Can the social movements of the past show us the way to making a difference for Christ and the church even today?

By Ronald E. Keener

I was graduated from college in the early 1960s and immediately got a job in community newspaper journalism, never thinking that maybe some larger cause might require my presence and passions. But I wasn’t an activist, not even for racial justice that was then still being played out in Southern cities at drug store counters and far worse situations.

The civil rights struggle came to mind as I read in one weekend a well-crafted book, Shaking the System: What I Learned from the Great American Social Movements (IVP Books, 2009) by Tim Stafford, a senior writer for Christianity Today.

Stafford was an activist, for a short time, in the South in those days and he recounts the social movements of his day and earlier slavery days and the period of abolition.

Six-point strategy

He writes about Theodore Weld, who “spearheaded the first public debate on slavery in 1834.” Weld had a six-point strategy he applied to the fight for the abolition of slavery. But what, I wrote to Stafford, if those six points were applied to abortion and the pro-life cause today? Would they apply equally well?

“Yes, I think so,” Stafford reflected. “With the following caveat: When Weld set out to oppose slavery, there had been very little public discussion of the subject, and many people’s minds were unformed. Today, after 40 years of frustrating debate on abortion, positions are hardened.

“So Weld’s strategy needs some creative adjustment. Note that in Weld’s time, too, abolitionists reached a point where his tactics didn’t work. Dialogue became impossible, and the nation went to war,” Stafford replied.

The strategy then by Weld and others was the mantra that “racial prejudice was a sin.” Would such an admonition be strong medicine for defeating abortion today? Stafford’s response is telling about the transition in social movements and religious culture: “No, because the language of sin was broadly understood and accepted then. Today it is not.” Ouch.

Affect social movements

Then is there a way for the church to affect social movements on some other basis that reaches the culture more successfully? “That is why we need creativity, not just in tactics, but in the way we speak the truth,” Stafford shared. “The language of sin, at least as we’ve traditionally used it, doesn’t communicate to most people today. Even church people have trouble with it. But truth is still truth, and sin is still sin.”

What about applying the lessons of social movements of the last couple centuries to another divisive issue of today — gay rights and lifestyle? Stafford wrote in his book that “Weld’s principles make a solid foundation for an activist movement based on truth.” What might their application look like for such issues today for same-sex marriage, abortion, sex trafficking, or gay clergy?

“As I write in the book,” Stafford told me, “the pro-life movement has made its greatest gains when it has advanced this simple truth: ‘That’s a baby you’re talking about.’ It takes creativity to find the right way to encapsulate your truth claims in a way that communicates. I think that is a major reason why the campaign against same-sex marriage has seemed to be losing the broad middle ground of American society — its truth claims are not easily expressed in a way that communicates to ordinary people.”

Most of us have seen the documentaries of Ken Burns. The one on the Civil War was exceptional. But there was another that struck home even more for me. It was Not For Ourselves Alone: The Story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. (There is a book by that title as well.) Over a period of 50 years these two women led the suffrage movement, and only one of the two lived to see the vote won for women on November 2, 1920.

Carrying the cause

What a huge offering of thanksgiving we owe those women (and some men) in carrying the cause for so many years to achieve what today we would take for granted, and can only wonder what the ruckus was about then. I slipped into my comfortable, middle-class life after college, oblivious to the righteous causes around me that needed two more hands to carry a banner or sign a petition. And I did nothing.

What causes today require my presence and strong voice, my ability to put words on paper or into sound bites, and yet I do nothing? Should I be taking a stand at the risk of derision or looking foolish? The church is tested every day, and where do I stand for Christ and the church?

Comments? Ron@churchexecutive.com.


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