Keep it to yourself

A number of blogs that I follow push back (most recently here) pretty hard against a type of personal activism that ends up creating a structure a moral evaluation with no sense that effective change is produced or even possible.  What do I mean by this?  I mean simply that personal activism can be a therapeutic response to the guilty conscious of privilege.  There is nothing new in that statement and many of the blogs that I follow outline and develop this a more thorough manner.  However, I though it might be helpful to outline a few simple guidelines for how to discern this reality.

  1. If you believe your action has direct connection to effective change, then outline the network of relationships that demonstrates this, so as to help enable others to participate.  So the personal practices of reducing and recycling are good but I personally do not know of the statistics that relate the basic difference between the personal recycling of material goods and the inherent production of corporate waste in producing our goods and services.  Therefore, in our current structure I do not actually know if increased recycling will actually make a dent in the realities of environmental damage.  So reduce, reuse, and recycle but unless you can articulate a well-informed understanding of how that effects change in the environment in relationship to all the other variables then just do as a base-line practice and nothing more.  The same is true for alternative or ‘guerrilla’ gardening.  These practices can be fun and meaningful but can they address global issues of starvation?  Should they function as anything more than a ‘good habit’?
  2. Be honest that ‘fair-trade’ products represent a sort of premium or ‘luxury’ brand.  They are not bad.  They are simply out of reach for many people to consistently have access to.  The result of creating a morally elevated status for such products is that those who are the most vulnerable in our society will actually have guilt heaped on them (in addition to the prevalent social stigma of being poor).
  3. ‘Symbolic’ gestures are only powerful if they register or gain traction in the face of those in power.  In my Mennonite culture there is an emphasis on ‘simple’ or humble lifestyles.  This basically means that people are not supposed to be ‘flashy’ with their money.  So a family can have a cabin, an RV, snowmobiles, a boat, etc. but if another family occasionally goes out to a fancy restaurant or purchases a piece of ‘abstract’ art they are deemed frivolous or ‘materialistic’.  Simple living is fine, not having flashy things is fine, but there should be no moral scale here.  The only time a particular way of living has symbolic power is if it is actually taken note of by those in power and disrupts the flow of power.  Otherwise, go ahead and do it but drop the implicit or explicit pretense of righteousness.

The result of not following some of these guidelines is, I believe, the very real possibility of insulating ourselves from the possibility of actual change because we are already the change we want to see in the world.  So, again, to repeat there are all manner of good and relatively equivalent (I did not say neutral) ways of living (because in many instances we do not actually know the good or harm we do).  This is not a critique of particular practices as such, rather I am concerned about the moral structure that gets developed around these practices that serve to sanctify and pacify our privileged guilt while condemning those in our midst outside the privileged ability to attain this sort of personal social-piety.  Sure we will condescend to acquit the poor from such guilt but it will be done not from solidarity but from ‘on high’.  And to be clear it is not only those without material means who struggle to attain this sort of personal social-piety but the reality is that it is a lot of work to be consistent in this area.  Many people with mental illness or with children with disabilities or with other significant stress in their life will find it hard attain this piety and will only have more guilt/shame added to their lives as they already have difficulty achieving the other salvation narrative of the ‘American dream’.

So is this another expression that functions to insulate my own position?  I am sure there are elements of self-protection here.  But I do want to offer this as a sort of confession.  For most of my adult life I have lived in the ‘less-desirable’ areas of Canada.  I have, for the most part, quite enjoyed this experience.  I have, however, also held it up as a sort of implicit model of ‘faithfulness’.  And for the most part the practice has been selfish as it has kept me in touch with certain social realities that we tend to ignore.  But functionally there has been no more method in this approach than the baseline hope of being a ‘good neighbour’.  Being a good neighbour will look differently in my neighbourhood than it will in other neighbourhoods but it is also no more righteous (and I am not convinced I have lived up to this in my context in any event).  While I need to take down my lifestyle as a model of personal piety this is different than articulating the manner in which neighbourhoods are formed and maintained (which I have articulated here and here).  This articulation can be a framework in which possibilities for effective or symbolic action can be developed.  This becomes a participatory and collaborative expression rather than a personal posture of living in the ‘hood is more righteous than living in the ‘burbs.  My point in all this is simple.  There are many good things to do in the world but for the most part keep it to yourself.  If it is an effective or truly symbolic act then it will speak for itself.

So what am I missing in my thinking or on my list?

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16 comments on “Keep it to yourself

  1. Or further to point 1. I am developing a critique of contemporary capitalism but I am under no illusion that I am fully implicated in its structure. There are many better or worse actions within the structure but to posture myself as living ‘counter-cultural’ to capitalism has no intelligibility.

  2. Marco Funk says:

    I very much appreciate your post David. Still digesting it, though. I’m not altogether sure about the advice to ‘keep it to yourself’. I don’t think it’s a problem for people to share how certain practices have liberated them and given them a greater sense of participation in God’s justice; but when people try to take their experience and proclaim it as a universal law, that’s when the guilt sets in – a guilt that resists inspiration and creative action, in my opinion.

    Your words, David, are very helpful for me and, I think, beneficial for some of the trends within Mennonite activism. The only amendment I would make is that people shouldn’t bludgeon others with their practices, but share them as a gift.

  3. I think what I would have also added by way of clarification is that this post and the thinking in it is simply meant to push towards more honesty and transparency in our practices. So don’t leave a seemingly ‘pious’ activity unexamined. Push yourself to demonstrate how it effectively or symbolically engages the structures/realities you would like to see changed. In this way, hopefully, the conversation can be more constructive as opposed to prescriptive. And if it is prescriptive then have good reason for it and be prepared to stand by it. There are battles I am willing to fall for, but there are many other battles I just don’t think are worth the causalities (in part because they are simply not clear).
    The push is to be more articulate.

  4. Ryan says:

    Thanks for this, David. Having just returned from an MCC trip to Colombia, many of the themes of this post have been (uncomfortably) bouncing around my head for the past few weeks. It’s so easy to feel virtuous for this or that gesture I perform to push back against this or that unjust system or structure, but it’s extremely difficult—at least for me—to escape the conclusion that, more often than not, these gestures are exercises in guilt management.

    I have little to contribute re: what your post might be missing, but I appreciated your conclusion:

    My point in all this is simple. There are many good things to do in the world but for the most part keep it to yourself. If it is an effective or truly symbolic act then it will speak for itself.

  5. General agreement. I do wonder about the assumption that our task is to bring about change. I want change in various areas of life. But I doubt that we as individuals can make the changes we need as a society, so I don’t see why I would evaluate my own actions on the basis of whether or not they bring about such change. I want to work towards personal and systemic change; but I’m thinking now of a statement I heard today (from someone quoting Raymond Brown): “Our task is not to change the world, but to challenge the world around us.” If we are witnesses rather than the actual change-ers, then specific choices and actions serve as witness, even when I remain trapped or complicit. Agreed that all our actions require honest evaluation and that we are often only seemingly pious. Still willing to embrace choices that may not seem to work.

    • I agree that ‘effectiveness’ can be a problematic measure. But I think it functions implicitly in many of our actions and so again the movement would be to bring them to light not as ‘bad’ but also not as functioning beyond their limitations. So how would someone articulate what constitutes a ‘challenge’? I viewed where I lived as a challenge to the world (and still do to some extent) but again if it is a challenge I would want it to function as such implicitly (not that I do not talk about my reasons in appropriate settings) and not have to ‘over-determine’ it with moral language (and gestures!) if that makes sense.

  6. I appreciate this so much. I am quite tired of the assumptions made about our life and community here, where our life in an inner city context is seen as more faithful on the basis of the context alone. While I appreciate the affirmation for our faithfulness, I have always said that such faithfulness in the suburbs or in rural communities is equally critical and most likely much more difficult. After 10 years in our neighbourhood, we live here because it is home. We do see a greater need for Christians to be engaged/involved/rooted here, but that should not be mistaken for the assumption that it is more important or more “righteous” to do so here than anywhere else.

    Further, while outcomes are important and I agree with you call for us to not allow any “good deed” go unexamined, I also think that part of the problem is an over-emphasis on pragmatism. Interestingly, two people can make largely the same choices- one for the purposes of activism, the other for the purposes of conscious and simplicity. The former, depending on how their choices are “advertized”, can at times do more harm than good, while (at best) the latter is living in the intentionality that your call for above.

    • Dan says:

      I would suggest that this does not let suburban or middle-class Christians off the hook. Rather, it helps us to see how both parties are nearly equally faithless.

  7. Thanks for the great post David. I have found similar tensions around the idea of ‘simple living.’ The desire to be counter-cultural in many Christian circles seemingly includes a “look at me, I’m a simple living superstar” element. But I was made known of the reality that simple living for many is not by choice but by requirement and to celebrate that would be weird. I recently moved from a ‘less than desirable’ neighbourhood to a ‘desirable’ neighbourhood and found myself wondering what faithfulness looks like in the middle class… as Jamie said, I’m finding it to be quite difficult. Coming to a healthy understanding of what my motivations are, or even what about my context/culture influences my motives, is a wonderful place to start, as it would call me to act accordingly (repentance or other). Important thoughts. Keep it up!

  8. Rudy Regehr says:

    so, honest question here, do you feel that any of your thinking on this can be applied to evangelism (even if only to some people’s approach to it)?

    • The honest response is that I can’t think of anything off the top of my head because its been a while since I have thought about evangelism as something separate from my overall understanding and expression of the gospel. So the question to me is a little unintelligible because what I wrote is my ‘application’ to evangelism.

  9. Marco Funk says:

    Rudy, I’m guessing you meant the “keep it to yourself” piece? I’d say that sharing the gospel in a holistic way is part of what it means to be obedient to Jesus’ ‘Great Commission’. Sharing the gospel, however, ought to look a lot different than the activist’s claim on self-righteous practices, precisely because the good news we boast about is not our ethical practice, but rather the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

  10. Dan says:

    Hi Dave,

    Good post. Funny you mention “guerilla gardening” as I have often thought of those who engage in this practice as being (inadvertently) the shock-troops of gentrification (just as, mutatis mutandis, a good many priests and missionaries were [inadvertently] the shock-troops of colonialism and empire).

    I do, however, disagree with your conclusion, albeit not with your intention. I agree with the criticisms you offer but don’t think the answer is to “keep it to yourself.” I think we need to publicly discuss these things so that we can be open to the criticisms of others (“I never thought what I was doing was a sign of class privilege until I talked about it with X” and so on) and so that we can learn from others and network do develop ways of being in the world that serve Life and resist Death (“I never knew about the benefits of living common purse until Y talked about it” and so on).

    The point of discussing, then, is not to gloat or boast or anything like that. It is, first of all, to help us to be just as intensely critical of ourselves as we are of others (the Powers, etc.) and it is, also, to help us share good things we have learned with one another.

    • Right. I think it comes out in a few more of the comments that the push is actually towards better articulation, in that we often stop short in our expressions, thinking they have an inherent faithfulness or goodness to them as opposed to being a basic ‘lowest common denominator’ sort of expression (sometimes at best). So the ‘keep it to yourself’ is a rhetorical strategy (in public discourse) to see how people might respond to being pushed back on what often gets held up as a sort of gospel-standard or something (and of course how I have responded to such push-back).
      So, at best, the strategy would help us to shut-up long enough or strip off some of the theological coding and just let the practice be, and if it is more or less pleasant and benign then so be it, that is not a bad thing, just don’t over-determine it. Or, better, to push people see how simple practices can be become part of an overall vision of engagement (by observing how this actually is the case). And, in turn, then perhaps conversations could overcome certain obstacles (such as defensiveness over particular practices).
      But, yes, if it shuts down the opportunity to constructively engage in conversation then it would not be worth it.

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