An Antidote for ADHD Activism

March 17, 2014

Review by Jordan J. Ballor of Tyler Wigg-Stevenson, The World is Not Ours to Save: Finding the Freedom to Do Good (IVP, 2012)

Writing as a lifelong activist against nuclear weapons, Tyler Wigg-Stevenson is uniquely placed to criticize a brand of evangelical social activism that emphasizes energy and enthusiasm over patience and perseverance. Christian obedience requires all these at various times and in various manifestations, but Wigg-Stephenson detects an imbalance at the heart of contemporary Christian cultural engagement that threatens to wither the roots of the entire enterprise. He is greatly concerned about the “cause fatigue” that he commonly, and increasingly, sees among younger Christians.

“It is important to shine a light on the ways in which world-fixing impulses are often at play in our activist behavior,” contends Wigg-Stevenson, because such pretensions breed the inevitable failures that lead to burnout, depression, and despair. The world isn’t ours to save, fix, or transform, he says. In a post-Fall reality, the world is a bit like Humpty-Dumpty: all the efforts of the King’s own people, his Church, simply cannot put it together again.

The reason for this is at its core twofold. In the first place, Christian activism cannot “save” the world because in the most significant and meaningful way the world already has been saved by the atoning work of Jesus Christ. Christians in their work don’t do what Christ did in his life, death and resurrection; and so there is a qualitative difference here between accomplishing cosmic redemption in an objective sense and realizing the reign of Christ’s kingdom in our own lives subjectively. “Our job is not to win the victory,” writes Wigg-Stevenson, “but to expose through our lives the victory that has been won on our behalf.”

But we also are unable to “save” the world in another sense: the problems are just too comprehensive and total. The biggest problem facing Christian attempts to change the world for the better is the unchanging reality of human sin in this life. No program, agenda, campaign, project or institution can eliminate this sinfulness. In a noteworthy section in which Wigg-Stevenson compares the image of the bronze snake from Numbers 21 with Christ lifted up on the cross, he writes, “If the bronze snake shared the image of the poisonous snake problem that it solved, then Jesus’ humanity tells us that the problem he cures is humanity. Us. We are our own worst problem.” Or as the apostle Paul put it, we “invent ways of doing evil” (Romans 1:30).

Our inability to get at the root of our own sinfulness, to save ourselves and our world, often leads us to inconsistent, haphazard, or poorly conceived fixes, a kind of “ADHD activism.” Thinking that we have the calling to save the world, we spread ourselves out widely but superficially to embrace all kinds of otherwise worthy causes. We sign petitions, “like” and share calls to action on Facebook and Twitter, invite others to write letters to their congressional representatives, and give of our time and treasure to a variety of causes. All of this work is undertaken with noble, but all-too-often misguided, intentions, says Wigg-Stevenson.

What, then, is the better way? Certainly not to withdraw from attempts to improve the lot of the world through the levers of influence that we have. We are indeed called to be faithful, says Wigg-Stevenson, and this faithfulness must come to external expression, not only in word but also in deed. We must recognize the finitude of our own efforts, though, even those efforts empowered and inspired by the work of the Holy Spirit. We are called to faithful obedience, not necessarily to success by any measurable worldly standard.

What this leaves us with is a kind of pensive hopefulness, a grounded faith that takes concrete responsibilities in this world seriously and yet has no illusions about ushering in a utopia through our own efforts. Do your own thing, says Wigg-Stevenson, recognizing that each one of us has been called to follow Christ in a particular and unique way. “The breadth of Christian callings is as diverse as the number of believers who have been called, so no one-size-fits all answer exists,” he writes.

This calls for a different kind of social action, one that sees our obedience as important, even indispensable for authentic discipleship, but not all-important. As the book’s subtitle indicates, this kind of perspective frees us from the tyranny of world-saving expectations in favor of the more realistic and ultimately more responsible approach that emphasizes the life of Christian discipleship as a long journey rather than an instantaneous transformation, requiring a commitment to authentic relationship and personal engagement.

In many ways this book can be seen as an expression of Wigg-Stevenson’s convictions as worked out in his own decades-long activism against nuclear weapons. The book is replete with personal anecdotes and experiences that illustrate the concreteness of our individual Christian callings. Wigg-Stevenson uses these illustrations to craft a narrative that brings his message home: The world may not be ours to save, but we do have a significant stewardship responsibility to be agents of God’s grace in our own unique circumstances, whatever and wherever those might be.

This is a message that many evangelicals need desperately to hear. Throughout the book Wigg-Stevenson evinces a perspective that smashes problematic distinctions between the sacred and the secular, recognizing instead that “For Christians, there is no socioeconomic status or occupation that is too great or too menial to be offered as service: the calling of the Lord Jesus himself.” In important ways this perspective resonates with the legacy of the Dutch theologian and statesman Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920), whose vision of the sovereignty of Christ is well-captured in the famous claim, “Oh, no single piece of our mental world is to be hermetically sealed off from the rest, and there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’”

Although Wigg-Stevenson doesn’t mention Kuyper, and even though Kuyper does not have a monopoly on this insight within the Christian tradition, it is helpful to juxtapose Kuyper’s claim with one that Wigg-Stevenson does make, since this comparison highlights the central dynamic of The World Is Not Ours to Save. Thus the following from Wigg-Stevenson gains new salience: “There is no square inch of earth that we may claim permanently for the kingdom of God. . . . The only territory that has been irrevocably determined for the coming kingdom is the body of the Lord Jesus Christ.” It is Christ who makes the ultimate claim of sovereignty, not us. It is Christ who saves the world, not us.

What we as Christians do instead is act as faithful stewards: “we don’t have to be the hero of the story, just the steward of our calling.” As the apostle Peter puts it, the Christian is obliged to “use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms” (1 Pet. 4:10). This diversity of gifts, dispositions, and convictions means that there will not be agreement about what the most important stewardship goals are, or what kinds of activities and activism are best suited to achieve these goals. It is at this level of prudential wisdom that most of my own concerns with Wigg-Stevenson are located, such as with his conviction that diversity on the one hand is to be celebrated but that inequality on the other is to be rejected, or that certain kinds of political action are demands of justice. More conceptual clarity about some of these claims would be helpful.

And yet at the same time these disagreements underscore in a deeper way a more fundamental truth that Wigg-Stevenson does a great service in communicating: We “must remember diversity within unity. When we try to do everything ourselves, we risk disrespecting the diversity of gifts that Christ has given to his body.”

So do your own thing, says Wigg-Stevenson, and do it faithfully and responsibly. But don’t confuse it for the things God alone does. This is an important message for the Christian church in the world today.

Jordan Ballor

Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24