I am a witness to the social activism of the sixties and the seventies. A war was ended, civil rights for Blacks where attained to a degree, a war was declared on poverty, and we began efforts to clean up our air and water. Yet many of the activists burned out and sold out. Change is hard and comes slowly. All the problems named above are still with us.
A new generation is addressing itself to these challenges. What concerns Ben Lowe is that burning out, giving up, and selling out are just as real for today’s social activists. He knows. He has been on the front lines of Christian environmental activism for ten years and has faced these issues personally and writes this book to articulate both why social activist movements are important and how they may be sustained when change comes hard and slowly.
He begins the book by acknowledging this challenge and the ways he has faced this. He contends that it isn’t enough to retreat to a life of personal simplicity and justice. This cannot change structures of inequity and injustice. Only social action movements have the potential to address change at these levels. He talks about the obstacles of scale, controversy, and complexity and the necessity of long and faithful engagement to overcome these, citing as one example the Evangelical Immigration Table that is helping lead a national conversation on immigration.
He takes on the false dichotomy of evangelism and social concern and highlights efforts (including that of InterVarsity at Ohio State!) that integrate gospel proclamation and concerns for justice issues like human trafficking. He also maps out ways we might transcend the culture wars through articulating a “third way” that is more holistic than the political visions of left or right. He articulates the necessity of an activism of courage in a political landscape of fear-mongering. This last seems especially important to me as I look back at how the politics of fear undercut many social efforts where there was substantial consensus and polarized our country around extreme political agendas of left or right.
The second part of his book explores the personal side of sustained social action. Love is foundational, particularly of enemies and opponents, and not often talked about. Maintaining a prophetic stance when opposition arises and we want to be liked (or even elected) is crucial. Learning to deal with inevitable opposition with grace and perseverance is vital. Equally, practices of repentance, sabbath, contemplation, and community allow for recalibration, refreshment and reinforcement.
What impressed me throughout this book was its honesty and practicality. Lowe talks about his struggles to deal with betrayals and with enemies, and his internal struggles with burnout and discouragement. He also tells stories of hope including the engagement of the community where he lives, Parkside, with city officials proposing taxation strategies that would have destroyed that community. Throughout, he provides very practical suggestions that come out of his own experience and practice, along with helpful questions for personal reflection and group discussion.
I would propose that this is a vital manual for Christians who are working together for social change. Lowe pierces through starry-eyed optimism to the tough realities and offers crucial guidance that I hope will result in sustained efforts in social action efforts that move the ball much further down the field than my generation has done.
An interview with Ben Lowe appears here.