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Social Activist, Religious Activist

While young people today are movers and shakers, reformers and influencers, seeking voice and empowerment through protest and organization, our activism is largely restricted to political and social spheres. We will boycott products from a company that exploits labor, hold signs and march in the streets for the rights of immigrants, but we generally do not seek to reform the religious institutions of which we are a part.

As a student of Public Policy, I was excited when a former pastor of mine preached a sermon series about Jesus’s activism. I began to view my political and social activism as part of my calling to live like Jesus. Everything he stood for was political in some way: equality and inclusion of all, and care and compassion for all. He compassionately interacted with women (even promiscuous women), tax collectors, lepers, and the poor on a personal level and told his disciples to do likewise. Moreover, Jesus was a religious activist. His revolutionary lifestyle and words challenged systems of society and secular culture, but he also challenged religious culture. Among the so-called pious, he corrected their legalism and exposed their hypocrisy. The people he chose to be his disciples and spread his word were nowhere near perfect; they were just as broken as everyone else with who Jesus chose to engage. In the same way society needs our political and social activism, churches need our religious activism.

Understanding religious activism, requires first expanding our concept of activism. Effective activism goes beyond simply acting for a cause; it requires both reflection and action, or praxis. In the case of social activism, one might participate in a community dialogue before taking further steps to call a state representative, for example. Religious activism, as used in this article, refers to the process of reflecting and acting for the purpose of transforming religious institutions. It does not simply refer to religious people engaging in social or political activism, although these forms of activism as just as much a part of the Christian call as religious activism.

To engage in religious activism requires believing that church denominations and individual churches are institutions, and like other institutions (and systems), they must grow and evolve (although the evolution may be a slow process). It is activism of the body of Christ that can prevent preservation and stagnation, transforming the church into a more just institution. Of all the Christian leaders who have shaped my belief that to be a Christian necessarily means to fight for justice through institutional change, one of the most influential has been Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. He was passionately dedicated to the civil rights movement and also pointed his finger at racism in the church and in the hearts of some Christian believers. His beliefs on the need for transformation in the church did not end with racism; he named the church’s unethical and immoral participation in slavery, war, and economic exploitation. Preaching on what it meant to be a transformed non-conformist, Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Nowhere is the tragic tendency to conform more evident than in the church, an institution that has often served to crystallize, conserve, and even bless patterns of majority opinion.”

Churches need activism for transformation because they are imperfect. Churches both conserve and shape immoral societal norms. In some cases, it is preserving unjust norms and beliefs, even as society has evolved and formed new norms. Gender equality is one prominent example of the need for institutional transformation in the church. While the American society has made significant advances for the rights of and quality of life for women, only a handful of denominations have adjusted their policies to allow women to occupy the highest levels of church leadership. The treatment of the LGBTQ community, approaches and stances on abortion, race and class segregation in churches, among other exclusionary and harmful policies need you and your church peers, a team of religious activists.

Unfortunately, many youth frustrated by legalism, discriminatory language and actions, and hypocrisy in churches, choose to stop attending church or to never join in the first place. In my view, it seems that they are not necessarily disinterested in spirituality, but that they cannot reconcile what they believe with what they hear or experience (or think they would hear or experience) in the church. I recently attended a church group where an older women told a group of youth that she did not believe that women should have any place in the leadership of the church. She also shared about her husband’s authority in the home. Many of the youth, of course, held very different opinions but felt suffocated by her assertion. With such mentalities and rhetoric, it is no surprise why youth are “turned off” by the church. But, we do have an option besides bolting away in impatience and frustration. Channel your anger, uneasiness, and questions into greater reflection and action for change in the church.

Perhaps the greatest barrier to channeling this energy for religious activism is fear. Since the church carries moral authority to believers, people often refrain from standing up for institutional justice in the church for fear of being a “bad” person or being ostracized. Internal struggles emerge and we begin to ask ourselves questions like, am I still a “good” Christian if I question why there are no female apostles described in the Bible? What will people think of me if I say we need to explore how gender biases shaped the content of the Bible? What kind of conflict might I cause if I bring up why the leadership does not reflect the demographics of the church body or the surrounding neighborhood?

But we must turn that fear around: what will happen if I don’t act or speak today for justice? What will be the future of the church if our congregation does not address these issues? We must face our fears with courage, love, and grace. Let us consider the possibilities of holding forums, debates, conferences or even protests to raise awareness about issue in the church that are dearest to us. Let us research the history of the church to understand how we got to where we are. Let us approach our church leaders in dialogue. Let us act beyond our fear of non-conformity so that the church may resemble that which Christ intended.

As a part of the body of Christ and the body of the church (a specific church), you shape what it is and what it becomes. This contribution is similar to your identity as responsible member of your neighborhood or school. In all such places where you a moving part of the solution to issues, you must understand your limitations as a singular unit and power as a unified movement. Success is not guaranteed in any scenario, but no effort goes in vain either, as the fruits of your labor may be revealed with time.

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