The Limits of Social and Political Activism

Richard Beck’s continuing series on his journey to becoming “post-progressive” includes a critique of progressive Christianity’s priority of political activism and social justice.

Beck knows that there is a great deal of support in the biblical story for this emphasis, and thinks it appropriate that this is an emphasis for Chrsitian faith and practice. “Building upon these biblical foundations, liberation theology is a dominant impulse within progressive Christianity,” he writes.

Nevertheless, he critiques the political activism of the progressive Christian movement in much the same way we here at Internet Monk have spoken against the Christian Right and “Culture War Christianity.” Here is his argument, in bullet points:

  • “…because of this focus on social justice, progressive Christianity is tempted to reduce to and equate itself with progressive political activism.”
  • “…when equated with political action–control of the state–progressive Christianity is reduced to the science of power.”
  • “…when reduced to progressive political activism progressive Christianity loses its prophetic capacity to criticize the political left when it falls short of the kingdom of God.”
  • “…when reduced to political action progressive Christianity turns toward the state rather than the church as the hope of the world.”

In brief, “social justice” Christians on the left can make the same fundamental theological mistake as “culture war” Christians on the right: to presume that the cause of Christ wins by winning, and that winning means taking power over the world.

This is what I call “the great methodological heresy” — that Christians win by winning.

In order to guarantee a win, we trust in “horses and chariots” rather than in the name of our God.

We adopt methods by which the “rulers of the Gentiles” lord it over their subjects, and forget to become servants of all.

This is all very complicated in a country like the United States, with our ideal of a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. Our own political system encourages us to actively participate in the process and to advocate and work for the causes we believe in. But no matter how ideal our system may be, it inevitably becomes corrupted toward power grabbing, war mongering, and lording it over others. Violence, and not self-giving love, is its modus operandi. In the end, it is not Jesus-shaped.

The faith community becomes inextricably intertwined with odd bedfellows, and the schisms that result in the Body of Christ divide brothers and sisters and pit them against each other.

And so, Richard Beck affirms:

I AM A PROGRESSIVE CHRISTIAN in that Christians must prioritize social justice, seeking to reform and resist policies and economies that oppress, harm, and exclude. Lives are at stake.

I AM A POST-PROGRESSIVE CHRISTIAN in that I believe that the kingdom of God cannot be reduced to grasping and wielding the power of the nation state. Lives are at stake, but Babylon will not save us. I believe the kingdom of God speaks prophetic words of rebuke to the political right and left. I believe that the church, rather than the outcome of a presidential election, is the hope of the world, and the investments of my energy, time, emotions, and resources reflect that conviction.

As a post-evangelical, I concur.

53 thoughts on “The Limits of Social and Political Activism

  1. We’ve been needing a national dialogue on immigration for some time, a l-o-o-o-o-n-n-n-g time. What we’ve been getting is can-kicking.

    And now we’ve hit Critical Mass.
    (Like Hiroshima or Chernobyl.)


  2. In previous experience, Progressive Christians get their Social Justice way out of balance and Born-Agains get their Personal Salvation way out of balance to the point that both tails wag the respective dog. Like Communism and Objectivism when it comes to the rights and responsibilities of both the group and the individual.


  3. I believe you, senecagriggs, about your church. I was thinking about the voting stats 81% and the over-the-top ‘annointed one’ support from Liberty University’s Falwell, Jr. as well as some other info.

    80% is the threshold where Groupthink locks in and the 20% of Traitors and Thought-Criminals are Purged.

    ” They want these kids to suffer, and they want the suffering to be public, to be seen, because they believe it will deter further undocumented immigration. ”

    Make an Example of a few and the rest will fall into line?


  4. In brief, “social justice” Christians on the left can make the same fundamental theological mistake as “culture war” Christians on the right: to presume that the cause of Christ wins by winning, and that winning means taking power over the world.

    So the Social Justice Christians hitch their wagon to Marxism-Leninism, the Culture War Christians hitch theirs to Fascism, and we’re all living in 1932 Germany.

    (I had some encounters with Social Justice/Liberation Theology types in Newman Center in the early Eighties. The first half of the above statement was no exaggeration.)


  5. but if we as a Church knowingly support a politician who openly harms even one small child, what ARE we????

    we have to speak up against it, against the perpetrator

    we have to speak for the child who may be too young to speak at all

    if even ONE CHILD is hurt as a policy of OUR gov’t, that is unforgivable, not the permitted work of ‘the annointed one’ in the White House, no


  6. Test:

    Brueggeman speaks of the importance of pausing with a passage, not rushing to interpretation or literalism, but thinking in terms of imagery, metaphor, and poetry. To him, this is what praying over or with a passage means.

    If you are interested in knowing more about this conversation, do a Google search with the following “On Being with Krista Tippett Walter Brueggemann The Prophetic Imagination.” There you can read or listen to the entire interview.


  7. I’ve come to the conclusion that all the theological talk is meaningless in this and many an other issue. We either choose to exercise active, and possibly risky, compassion and advocacy, or we find some middle-of-the-road theological reason to keep safe and inside the lines. I won’t waste my time with this kind of empty pie-in-the-sky discourse anymore; I’ve had enough.


  8. And how do you come about your expertise in the subject of immigration? For that matter, what makes your bishop an expert in the matter?


  9. BTW,
    there is nothing about the treatment of these children that is ‘conservative’. The only true term for this policy is ‘inhumane’, so cruel is it.


  10. These are immigrants who have either avoided or passed through the border camps, usually by overstaying their tourist visa or some other shenanigan. What they have in common is that they are looking for sponsors and a place to stay.

    Pretty entry-level stuff.

    We’ve been needing a national dialogue on immigration for some time, a l-o-o-o-o-n-n-n-g time. What we’ve been getting is can-kicking. Now the can-kicking has stopped and nobody likes the outcome.

    Please be informed that there is a lot of misinformation about immigration all around, and has been for a very long time. Babies in cages didn’t start with Orange Man Bad, although a case could be made that flaunting them did.


  11. I believe you, senecagriggs, about your church. I was thinking about the voting stats 81% and the over-the-top ‘annointed one’ support from Liberty University’s Falwell, Jr. as well as some other info.

    I’m sure there are many who ‘support’ but don’t ‘worship’ and I am sorry for that statement that it was too much and I acknowledge it was ‘too much’.

    I don’t WANT to believe it, no, of course not. But I remain concerned about the nature of the support given to such a man when it is known that he has advocated a policy to, well, look at how Imonk’s Robert F. worded it:

    ” They want these kids to suffer, and they want the suffering to be public, to be seen, because they believe it will deter further undocumented immigration. ”

    I just don’t understand. I’m heartbroken.


  12. I read this piece in Father Stephen Freeman’s post “Modernity’s Sacrament”: “Democracy” is one of the sacraments of modernity. It is treated as a primary means of grace in history. Political action organizes the human “will” for projects of “goodness.” What constitutes the “good” varies with each ideology. Both sides fail to see that they are arguing in a mirror where all images are reversed. Both believe in power.

    The arguing in a mirror metaphor caught my attention. The words may be “blue” or “red” but the tone is the same. And the belief that power is the ultimate answer. I thought Father Freeman said it very well.

    I read this blog every morning, I don’t comment much. I have learned much about loving the unlovely, the beauty of liturgical worship, sacramental living, and the Jesus shaped life here. The only time this post reminds me of my evangelical days is when the discussion turns political. It is very much like looking in the mirror. The words are different, but the tone is very much the same. I think I get Mr. Beck’s point.


  13. Christiane says
    July 8, 2019 at 2:25 pm
    so while white fundamentalist/evangelicals worship the ‘annointed one’ and ‘support him’ stridently and completely,

    Christiane, I fear you actually belief that; but it’s simply not true.

    In my church, Mr. Trump is NEVER a topic of discussion from the pulpit. We don’t do politics though I would certainly think our congregants are mostly of the conservative persuasion.


  14. The Church cannot afford to fall in love with any presidential candidate. It can support what it finds to be good, and resist what it doesn’t. For instance: It seems all the candidates running for office at the present time support the military-industrial complex. We have romanticized the military to an extent that has never happened before in history, except perhaps the brief periods we have engaged in world wars. But now military expenses are not even questioned. We have no real idea of how many innocent lives have been lost to American military action. If caught, they apologize, perhaps pay out some money, then go ahead and bomb another wedding, killing another family.

    How many innocent lives were lost in the Iraq War — a war that was started and pursued on false premises? Again, no idea. How can the Church possibly endorse any person, and turn him/her into a hero or savior of some kind? We do not even question the military budget. It’s not debated in Congress. We can as individuals support whoever we think comes closest to achieving a just purpose and one that coincides with Kingdom work. But the Church must be ready to stand outside the system in order to speak to God’s truth.

    War is just an example. There are many others where we’d better be careful just who we wed ourselves to.

    Plus I don’t like hearing a political speech from the pulpit unless it is a proclamation that Christ is King and that the thrust of the message is the Sermon on the Mount, the Lord’s Prayer, and the fulfillment the teachings of Jesus here on this earth. In that context, we can speak to Creation and the environment, peace, justice, care of the poor, the orphan, the widow, and the foreigner. And much more.

    It must be an invitation to everyone to come to the Table of the Lord, find nourishment and life.


  15. “No donations are being accepted.” Yes, exactly what I’d heard. It’s illegal to hold these kids in these centers for more than a couple days, yet the administration flouts that law and holds them interminably; but when it comes to letting people donate for the kids welfare, well, that’s illegal, they can’t allow that. They want these kids to suffer, and they want the suffering to be public, to be seen, because they believe it will deter further undocumented immigration. It makes me want to punch someone….

    If it isn’t stopped now, it is going to get even worse.


  16. “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe.” – Elie Wiesel


  17. “A good friend of mine is an immigration attorney, and he warned us that we were going to get rejected,” Savage said. “We were aware of that, but it’s just the idea of doing something as opposed to passively allowing this to occur.”

    Border Patrol facilities are only supposed to hold detained migrants for a short period of time, until they are processed. But an influx of migrants along the southwest border has stretched facilities in places like Clint and McAllen beyond capacity, leading to what people who have visited them have called unsafe and unsanitary conditions.

    A slew of other sympathetic people, advocacy groups and lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle have expressed a desire to lend a hand to the kids housed in the facilities. But after purchasing items like toys, soap, toothbrushes, diapers and medicine — especially as news reports circulate of facilities having drinking water that tastes like bleach and sick children without enough clothing — they’ve been met with a common message: No donations are being accepted.

    “It makes me feel powerless knowing there’s children taking care of toddlers and little kids,” said Gabriel Acuña, who grew up in Clint and attempted to visit the facility in his hometown Sunday morning. “Knowing what’s happening in your community and that you can’t give these kids supplies to clean or clothe themselves — it’s heartbreaking.

    “For God’s sake, they’re kids, man.”


  18. “Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition!” — the motto of the Christians in the armed lifeboat.


  19. Did you see the results of Pew Research’s latest poll of Americans? I wanted to link to it, but I’m not sure I can. Here is the question they posed to Americans:

    % who say “U.S. has a responsibility to accept refugees: –

    CATHOLIC: 50%

    I am wondering what Bible they read in evangelical churches because apparently, I’m not reading the same one. ???

    BTW, this poll is making the rounds of Twitter today and the atheists are using it to slam Christians as hypocritical liars.


  20. Christiane, I agree with you: there are some matters in which there are not two sides with equally legitimate conflicting viewpoints, and this is one of them. Not all things are morally equivalent.


  21. The conditions the children are being held in now are far worse, and there are far more of them being held in those worse conditions. Obama did not acquit himself well in this matter, but the current administration has taken it to new levels, or depths. And the wholesale separation of children from their parents did not happen under Obama. There is not equivalence, let alone moral equivalence, in all things, and this is one of those things. And you might yourself stop slandering Obama, your brother in Christ.


  22. Perhaps a good start would be to quit slandering your brothers and sisters in Christ. Not all, not even most, white evangelical Christians worship Trump, at least no more than you worshiped Hillary or Obama. And don’t forget that your favorite man Biden was part of an administration that did the very same things that everybody has just suddenly found moral outrage about.


  23. well, my concern is this:

    ‘when issues like these’ are viewed with such different perspectives and convictions

    a toddler in a facility run by my government doesn’t have adequate care

    to me, Chaplain Mike, that is not ‘an issue’, it’s just WRONG

    I can appreciate your comparison of my ‘cry’ with those of the right to lifers EXCEPT there are those who urge violence against abortion physicians indirectly by giving out home addresses, photos, fake ‘wanted dead or alive’ posters, and sure enough, there are some very vulnerable people who take action and abortionists have been attacked and even murdered;

    but I don’t advocate for any kind of violence . . . . . the children I advocate for ARE BORN and I don’t want to ‘control’ any one else’s decision-making that is personal to them, I just want people to think about the moral implications of NOT responding to the needs of the innocent . . .

    I’m glad Richard Beck doesn’t recommend silence/inaction in the face of injustice. I don’t ‘get’ the terms being discussed very well, so I wasn’t sure what to think but thank you for that reassurance, you bet.

    Your question is a good one. I just don’t see that the Church has any option but to try to help innocent people by all legal means available when we are aware of their suffering. I’d say if small children are suffering and not being helped, that is beyond ‘political’ and the perpetrators have entered into something known to be illegal: child neglect, possibly to the point of abuse.

    What can the Church do? Stop acting like it’s just a political ‘issue’ that babies and toddlers and little ones are in crisis and our government IS IN A POSITION TO HELP THEM but for some reason the gov’t has chosen denial with a ‘wink and a nod’ towards the Trump ‘base’.

    I won’t continue, but thanks for letting me express my pain here. It means a lot to me. I am not ‘rational’ about this ‘issue’, no. Forgive my foolish ways, but I just don’t understand how our country is letting this happen and not intervening in all ways we can that are legally and ethically available to do so. . . . . so sorry to be trouble, and truly no disrespect to Richard Beck or to yourself, but what CAN the Church do to help those children????? Like right now. Not a minute to waste. (sigh)


  24. Adam, I’m reading that Border Patrol does not take donations of any kind for the detainees. The horrible treatment of detained children at the border seems to me to be a situation in which only acts of civil disobedience, in addition to concerted long term efforts to change laws, mean anything, since we’re not allowed to help in any other way.


  25. What I’ve been reading is that the government will not and/or cannot take donations for the children. Is that incorrect, Mule?


  26. It’s the number one priority. Contact your representatives, ring their phones off the hook.


  27. First of all, nothing in the post recommends inaction in the face of injustice. Richard Beck would be the last person to suggest that. This is is a post about a particular movement in the church that he thinks is in danger of being co-opted by progressive politics and losing their distinctive identity as Christians who are able to take a prophetic stance with regard to all political issues and parties.

    And by the way, your heartfelt cry for action on behalf of the immigrant children is virtually identical to the cries of those on the Christian Right for the unborn. To them those who are more progressive are just as blind and heartless when it comes to abortion.

    The question is: How does the church remain the church and yet truly serve their neighbors and fight injustice when issues like these are viewed with such different perspectives and convictions?


  28. Honestly, I am not sure what “Progressive Christian” means. I have been told that my church is one of those, but we worship with a liturgy that other ELCA churches consider absurdly old-fashioned, being two versions back, sticking to the one published about sixty years ago; meanwhile the theology preached is straight Lutheranism. What makes us progressive is our being more interested in all that social justice stuff Jesus endlessly droned on about, rather than those all-important pelvic issues Jesus barely mentioned. Is that what “Progressive Christian” means? Perhaps. Then again, it often seems to mean people from an Evangelical background who don’t vote Republican. I don’t know.

    As for the post linked to, it looks to me like what it is really saying is not to be a single-issue Christian. Or rather, putting my Lutheran hat on, our single issue should be Christ on the cross, with all that this implies. Like that social justice stuff he kept droning on about.


  29. so while white fundamentalist/evangelicals worship the ‘annointed one’ and ‘support him’ stridently and completely,
    the rest of us ‘christians’ should ‘keep silent’ in the face of the abuse of innocent people and just go about our Church business? Because to speak out would be a political act and therefore beneath the work of the Church?

    I’m fairly sure this is not what the post is about. At least I hope it’s not.
    I could use some re-assurance, but at least I am not without hope.

    I hate ‘the culture wars’.
    But this is not the same thing.
    We are watching suffering people who are NOT criminals, they just want asylum in our land, and our administration (OUR admin, WE OWN IT) has a policy of tormenting them terribly. And that evangelical white ‘base’ eats this up? No. No. It’s not the old ‘culture war’ thing.

    This IS a national moral crisis.
    And ‘silence’ from the Church?
    It’s not the 1940’s and this is not Germany.


  30. I understand the concern but to achieve any significant action will require some instrumentality and in a democracy that will inevitably involve politics. So let’s be pure but not too pure. After all we can sit back not wishing to soil our hands and accomplish exactly nothing all for the best of motives.


  31. > There was no mention of political action.

    And that is the best approach.
    Of course, it is a political action [what isn’t?].
    Just focus on the action part.

    The “contact your representive” thing [mentioned in comment above], which I admit to having – personally – rarely heard in a church contact is weird. To me that is over the line because I can do that all on my own. They are “my” representative. A good rule, IMNShO, is for collective groups, like a church, to focus on what collections can do best; a lot of the weird gray area goes away with that rule. It is very difficult for an individual to perform action, like helping people with applications, etc… that is something much easier for a group.


  32. In other news, Mule and Mrs. Mule volunteered for service on the evangelism and outreach committee of our large metropolitan parish. It was decided that our congregation should get involved in that “immigration mess” as it is called, since the demographics around our neighborhood are changing and more and more Hispanics, Middle Easterners, and Eastern Europeans are moving in. Because we speak Spanish, the committee thought it would be good for us to help vet applicants for sponsorship, and we will be joined by Arabic speakers from the Antiochian congregation and Albanian/Serbian speakers from other ethnic congregations in the area. We will be joining Catholics, Quakers, Methodists, and gasp, Pentecostals in an interfaith outreach.

    There was no mention of political action.

    The overwhelming problem is that of a lack of suitable housing, and yes, blankets, bedding, hygiene items, etc. Our bishop said this has been going on far longer than Trump, and will still be around when is gone, but our duty as Christians doesn’t change. My wife, who is far more in favor of Mr. Trump’s policies than even I am, was reluctant at first but is warming to the idea of being able to separate the sheep from the goats in a face-to-face situation.


  33. enough of the ‘labels’

    if we don’t get help to those little children who are suffering without needed diapers, chances to have clean clothing, a daily bath, something besides ‘bologna sandwiches’ to eat, etc. etc. etc.

    In this time of great moral crisis, there is only ONE consideration left for how to ‘label’ who we are:

    “”If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
    But if I am only for myself, who am I?
    If not now, when?” :

    it no longer even matters if we call ourselves ‘Christian’, if we have fielded a monster who preys on children as pawns to get his ‘border wall’

    Are we even ‘human’? too much maybe . . . . but ‘humane’ is even harder for us to see now when we look into the mirror as Americans

    is it getting darker?

    can’t we even get them some diapers?

    not even that?

    Please, people, I don’t know from ‘progressive’ to ‘post-progressive’
    but I do know that no one deserves what these littles have been put through, no one

    end of rant?
    no, I’m just getting started


  34. Although the pastor routinely includes a generalized prayer for all refugees in the prayers of the people, I can’t imagine a discussion like the one that happened at your church taking place at my mainline ELCA suburban parish in the context of Sunday worship, or at any other time, for that matter. The congregation is evenly split between Trump supporters and those who don’t support him. Although the supporters would go along with helping refugees in a general way, they would call any reports about mistreatment of asylum seekers at our southern border “fake news” meant to slander the president; a worship service, or church-wide effort outside worship, centered around such an idea would quickly lead to dissension, and probably toward a loss of a significant numbers of members. Outside worship, we only discuss these matters with those in the congregation we know to be of like-mind. I wish our church was more like yours.


  35. As a never-evangelical, I concur — as long as the limits of social and political activism that we are talking about are not understood to be within boundaries that do not inconvenience or risk the enjoyment of the average American middle-class affluent, consumerist lifestyle and respectability. If they are understood to be within those boundaries, as they usually are, then it is likely that those limits are drawn by plain, old-fashioned conformism, fear of social and/or political ostracism, attachment to affluence, or some combination of all three.


  36. This hit home, particularly after yesterday. Our tiny congregation The subject of yesterday’s service was the border and internment camps crisis. After a reading in the round of the sheep and the goats judgment passage in Matthew, the meeting focused on brainstorming things we could do personally. Donations to several charities were discussed, but the greatest majority of the time was spent on how to contact various politicians to complain and shape their opinion. And apparently next week’s service will be given over entirely to a social media blitz to that end.

    My wife and I were not at ease in all of this – and not for disagreement with their overall take on the subject (as anyone who has debated me here might guess). But our unease was at that moment unfocused. This article has helped clarify part of why I became so uneasy (there are other reasons more to do with our congregation’s internal affairs). And another thing just struck me – we devoted almost no prayer to this matter. Now, I am a horrible prayer-er, so it’s very close to a plank-speck fallacy for me to bring it up… But it does make me wonder.


  37. The church I attend is a progressive church. But I was drawn to it by the hospitality of the congregation. And also by the open arms, it extends to everyone, high and low. And closely related is its pastoral ministry, care for the sick and wounded. In the past, we had a pastor who conducted a Bible study every Wednesday evening discussing the lectionary passage for the approaching Sunday. His preaching was balanced for the most part.

    However, I still have some concerns and most of them have to do with the exact points made above. I worry when a program sounds like a Democratic platform or social activist group. It’s not that I have a problem with joining other groups to achieve a purpose. The problem arises when it seems our identity as a Church of Jesus could easily be lost. We need to remember who we are and that we are praying to usher in the Kingdom of God and not primarily the Kingdom of whoever the Democratic or Republican candidate might be. Every President we have had has ended up disappointing me in one way or the other; some more than others. And the one we have right now more than any other.


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