Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Don't Be a Hero: An Interview with Tyler Wigg-Stevenson on Christianity and Activism, Part I

Interview by Matt Johnson
Ground Motive: I very much enjoyed your book on Christianity and activism called The World is Not Ours to Save: Finding the Freedom to Do Good that came out in February of this year. I'd love to hear a little bit about what inspired it and what you were hoping to communicate with it.

Tyler Wigg-Stevenson: As I say in the first chapter, I've made something of a career in Christian anti-nuclear activism and nuclear policy. Advocacy and theology are the only two things I've done in my adult life, sometimes at the same time. Over the period starting about 2007, continuing through the present, I was doing this more than full time. The book came out of the exposure to that activity, that activism.

In the course of that activism I was exposed to the broader world of Christian activism, which in my opinion has blossomed, or exploded, depending on what your take on it is, over the past ten years. I’ve developed what I hope is a loving but critical attitude toward the Christian disposition and activism that I saw frequently and saw brimming up in myself.

And so to an extent, the book is an exercise in self-criticism, grounded in my own experience of the spiritual and practical pitfalls that I think dot the Christian activist landscape today. It's an attempt to name those pitfalls and to pose an alternative way of living faith in public.

GM: I was intrigued by what you say in your book about “hero activism” and the problems with it. Why is it a problem to go into activism thinking that you're a hero and that you can fix things?

TWS: This is the lead-off critique in the book, and it's one of those aspects of the world of Christian activism that I think once you see it, it's hard not to see it everywhere. You get subcultures that have their own celebrity names, and they're all over the place. So if you're talking about the conference circuit for example, the calendar's dotted with conference upon conference upon conference. These celebrity names that go on posters with the head shots are intended to draw people in, so presumably there's an audience for this. They are presented as heroic figures. One has to ask, what does this messaging communicate to this audience?

This is certainly not limited to the Christian universe. Every subculture has its kind of defining celebrities, its important voices. But I think from a theological perspective that demands a certain critical attitude toward what's going on here.

GM: Shouldn’t we look up to people who do great things and aspire to be like them? What’s wrong with wanting to be a hero?

TWS: One of the things we have to take a hard look at is the extent to which the hero trope requires the enemy and the extent to which that enemy defines the hero. That's part of a heroic story, where the narrative arc involves the hero confronting the dragon, the beast, the other or the opposite, and triumphing over it. But I don’t see that anywhere playing out in any sort of standard version of Christian discipleship. Christian discipleship is one of overcoming, but the overcoming is inward-focused.

In fact, the Biblical command is to “resist not evil” [Matthew 5:39]. It is not one of taking on the world and defeating it, at least as an individual. Rather, any defeat, any conquest is a participation in Christ’s conquest rather than ours, and what is overcome is that within us that resists participating in Him, which is the whole of Ephesians 6. That's the point. Yes, there is a battle, but it's not against the kingdoms of this world that are going to oppose us.

So the Christian life doesn't sync up with the standard heroic trope because to a certain extent the standard heroic trope requires the enemy, and maybe even celebrates the enemy. What is the Batman without the Joker? What is Spiderman without Doc Oc? You've got these characters that have their opponents, like Superman/Lex Luthor. They come in dyads. But I think the Christian vision is something different; we shouldn’t celebrate sin that much. The Christian vision is something else. It's imagining a world without conflict.

So that's not to dismiss hero stories. I think they can and do serve a really important function and can teach us quite a bit, but we should be a little bit critical about them.

The other concern I raise in the book is the way in which a heroic mindset, wanting to be a character of heroic proportions, really doesn't work with reading the Bible in terms of spiritual education. Christians reading the Bible will identify with protagonists. But if you take the gospel message seriously when you read the Bible, you are reading the most important story that will ever be told, and there is a limited number of highly important characters, of highly significant people.

So in terms of all the people who have ever lived, if you're named and you're important in the Bible, you're one of the more significant lives that has ever been lived. And yet we readily align ourselves with one of these important characters as if our mortal coil was at all comparable in historical significance to one of these figures in the salvation history, which is just ludicrous. Most of us, as far as the Bible goes, are the crowds; we're the masses, we're the faceless plural. But still we act like there are leadership lessons that we can derive from a David or a Solomon or Moses. We identify with these characters, and we do so in an entirely uncomplicated way.

To bring this all back to Christian activism, if you look at the kinds of cultural endeavours that are put forward by some very visible Christian activist projects, what is often offered is the chance to be a hero vis-à-vis the social problem. My response to that is not that we should not engage that social problem, but I think that this way of setting up the hero as a mode of engagement is a troublesome doorway.

GM: Do you have any practical advice for people who feel paralyzed by the enormity of the world's problems and don't even know how to even think about activism? How do you start getting involved?

TWS: I would say that you question whether the first step is “involvement.”

This is the activist appeal: problem A needs your involvement, and you are Variable B that will lead to Solution C. That's activist math. I've become allergic to activist rhetoric, especially the idea of “involvement” or “making a difference!” The things we're asked to make a difference in!

And “changing the world”! Really, for the life of me, I cannot understand why we're so obsessed with changing the world, and what most people think that means, as if we don't change the world by living in it. Of course we do. We transgress against the world; what we call “the world” is itself a matrix of interpersonal transgression, so what do we think we're doing by daily drawing breath?

But it seems to me that when people talk about changing the world what they mean is “changing the conditions of existence,” and that's a fundamentally problematic place to start because it buys into a whole set of presuppositions about the possibilities embedded in social engineering, which I think are highly troublesome and highly arguable and debatable.

So my short answer is, to those who feel paralyzed, I hope they read my book (if I may!) because they're the people I wrote it for. I think that embedded in the “how do I get involved?” question is nothing less than “why am I alive, and how am I to relate to the world's pain?” It also ought to be noted that that question often starts from a place of privilege because most people throughout time and space do not get to ask of their own lives, “How can my life change the overall pain level of the world?”

So a place to start is to recognize that place of privilege, to examine how it is that we can even ask “what is the best way for me to change the world?” and to consider why I encounter my inability to change the conditions of the world as existentially paralyzing. So I'd say, question the vocabulary, ask a question about asking the question.

Then I think it's important to be able to take in the comprehensive promise of the Kingdom of God and our absolute smallness in relationship to bringing the Kingdom about, recognizing our absolute incapacity to understand the way in which we are efficacious toward bringing the Kingdom about and then deciding to live faithfully according to what you can know. And I think the matter of living faithfully is largely determined by relationships.

Now, I would love a critic of the book to say, “Well, that leaves people where they are, then.” It would be reasonable for someone to say to the book in a critical way, “If you just leave people where they are, then they might help the people with whom they have relationships, but you don't do anything to undermine the overall social structure.” I think that's legitimate, and I think there's probably some place to go with that criticism.

Nonetheless, I still think that taking a much more humble approach to ourselves vis-à-vis the course of history, and then to ask, “What does life look like when I have a more accurate understanding of how big I am vis-à-vis the Kingdom of God?” is a good place to start.

It's like when you look at the Mercator Projection and you think that Greenland is really, really big. But it is not as big as it looks, not nearly as big as Australia. Christians have a Mercator Projection of their own where they're Greenland and the world is the Kingdom of God, and if they looked at a globe instead, if they had an accurate portrayal of the thing, they would recognize their own smallness.

I can give you one concrete suggestion: I walked the Camino de Santiago, the pilgrimage route through Northern Spain, with my wife last year in June. For the month I didn't read a newspaper, I didn't have cell phone access, and we only had an email address specifically for the trip that we gave to our families in case of emergency. So other than that, I was totally disconnected. As far as everyone outside of our immediate families was concerned, it was as if we had been hit by a bus. As far as “the world” went, we ceased to exist meaningfully for a month. And everything went just fine. None of us knows when we're going to die and that simple fact should help us realize how utterly unessential we are to the running of the world.

GM: I suppose coming to terms with this humility is probably one of the reasons why the academy has become so important to you, so you can step back and ask “what are we doing, and why are we doing it?” rather than blundering forward in an attempt to change the world. Would you say that this kind of thoughtful reflection is one of the important things Christian scholarship needs to be involved in?

TWS: Yes, although academics can represent its own sort of taking account and giving the grand theory that then becomes a different sphere of mastery. I think you could say that one of my fundamental critiques of the activist culture is that it represents a sphere of attempted mastery in a way that's entirely inappropriate to the human condition and the problems which we face. I think that concerted human action can bring about extraordinary good, but it can also bring about extraordinary evil.

The biggest things that happen aren't engineered, let alone targeted. They are the product of forces that are well beyond our capacity to guide. So I'm leery of activism or of academics thinking, “Well, I know what's going on now and so X, Y and Z.” As I go on, I hope it's in the direction of maturity. I don't know. But the more I dive in, the more convinced I am that we have only the barest understanding of causality and really no idea about the extended effects of most of what we do, and I have very little faith in the directedness of grand plans.

So my interest in academics represents a capacity to interrogate faithfully the questions that I think are interesting and significant, and ones that I think the interrogation of which represents a faithful use of what's been given to me and the time that's been given to me. As to how my work is used or to what great effect it has, I have no grand ambitions. This is for me a time of giving up grand ambitions.

Tyler Wigg-Stevenson is the founder and director of the Two Futures Project and currently serves as the Chair of the Global Task Force on Nuclear Weapons, an initiative of the World Evangelical Alliance. He is the author of Brand Jesus: Christianity in a Consumerist Age and The World is Not Ours to Save: Finding the Freedom to Do Good and is currently pursuing a ThD from Wycliffe College at the University of Toronto.


  1. A very sobering and thoughtful piece; thanks both of you.

    My only questions are - the answers to which are perhaps contained inside your book, Tylor, which I have not yet had a chance to read but really would like to- is, "How is hope maintained for real societal change? The kind of change that led to the abolition of slavery and better rights for women? Our hope in God should be 'big', right, not in ourselves entirely . . . doesn't this necessarily lead to a more optimistic viewpoint and away from resignation?" But then again, those William Wilberforces must have conceived of their small finitude; their voices were and are small but somehow (God?) get magnified enough to create major historical change. It is largely a mystery, but I agree good world change stems from honest reflection and responding to uncover a blind spot in societal injustice. Thoughts?

    1. Hi Sarah! That's a really good question. It would be easy to swing too far the other direction and say that we shouldn't even hope for big changes or for the end of systems of oppression. But I wonder if there's a way to hold onto the hope without developing illusions of grandeur about how we're going to bring that change about. So while we can hope for change and work hard for change, we shouldn't expect ourselves to be the next William Wilberforce. Once we start expecting ourselves to effect changes of heroic proportions, we might lose perspective miss the important things right in front of us that someone needs to do but no one will see.

      I think this is mostly rephrasing the question you raise, Sarah, but how do we develop healthy expectations on ourselves? How do we know when to take on causes by working toward large scale change and when to limit ourselves to working to save our environment by just picking some candy wrappers?