertainty, or acknowledging complicity. In the hardball world of politics, any hint of self-criticism is a weakness.

Political activism is an essential way of acting in the public realm. It is the primary way that decisions get made on matters of importance in public policy and institutional life. In denominational church settings, issue activism is the life-blood of the church's Washington offices, which maintain a vocal presence on Capitol Hill. A study by Laura Olson shows that "the effectiveness of the Washington offices depends partly on cultivating networks of interested clergy who can be mobilized on appropriate occasions. The Washington offices often work closely with each other and with other pressure groups and nonprofit organizations."

We need to know how to do this focused, decisive and urgent work when the occasion arises. But we also need to be careful lest too much issue activism leads us to think too highly of ourselves, to be blind to our own complicity in the issues we address, or to be dismissive of our opponents.

Activism is one way to act, one valuable tool among many. It should be used vigorously, but carefully, in appropriate settings of public policy.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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Eco-Justice Ministries ended all programming on July 31, 2020. This site is an archive of writings and resources.
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