Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Intermediate Activism

Obviously the dawn of a messianic age would be better than an economic depression, but I scarcely thought that this needed mentioning.  Not knowing how or when God will usher in such an age, or what it will be like, I have confined myself to the immediate future and to processes that already exist.  This is what I would call "intermediate or appropriate prophecy", with apologies to the late E.F.Schumacher.  (David Ehrenfeld, preface to the paperback edition of The Arrogance of Humanism.)
 What keeps hope alive? I've been thinking about this simple-sounding question as I reflect on two very different pieces.  One is Rob Goodman's article in the Chronicle of Higher Education,  The Comforts of the Apocalypse.  The other is Tyler Wigg-Stevenson's book, The World Is Not Ours To Save.  The subtitle gets at the question I'm asking: Finding the freedom to do good.

Goodman sees our age as one of "dystopian narcissism".  Though overwhelmed and powerless in the face of previously unimaginable threats, he thinks, we console ourselves with the reflection that these are the final threats, the signs of the End: "Yesterday's fears were foolish—but today's are existential. And today's threats are revealed to be not some problems, but the problems. Dystopias can satisfy the typological urge to invest our own slice of history with ultimate meaning: We look back from an imagined future to discover that we are correct in our fears, that our problems are special because they will be the ones to destroy us." In this way our hope for significance is perversely affirmed by a conviction of powerlessness.

Wigg-Stevenson, on the other hand, is concerned lest a rising generation of evangelical social activists find their significance too much in powerfulness, in the ability to reshape the world here and now.  ("Together we can stop climate change!" )  He is not some old-time dispensationalist lambasting the "Social Gospel" - rather, his has been a Christian voice against nuclear weapons for many years - but he worries that the activist tendency to see life as a heroic battle ends up empowering, rather than disempowering, the opponent.
If crime stopped, what would superheroes fight? Who would they be? They'd just be a bunch of strong, smart guys in oddly tight outfits moping around with nothing to do. This means that there's something in our love of heroism that also must love, in a strange and hidden way, everything that heroes fight against. The adversary makes the hero the hero.... The nonprofit world mostly deals with problems that need fixing, and those of us in the field talk a good game about wanting to work ourselves out of a job. Most of this is true; my friends who work in humanitarian fields are high-minded and care about others. But I suspect that a lot of them, like me, also secretly love the sense that they're stepping into the ring and popping the devil in the jaw. This is a dangerous desire to indulge.  Tyler Wigg-Stevenson. The World Is Not Ours to Save: Finding the Freedom to Do Good (Kindle Locations 227-235). Kindle Edition.
In the second half of his book he draws on the prophet Micah to sketch the contours of a chastened activism, an activism that maintains hope without investing its own actions with a significance that belongs to God alone. I am excited to read more.

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