This interview is the second installment in a series called “Great Things”, which serves to question the ways in which Christians should be involved in doing great things in our world. To check out our first post on this issue click here. Today we are pleased to post an interview with Tyler Wigg-Stevenson. Tyler is an Evangelical Activist, who has focused his career on the anti-nuclear movement. Tyler’s experiences in the world of Christian activists led him to write his latest book “The World is not Ours to Save”. We sat down to talk to Tyler about the inspiration for his book, and what Millennials have to learn from the best and worst parts of our activist culture.
Andrew: Tell us a bit about what you are doing, and what your experience with “world saving/changing” has looked like in the past and what it looks like now.
Tyler: The experience in my own life that led to the writing of this book is my work in the anti-nuclear movement, and particularly in my founding of an organization called “The Two Futures Project”. The organization tried to engage Christians, particularly Evangelicals, who haven’t historically been involved with an anti-bomb movement, to get on board with nuclear disarmament. We also sought to make a case for nuclear threat reduction that comes out of Evangelical priorities. We did this mostly because the arguments for nuclear reduction came from a non-evangelical perspective and so they didn’t necessarily resonate with the people at my church. That’s the gap I was trying to address through my work. Today, although The Two Futures Project lives on, I work with the Evangelical Alliance, where I chair on the task force on nuclear weapons for them.
In the course of doing this work, especially as I was attempting to, as activists like to say, “spread the word” about nuclear weapons I found myself in the company of a lot of really wonderful Christian activists who had a ton of different causes. In fact, in the last 10-15 years there seems to have been an explosion of Christian activism and Christian causes, and of a leaning toward social justice, whether or not you want to call it that. There is especially a new attention toward what it means to “live out your faith in public”, specifically as it pertains to what sort of consequences you believe your faith should have on our social structures. So whether or not we all want to call ourselves “activists”, it seems that anyone who is acting along that vein, is acting with an activist sensibility. Ultimately, we believe we are doing the right thing in order to change the way the world operates. As I saw this group of wonderful activists, and we were all together in this group who would travel around to the same conferences and meet the same people over and over again, one of the things I begin to notice were all of the dangers that we all faced as we pursued this work.
Andrew: I’ve noticed some of that too! What are some of those dangers inherent in the “world changing” lifestyle?
Tyler: Well there are both spiritual and practical pitfalls for all those who are trying to change the way the world looks in some significant way. No matter what the cause was, in our group, all of us were trying to operate the same way, and were motivated by the same hopes. The foremost danger was the risk of “burnout”, which often manifested itself as passion turning to apathy or indifference. When I meet young aspiring activists there is this assumption among them that to be a good Christian you have to be some sort of non-profit crusader. At the start of that activist journey, it can seem like change is easier to cause than it actually is. But any change that is worth taking, normally takes real time. I know personally of several career activists in the nuclear movement that no one has ever heard of, but they’ve been working at the same issue for 40 years. It worries me that part of the potential cause for burnout comes because all of these young people get discouraged when they realize that the issue they care about may not be solved in their lifetime.
The other thing that I thought was a real danger, was that because there were so many of us involved in this “activist culture”, and we were all jockeying for the same facebook like, or the t-shirt sale, or whatever it was; the market had become saturated with young passionate Christians trying to win over hearts to whatever cause they were about. As a result, I noticed our young Christian ‘audience’ start to get cynical about the people who were asking these things of them. There are a million different causes that ‘want my time, money influence, etc.’ Each cause, understandably, painted itself as “the most important” issue you could care about. When you are faced, as a young person with that kind of decision over and over and over, what are you going to do about it? What are you supposed to do about it? Do you spread yourself out, or do you dig deeply into just one issue and ignore all the others that are apparently “just as” important? How do you make that decision? Burnout can tend to happen when we start to be people who can just turn caring about real issues on and off. Thinking about what happens to us as individuals and to our entire culture in this kind of scenario is the reason I wrote my book.
Andrew: What is the force in our culture that drives our desire (especially Millennials) to want to “change the world”?
Tyler: I think I will go out on a limb and say that there are 3 main causes. The first is historical. If you go back to the 1960s, you see the start of movements that are still defining the social issues we discuss today. The civil rights movement was in full swing, the women’s movement had just taken off, the environmental movement took off, immigration took off, and the gay rights movement started late 60s early 70s. So you have all of these tumultuous social issues coming up in the 1960s, and the people behind them trying with everything they have to create a world that is more hospitable to the changes they wanted to see. In the vast majority of cases this kind of work should certainly be celebrated. I can’t imagine a world, for instance, where the civil rights movement had not taken place, even though we have a ways to go on that issue. So what happens is that the generation changes, they are formed by the belief that if you organize right, you can change society. Largely, they organized around issues of sex and gender, and the organizing took place on both sides of the isle. But what is interesting is that both conservatives and liberals did the exact same kind of activism, but for opposite sides of the same issue. The next generation that comes along, those born at this time, growing up in the 80s and early 90s, is now at the height of their generational power (currently in their 40s and 50s). This generation of Christians has taken the idea of organizing around issues you care about and they have applied it as a whole culture mandate rather than just settling on a couple of issues. Thats where you get this explosion of people looking at the Bible and saying, “This does say things about immigration”, and “it does say stuff about justice.” It’s coming out of the mentality of this generation that you find the current Christian cultural obsession with justice, and I am glad for it, but it is the true reason for our ‘newfound’ passion for social change. A great example of this is Gary Haugen and the International Justice Mission. Gary and IJM are at the very center of the modern Evangelical justice movement. Now you have a new generation, Millennials [currently in their mid teens to early 30’s], which have the same commitment to social change. You have to look at this historically, because we wouldn’t be where we are without this multi-generational legacy of social change and justice movement. That legacy is where this passion is rooted.
The second two reasons for this change are, admittedly, a bit more cynical. One major reason for the propagation of social change is social media. I am not a social media basher, and I am not necessarily a proponent, but we do have to acknowledge the effect that it has had on this issue. Social media makes it easier to create the illusion that you have genuine community on a given issue. The activist mentality or mission is to get a large enough group of people who all have the same drive or idea about the way the world should change, this expansion is meant to continue until your group is large enough to force change in culture. This was a reality in the 1960s, this community of solidarity took the form of very effective bus boycotts and sit ins. Today, in the world of social media, the web pages and twitter accounts we create have become the substitute for the very real community and commitment that activism used to require in the 60s & 70s. Sure we can have 30k “likes” on facebook, but activism really relies upon each individual’s commitment to the ideal. What social media does instead is give us the illusion that we have that group of committed individuals, when we actually may or may not. On top of this, it gives aspiring entrepreneurs the idea that fighting for a cause is just a facebook page away, when activism is so much more. This is all simply to say that because of the accessibility and ease of social media, we have put activism at the end of everyone’s’ fingertips. If you think about it, its much harder to get 40 people in your living room than it is to get 40 “likes” on facebook, and that should be the true challenge of activism; if it isn’t, it can be asked if you really have the culture-wide buy in that you think you do.
The third place that I think this is coming from is that activist language has become a regular part of our culture. What I mean by that is that almost everything created, products for instance, all have movements attached to them. Especially when the product has absolutely no connection to any significant activist movement. Every Sprite commercial wants you to “believe” in their product and fight for the cause of getting Sprite into everyone’s hands, as if this is an injustice worth fighting for. This has become integrated into the way that marketers are doing their jobs now, and the way we think about everything. I call this the commodification of causes and the causification of the commodities. It serves to cheapen the language that was once powerful in the 60s, but it works because we have a generation of people that have grown up believing that to live a meaningful life you must always be fighting for some change. The idea that to be a good person or a good Christian means you have to be apart of the betterment of our world is now apart of the water we drink and the air we breathe. That’s what I think is driving a lot of this.
Andrew: Is there a problem with the desire to “change the world”?
Tyler: I certainly don’t want to say that it is wrong to desire change in the world when you look around and see problems or issues, and I am also not going to be the grump that says “its always going to be like this”. I won’t shake my finger at those trying to make a difference saying “it will never work”, because the reality is that causes pursued by young idealistic people have indeed worked in the past, and made important differences. So absolutely we should like the idea of changing the world. The danger or problem with this terminology, is that “changing the world” has become so commonplace that it has begun to create some significant illusions that have served to establish some real barriers in the way of real long-term action. You can make a change in the world through just being alive, or showing a simple kindness to another, but instead of thinking this way now, we tend to think about changing the operating system of the world. In a sense, when we say “change the world”, we imply that we are trying to make a wicked world not wicked. This is not something we were called to, or are even capable of doing. At the start, if your goal is to change the world rather than to be faithful in it, you might start at the same place, but over time you start to want to see a return on your investment. You close off the possibility that you might work for a lifetime for a goal that you may never get to see realized, which is an essential characteristic of activism. Real activism is a multi-generational project; you pass the baton from generation to generation and you hope that somewhere down the line the real change occurs. For lifetime activists the promise of getting to see it with their own eyes isn’t the reason they show up for work everyday. The other thing is that it creates in you a bias towards short term, easy changes. One of the things that I admire so much about the International Justice Mission and Gary Haugen, who I mentioned earlier, is that he very often elevates the value of boredom. He recognizes that rescuing the world from slavery isn’t really exciting work, its about showing up everyday and doing the paperwork for sometimes years and years on the same case, hoping that maybe after some time you will see something go your way. This is not thriller stuff, it’s why we need people who are willing to be bored.
Another thing to consider is, if you look back to some of the earliest Christian literature, especially as it pertains to how we are supposed to live, there is not an ounce in there about overthrowing the Roman empire, or making society-wide changes. This concept of changing the world through social action is a thoroughly modern concept. Now there’s nothing wrong with it necessarily, other than our need to recognize that its not part and parcel of a “Christian way” of living in the world, instead the call to Christians is for the church to look like Christ, and represent his nature and character to the world. The reflection of Christ then should and often does cause social change in the world, but this is the effect of Christian living and not the point of it. I think that’s what I would like to see. I would like to see a lot more world changers for whom world changing isn’t really the goal, but instead its a byproduct of really living out an authentic vocation of discipleship. To some extent, this might just be splitting hairs, because some would consider changing the world to be a fundamental aspect of discipleship, but I think it’s important to pay attention to where we are starting from. We should always ask, “Is the primary goal of my work changing the world, or is that a bi-product of my work?” This may be a distinction that doesn’t make a difference if you are only doing this type of work for a year, but if you are doing it for 30 years, the difference between these two starting points is vast and influential.
Andrew: So, if one of the main problems is terminology, is there a better place for us to start, language wise, than “changing the world”? You mentioned “faithfulness”, is that the right word?
Tyler: I think it is the right word, but I also want to acknowledge that faithfulness is sometimes an abstract concept, especially for the young person that is 18 and just got “lit on fire” for a certain issue. To be honest, all the things I am saying may not necessitate you doing anything differently, instead, I would say that I think that faithfulness is the word we should use because it more fully ecompasses the heart of Christianity. Its the word that grounds all that it means to follow Jesus, and when we are faithful to him we are faithful to God.
Being faithful to the calling and the gifts that God has given you, whether or not you are in a place where you can clearly say what those things are, is to recognize that you can only give what you have been given. The truth is that none of us have been given the capacity to save the world from itself. Because of that, all we can do is be good stewards of our gifts, especially in a world that will constantly hurt and disappoint us. We have to live with that, there is no way out of that, even though it’s ultimately the place where our desire to change the world comes from. We live in a world that includes modern medicine and anesthetic, thank goodness, but it has become something we expect. We want a social anesthetic, we want a way out of our pain. Our Christian vocation is to live in that, and still be loving. What better word for this is there than faithfulness? So to make faithfulness more specific I would say, be faithful to the gifts and the calling that God has given to you, knowing full well that you could have a week to be faithful, or you might be doing it for 70 years. Our point of being here on this earth is not to accomplish this hypothetical world saving mission, but to be as much like Jesus as possible in all that we do. Probably one of the wisest things a young activist Christian can do is surround themselves with older people who can mentor and disciple them to see what their true calling is.
Another one of the things that is to be celebrated in contemporary Christian activism is the passion that is put into creating social change, but what can often be left out is a drive toward personal holiness, because the entirety of our effort is focused outward. In Christian history it’s common that whenever Christians get involved in social movements there are very often other Christians on the sideline shaking their fingers and saying “no, we should be focusing on personal holiness rather than these social movements”. Their desire is to retreat from culture rather than find a place in it. The truth is that neither perspective fully encompases the Christian movement, and I would like to see us get away from this false dichotomy that you can’t have one together with the other. Consider, for example, the civil rights movement. The spiritual training that the core leadership of the movement undertook in order to build up enough spiritual strength necessary to conduct themselves nonviolently is extraordinary. That combination of social justice with training in personal holiness isn’t common in contemporary activist culture. We have too many “minor” causes out there that want us to care, but don’t ask much from us. If we are to be true Christian activists, this is a deficiency that we need to address.
Andrew: Thanks so much for your time and your insight!
Tyler: My pleasure! This was fun for me to talk about.
Also check out Tyler’s talk at the 2013 Q conference!
Image used under the creative commons lenience courtesy of Poster Boy: http://bit.ly/1lrK40N