Defending a Dirty Word

I never liked considering myself an activist. It felt like a dirty word or something. I’m not sure why, just something about the circles I moved in, or my own perceptions. Perhaps because so often the word is given to people whose causes I find offensive, or to people who attack others with hatred. Today I looked up this dirty word, activism, and I’m afraid the shoe fits.

Activism: a doctrine or practice that emphasizes direct vigorous action especially in support of or opposition to one side of a controversial issue

Am I an activist? In a word, do I take action on what I believe? Yes. And I want to. I don’t want to merely love the world with my lips or build castles in the clouds. I want to walk out the concern I have for the poor and oppressed. So I guess in that way I am an activist, like it or not, and it’s a good thing that I am.

But what about those interesting definition words “opposition” and “controversy?” What’s so controversial about wanting to curb poverty and free slaves? Wouldn’t most people agree that those are good things? Even good things, however, become controversial the minute they start to cost someone something. In the same way that ending the trans-Atlantic slave-trade was costly to many people on many levels, ending slavery today will be a costly and difficult transition for many (including those currently enslaved). So taking action in this arena probably will bring me into the realm of controversy. If I face off with those who have the most to lose (i.e. the big companies), I will probably encounter opposition. And in reality, being active (living differently) will probably bring me into opposition with the little man too, because—let’s be honest—when someone lives by standards that challenge our own, we often resent it.

So I guess the shoe fits, uncomfortable though it may be. Lucky for me, I don’t have two left feet. And there’s another shoe that feels a little easier to wear. That shoe’s labeled “advocacy.”

Advocate: one that pleads the cause of another; one that defends or maintains a cause or proposal

Advocate doesn’t seem to have the same baggage as activist. It lacks the language of opposition and big-ring boxing that makes me so uncomfortable. And yet it fits very well. As an advocate, I speak up for those who can’t speak for themselves. I intercede for those experiencing injustice. I defend the cause of the widow and the orphan. Sounds Biblical, doesn’t it? I think so.

But for me, advocacy isn’t enough. Advocacy alone won’t change these issues. No, the changes I’m talking about here are life changes and they need to be lived. Walked out in the context of love, activism could become a beautiful word, a word that reflects the nature of our Creator. Consider the extreme loving activism of God, who gave up His inheritance, moved in with the poor, came into direct opposition with the most powerful men of that society, became a living, breathing controversy to people who felt threatened by the things He claimed, and in the end was killed by His opponents. His life was one of power, of authority, of words and action. And His whole purpose was love. Love for God, love for people. That is the kind of activism God calls us into. Not an arrogant striving, but a humble obedience. Maybe activism isn’t such a dirty word after all.

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