By Steven M. Studebaker
The activist mentality promotes ideological bigotry. Activism relies on absolute binaries, manichean Us vs. Them stand offs. From the shouting down and intimidation of invited speakers at universities to twitter-shaming people who stray from your tribe’s political orthodoxy. To the activist mentality, compromise is anathema because it pollutes the pure. The result is self-righteousness and Pharisaic attitudes that demonize other people. People who disagree with the activist are either stupid or evil or both.
For example, Trump is either the second coming of Hitler or God’s anointed servant. Pro-gun rights people have the blood of victims of mass shooters on their hands. Pro-gun control people want to enslave everyone to the predations of a tyrannical state. Detention centers for undocumented immigrants are equivalent to Nazi concentration camps. Advocate for refugees and immigrants, you are an open border radical that wants to destroy western culture. Question the effectiveness of carbon taxes for addressing environmental problems, you are a climate change denier and want to poison the planet. Back green initiatives, you are a pie-in-the-sky environmental extremist. Support tax cuts? You want to starve children and force senior citizens to choose between food and pills. Proponents of progressive tax policies are agents of an encroaching Orwellian state. Pro-life people oppress women. Pro-choice people support infanticide. People suggesting that those accused of sexual misconduct should be presumed innocent until proven guilty are misogynists.
These Manichean alternatives tolerate no conversation. How do you conduct reasoned discourse with someone who supports murder or misogyny? You side with either Jesus and the angels or Satan and the demons. The activist mentality vilifies and demonizes the political Other. Political others are opponents. They are not fellow human beings created in the divine image. The activist mentality promotes simplified and unnuanced prejudices and rhetoric that reduce ideological and policy opponents to caricatures. The activist mentality also politicizes every aspect of life. Drink the wrong brand of coffee, you perpetrate the evil cabal of global capitalism. Politics is an important dimension of human life. But it is not the sum of life. Not everything is a covert display of some nefarious political agenda. The activist mentality, moreover, assumes the worst about other people. It attributes the basest motives to its opponents. Everything the political other says and does arises from pernicious political and social motives—e.g., white privilege or the subversion of Christianity and traditional morality. The activist mentality also reflects capture by the political parties. It parrots the approved ideology, morality, and policy of its political team.
Outright rejection of certain things is correct. For example, a nuanced conversation and compromise policy on sex-trafficking is not to be had. In such cases activism is appropriate. Historical figures like Martin Luther King, Jr. and the people of Hong Kong 2019 are protesting social injustices and taking a legitimate stand for civil rights. But most of the issues that stoke the political outrage du jour are not of that kind. To the activist mindset, however, I just revealed that I am, at best, not “woke” to systemic injustices or that I am, at worst, a morally depraved stooge collaborating with the racist, misogynist, and kleptocratic Empire.
Jesus was critical of the religiously complacent and self-righteous. He showed grace to people irrespective of their ethnic, religious, and class background. He lived a holistic life. Everything was not about religion, let alone about politics. He demonstrated understanding of other people, especially those who opposed him. Jesus’ mind and heart were not colonized by the political parties of his day. He does not fit the take back the culture for God attitude of the Zealots, the collusion with the Empire of the Jerusalem elites, or the withdrawal to the wilderness of groups like the Essenes. In short, he did not have an activist mentality, and neither should his followers.
The emerging post-Christendom culture of North America makes public engagement ironically more difficult but important. Difficult because the secularism and multiculturalism of the dominant culture tolerates just about anything save Christianity. Important precisely because Christian influence in society has been marginalized. Unfortunately, the activist approach feeds the caustic climate of contemporary political partisanship and prevents the articulation of an authentic public Christian voice and posture.
*The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of McMaster Divinity College or the Centre for Post-Christendom Studies.*