Friday, 13 December 2013

The Bible and activism

I consider myself an activist. Contrary to the thoughts of many, I'm not violent, I don't believe in anarchism and I try not to be forceful when discussing my opinions with other people. I like to open other people's minds to alternative viewpoints and I respect people who challenge my thoughts in return.

Firstly, what is activism? According to the Oxford Dictionary, it is the policy or action of using vigorous campaigning to bring about political or social change.

A vigorous campaign is defined as  an organised course of action to achieve a goal which is strong, healthy, and full of energy.

This is not to be confused with evangelism, which is defined as the spreading of the Christian gospel by public preaching or personal witness.

Evangelism is about promoting Christianity in order to convert others, whereas activism focuses on promoting issues within politics and society in order to encourage change, just a few examples being euthanasia, abortion, gay marriage, tax avoidance, wars, the environment and poverty. Undoubtedly our faith is likely to influence our opinions on many political or social issues, and although activism can be used for evangelistic purposes, in essence both words have different meanings.

So what does this have to do with the Bible? I'm no theological expert but I'm going to try and discuss this topic using this post.

Remind the people to respect the government and be law-abiding, always ready to lend a helping hand. No insults, no fights. God’s people should be bighearted and courteous.
Titus 3:1-2 (MSG)

They called him every name in the book and he said nothing back. He suffered in silence, content to let God set things right.
1 Peter 2:23 (MSG)

These verses clearly state that we should respect those in authority and ignore hateful actions against ourselves. However, I don't believe it suggests that we should follow blindly in all situations or be passive about the suffering of others. 

It is possible to challenge the actions of authority without violence. If we do resort to violence, we aren't setting a good example for those in authority who use violence against innocent people such as peaceful protesters or prisoners of conscience in some parts of the world. It would be hypocritical if we condemned violence through the use of violence and it would also be contrary to the above Bible verse. The 2010 student fees protest in London ended in violence and has given both the government and the public a reason to make assumptions about student attitudes and behaviour. I don't believe the use of violence in such situations is an act of strength and I think the Bible also reflects this idea.

"But so that it doesn’t go any further, let’s silence them with threats so they won’t dare to use Jesus’ name ever again with anyone.” They called them back and warned them that they were on no account ever again to speak or teach in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John spoke right back, “Whether it’s right in God’s eyes to listen to you rather than to God, you decide. As for us, there’s no question—we can’t keep quiet about what we’ve seen and heard.”

Acts 4:17-20 (MSG)

“Don’t let people do that to you, put you on a pedestal like that. You all have a single Teacher, and you are all classmates. Don’t set people up as experts over your life, letting them tell you what to do. Save that authority for God; let him tell you what to do. No one else should carry the title of ‘Father’; you have only one Father, and he’s in heaven. And don’t let people manoeuvre you into taking charge of them. There is only one Life-Leader for you and them—Christ."
Matthew 23:8-10 (MSG)

Although the Bible is open to interpretation and sometimes contradictory about obeying authority and activism, I can't imagine God as someone who would want his people to sit by whilst others suffer because authority tells them to do so. As shown in the verses above, the Bible also teaches us to challenge social norms that are ungodly.

Then turning to the woman, but speaking to Simon, he said, “Do you see this woman? I came to your home; you provided no water for my feet, but she rained tears on my feet and dried them with her hair. You gave me no greeting, but from the time I arrived she hasn’t quit kissing my feet. You provided nothing for freshening up, but she has soothed my feet with perfume. Impressive, isn’t it? She was forgiven many, many sins, and so she is very, very grateful. If the forgiveness is minimal, the gratitude is minimal.” Then he spoke to her: “I forgive your sins.” That set the dinner guests talking behind his back: “Who does he think he is, forgiving sins!” He ignored them and said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.”
Luke 7:44-50 (MSG)

Jesus challenged the Pharisees, the religious leaders of that time, by going against social norms. He spent time with prostitutes and tax collectors, people who were rejected by society. This was frowned upon and condemned by the Pharisees, but Jesus continued to love unconditionally.

“Don’t pick on people, jump on their failures, criticize their faults— unless, of course, you want the same treatment. That critical spirit has a way of boomeranging. It’s easy to see a smudge on your neighbour’s face and be oblivious to the ugly sneer on your own. Do you have the nerve to say, ‘Let me wash your face for you,’ when your own face is distorted by contempt? It’s this whole traveling road-show mentality all over again, playing a holier-than-thou part instead of just living your part. Wipe that ugly sneer off your own face, and you might be fit to offer a washcloth to your neighbour."
Matthew 7:1-5 (MSG)

As you can see from the above verse, this doesn't give us an excuse to criticise others. It is difficult to participate in activism without criticising someone, but perhaps things can change if we simply live as an example and are open about our opinions to people.

Another trap we fall into is simply praying for situations. It's fantastic that we pray, but the chances of a prayer being answered in the form of a miracle are pretty slim. I believe miracles did, do and will happen but I am also a strong believer that God works through people. We can pray about our neighbour, natural disasters or poverty, but unless we spend time with our neighbour, consider the environment in our everyday actions and give to the poor then things probably aren't going to change. 

This doesn't mean we should just donate some money to a charity and consider that our good deed for the day. Throwing money around isn't a sufficient long term solution to the world's problems and sadly, not all charities are reliable and your money might not go where you think it does. In my opinion, if you really want to make a difference the best things to do are to raise awareness or volunteer with a charitable organisation so you can see with your own eyes the difference you are making to society.

I think Christian activism requires both faith (prayer and Bible study) and action (going out of our way to help those who are suffering). Some of us may feel that we are better at one than the other, I know I do. Christian activism can be most successful if you have a group or pair of people representing both qualities.

Sometimes it's easy to feel that we aren't strong, confident or 'holy' enough, or to have doubts that just one person can make a difference.

The recent death of Nelson Mandela has brought to light how one person really can make a difference. He lived during the apartheid, which was the political and social system in South Africa from 1948 to 1994, during which people were divided by their race so white and black people were forced to live apart from each other. In 1962 he was put in prison for protesting against this, where he stayed for just over 26 years until people across the world campaigned for his release in 1990. He then became the first black president of South Africa and led a government which worked to end racism, poverty, inequality and to encourage racial understanding in South Africa. These are huge achievements for just one person.

Moses answered God, “But why me? What makes you think that I could ever go to Pharaoh and lead the children of Israel out of Egypt?”
Exodus 3:11 (MSG)

Many of the people that God used in the Bible were weak, insecure and sinful. He used ordinary people such as shepherds, farmers, prostitutes, slaves and peasants to do good.

I'm not exactly the most confident of people. In fact, I'm pretty shy with new people, especially in big groups, but once you get to know me you'll learn that I'm deep, passionate and sometimes a bit mad. I'm also way too organised, critical and impatient. So, I don't always find it easy to get into moral or political debates, because I'm not the best person at getting my point across through speech and I don't enjoy getting myself into arguments. However, many people have mentioned, especially since university, that I am very skilled in expressing myself through writing, which has come to be something I really enjoy. 

The truth is, sitting down and writing has come naturally to me since I started going to university. Generally, we are asked to write down our thoughts in the form of essays, reports and assignments. I don't completely agree with because it doesn't effectively prepare us for the real world, but in the real world, chances are I'll need a degree to get where I want to go. Hence, the ideas in my head don't usually come out of my mouth, so sometimes writing them down helps keep me sane. Then, people who want to hear about my ideas can read them and try to make sense of them and people who don't then don't have to (unless you are my friend on Facebook in which case I apologise if you are sick of seeing my political posts on your news feeds).

The fact that I write and publish three public blogs (the third is anonymous) probably seems egoistic to some people, but it's just the way I express myself. When you meet me in person, I probably seem timid, shy and sometimes even rude. Sometimes I don't even know who I am myself, but I'd like to be somewhere in between the two. A characteristic of stereotypical Christians and activists is that they want to talk about their strong opinions and don't listen. I know I daydream a lot and I have strong opinions about some things, but I like to think that I can listen and therefore I can challenge these stereotypes that many people hold in their minds.

When I was 14, the worst part of school for me was public speaking, which completely terrified me. Each year I found myself stood at the front of the class barely able to form a sentence with my hands shaking. Gradually throughout college and university I improved at this through joining groups and motivating myself to do things that made me nervous. During my second year at university I was president of People & Planet, an environmental and ethical society. I found myself presenting and speaking in front of large groups and lecture theatres, which several years before would have stunned me into silence. As I'm studying Spanish and currently spending a year in Spain for the third year of my degree, I'm learning to do this in my second language as well!

My final point is this: Jesus sacrificed his life to pay the price for our sins. If that isn't one of the biggest acts of activism in the history of the world then I don't know what is.

I will leave you with these thoughts: How well do you 'fit in' to society? Which social conventions do you follow?  Is there a person or are there a group of people which you notice yourself judging regularly? How do you contribute to society? What issues are you passionate about? What are your strengths? 

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