Why Is Our Activism So Mean?

By Daniel Darling

From the time I can remember, I’ve been an avid follower of the news. When I was a kid the news came in two ways. It showed up every morning at the foot our driveway in the northern suburbs of Chicago in the form of three newspapers: The Chicago Tribune, The Daily Herald and The Chicago Sun Times. And the news showed up on the radio, as I listened to the WGN Radio or WBBM Newsradio, the all-news station, and sometimes at the top of the hour on Moody Radio. We didn’t have a TV.

I also subscribed to magazines like U.S. News and World Report and The National Review. I always had a keen interest what was going on in the world. Today, of course, the news floods across our social media timelines and interrupts us in the form of phone alerts. Friend text us links. We can’t escape it, it seems.

As I said in my last column, I don’t believe Christians can adequately live out the demands of the gospel without active engagement in the world. In a representative Republic like ours, one of the ways we love our neighbors is to use our voice and vote to help shape the society our neighbors live in. For most of my life I’ve been involved in advocacy in one form or another, sometimes helping friends run for office, sometimes as a pastor helping Christians think through complex issues, sometimes marching for the sanctity of human life, sometimes using my pen, and, in the last decade, working at Christian organizations with advocacy as part of their mission.

I believe in this work. Christians should be at work like this in the world and yet today it seems our activism has become so … mean. I don’t want to blame social media entirely for this increasing meanness, because malice has been in the world since Eden. There are so many factors at work that have further polarized people. Yet social media platforms have given us a stage by which we can advocate for issues in a much more public and vocal way. I think this is mostly good, as voices can converge around issues and can build momentum for change.

Still, I’m starting to think many of us confuse a kind of performative activism with actual advocacy. There is a self-righteousness to the echo chambers we join, a thick “us versus them” mentality that exists. This is a problem across the ideological spectrum, from left to right and everything in between. We no longer speak out for important issues, we are primarly concerned about speaking against those who disagree with us, using the vulnerable as a useful cudgel against those who we consider our enemies. Sometimes these perceived foes aren’t even on the other side of the political aisle, they are people who mostly agree with us who aren’t, in our view, sufficiently angry online. There is an invisible set of unwritten social rules that take on an almost religious fervor. We are eager to exile those we deem not pure enough and mythologize those to whom we falsely attribute courage, in which being brave is measured by the degree of incivility.

But genuine advocacy, as opposed to performative activism, is about building a diverse coalition of people around an issue and pushing those in positions of power to make real change. Genuine advocacy is measured by progress—lives saved, legislation passed, outcomes reached—rather than the temperature of hot takes and the number of retweets. Today, to work across the aisle, to be seen standing next to someone who disagrees, even if done in the service of successful advocacy, is considered betrayal.

Our activism has gotten so mean. We are more interested in destroying people than getting things done. But this is not the way of Christ. There is a way to be both firm and unwavering in our convictions and yet openhanded and civil in the way we apply those convictions. Peter, no stranger to conflict, who would later be martyred for the sake of the gospel, teaches us that courage and civility are not enemies, but friends. In 1 Peter 3:15, he says to “have an answer for every person for the hope that lies within you, but do it with gentleness and kindness.”

What does this look like exactly? Some see kindness as useless, a crutch for weak-willed souls.

Kindness is an essential human trait, however. We are told that it was God’s kindness that leads to repentance (Romans 2:4). Kindness is a companion, not a barrier, to conviction. Sometimes it can help win over opponents and produce meaningful change. And sometimes kindness is met by hostility. But for a Christian it’s not an optional add-on, it’s an essential virtue.

We could also do with a bit more self-awareness and humility. There is so much righteous moral certitude on social media today, but are the daily deluge of declarative statements, designed to let a certain influential group know that you are with them and against the other—does this actually help produce change or does it just make us feel better about ourselves? We might approach the world with a bit more open-handedness, a bit more humility and thoughtfulness. Paul, no shrinking violet, who possessed no lack of courage, couched his strongest rebukes in his own fallibility. I’m the chief of sinners, he told Timothy before urging him to stand firm in the faith (1 Timothy 1).

Paul is saying this as a way of reminding himself that he was not always right about everything. And neither are we. There are certain things about which Christians should be certain, but there are many, many pragmatic issues about which we may have convictions that we should fight for but hold loosely. Our mission, when advocating, should be persuasion, not punishment. This, more than public posturing, will actually help those we seek to help the most.

photo credit: Patrick