By / Jan 10

According to Pew Research Center, 80% of Americans say social media platforms are effective for raising public awareness about political or social issues, and over half have also been civically engaged on social media in recent years. Social media can be a powerful tool when harnessed with wisdom as we seek to influence change and address grave issues of injustice throughout our world. 

But for all of the positive change that these tools can help facilitate, one of the temptations in this age of social media is to believe that digital activism is all that is needed to address real-world issues. Digital activism can quickly become a substitute for true and lasting change because we buy into the lie that simply participating in an online campaign is enough. 

Here are two ways to think about social change and move beyond raising awareness of these issues online.

Raising awareness is good, but action is better

Marking our hands with an X to raise awareness about sex trafficking around the world or changing our social media avatars to show support for a cause can be a helpful way to let others know about issues that may fly under the radar of our daily experiences. With all of the busyness and constant distractions of life, digital activism can be an important tool in the age of social media. 

But as our teenagers and families participate in these online movements, we need to stop and examine our motivations for participating. It is tempting to post, share, or like things in order to be seen as the type of person that is socially involved but then fail to actually address these issues in the real world.

Social media can quickly become a way to show the world a version of ourselves that we want them to see rather than seeking true and lasting change through a concerted effort in our communities. Talking or showing support for an issue is one thing, but acting is a whole other level of engagement.

Look for ways to partner with others

One of the blessings of social media is the ability to connect with others, but these online connections can become shallow or superficial. It is more important than ever to move those connections offline and engage with others face-to-face. You may feel called to get involved with important issues like abortion, sex trafficking, or racial injustice, but true change usually happens in real-life relationships with others.

There are countless reputable and gospel-centered organizations that you can partner with in your community to help move the needle on these important issues. You can give resources, volunteer time, and and participate in community events that allow you to put feet to the online support. 

God calls his people to be the hands and feet of Christ in a broken and sin-torn world. May God find his Church actively engaging the world around us, caring for the least of these, and championing human dignity for all, instead of thinking that performative online activity is enough.

By / Mar 19

Editor’s Note: From time to time, Canon & Culture will feature interviews with like-minded organizations doing great work deserving of even wider attention. We’re proud to have interviewed Meg T. McDonnell, Communications Director of Women Speak for Themselves, a grassroots campaign designed to bring attention to religious liberty from a female perspective.

C&C: What is Women Speak For Themselves?

WSFT: Women Speak For Themselves (WSFT) is a grassroots organization of women, founded by Helen Alvaré (Law professor, George Mason University) and her neighbor, Kim Daniels (religious liberty attorney). WSFT started in response to the claims that opposition to the HHS Mandate was men vs. women, and religious freedom vs. women’s freedom. Helen and Kim wrote an open letter speaking out against the Obama administration, members of Congress, and members of the media who continued to claim they spoke on behalf of all women. Helen and Kim each passed the letter to a handful of friends. The letter spread by word of mouth, woman to woman, very quickly—gaining a couple thousand signatures its first weekend and 7000 signatures by the end of its first week. Presently it has more than 41,000 woman signers from all 50 states and various political and religious profiles.

Our list is made up of diverse and intelligent women–with thousands of doctors, lawyers, teachers, businesswomen, homeschooling mothers, and longtime community advocates. Our partnership with the women–and I think we really do see it as a partnership–has produced hundreds of letters to the editor, town hall meetings, letters and meetings with congressional representatives, social media postings, and the occasional protest for religious freedom. Many of the women correspond with Helen weekly; they’re active on our Facebook page (which reaches between tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands of people weekly) and they’re active in their communities. Often, our members alert us to opportunities, and send us literature that enlightens our efforts. They suggest slogans, projects and contacts. It’s a great nationwide collaborative effort!

C&C: What are the issues WSFT is concerned with?

WSFT: Because we got started as a response to the HHS Mandate (particularly the congressional  “religious liberty” hearing which led to a firestorm of media attention claiming that the battle over the HHS Mandate represented a battle by religious forces against women), WSFT has always operated with two points: 1) women care about religious freedom 2) the sexual expressionism Mandate –supporters promote (i.e. sex without relationship, without commitment) is not paramount to women’s progress in society.

Regarding the religious freedom point: women, statistically, practice religion more than men and claim more often that it is crucial to their lives. Also, fascinating data shows that countries around the world which respect religious freedom are also more likely to recognize the equality of the female half of the human race. It’s simply counterfactual to suggest that women don’t care about the religious freedom concerns surrounding the HHS Mandate. It’s also dangerous. Religious freedom is such a vital part of human identity, happiness and freedom.

To the sexual expressionism point: proponents of the Mandate –like Planned Parenthood – regularly equate contraception and free contraception with women’s ability to participate equally in society. This characterization of pregnancy, however, is not true to women. It gives lawmakers a free pass to do nothing more for women than offer legal and free contraception and even abortion.  And it also obscures a deeper, more empowering, and more female-friendly notion of sex as part of a mutually giving relationship between a man and a woman, responsible for new life itself….for society itself.

Sex isn’t always going to bring about new life, of course—and no one is suggesting that access to contraception be removed–but we think discussion of this point should be kept alive in the public arena.  Linking sex and new life together not only reduces the likelihood that women will be reduced to objects, but it also fosters the notion that motherhood can be very transformative in the lives of women, especially poor women who often find that motherhood gives meaning to their lives.

C&C: Religious groups are being given a choice: violate your conscience and comply with the HHS Mandate or pay crippling fines which would inevitably put charities and businesses out of businesses. Many of the groups and charities have said they won’t comply. Will women suffer more because they won’t have access to these charities? 

WSFT: Of course. Think about what the Catholic groups alone provide (let alone the many other religious charities)! Groups like Little Sisters of the Poor and Universities like Notre Dame and Ave Maria (all plaintiffs in lawsuits against the HHS Mandate) are part of a global Catholic network which support leadership and aid for women. Here are some of the global Catholic figures to give you an idea:

Catholic schools have been a leader in educating women worldwide, empowering them to assume leadership roles in culture, society, family and the economy.[1] The Catholic education system is the largest nongovernmental school system in the world.[2]  Globally, there are nearly 93,000 Catholic elementary schools, with over 31 million children in them. There are nearly 44,000 secondary schools with nearly 18 million children in them.

The Catholic Church maintains 54,742 day-care centers caring for 2.3 million girls. The Church today also supports 100,231 health-care institutions worldwide, including hospitals, crisis pregnancy centers, shelters for battered women, leprosaria, nursing homes for the elderly and centers for the assistance of the seriously disabled. Mother Teresa’s 4,000 Missionaries of Charity alone maintain shelters for battered women, orphanages for girls and boys, and homes for destitute and dying women and men in 564 sites around the world.[3]

And beyond the direct care, there is also the witness religious groups provide to women, of a view of sex more likely to prevent the objectification of women, and the care of children. I just wrote quite a bit about the negative consequences of uncommitted sex in an article that called into question Bedsider, a program of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy (a group which supports the Mandate).  Bedsider, and some of its allies (like Planned Parenthood), are doing more than just trying to get contraception to women, they are promoting sex without much discussion of its other consequences. Bedsider in particular offers sex tips, lewd graphics, and vulgar videos, many of which promote drunken sex, casual, uncommitted sex, and irresponsibility in relationships.  Their logic seems to be “as long as you don’t get pregnant, there is no harm.” But there is real harm that can result from uncommitted sex or having sex with multiple partners, especially for women.

The data contained in my article aren’t religious arguments for more intentionality in sex and relationships, but it’s compelling information, which you almost never hear from ‘big media.’ It’s the religious groups that seem to be doing the most work to get this information into the hands of women (and men).  It would be awful for women and children in particular to lose this witness.

C&C: There have been a number of articles from proponents of the HHS Mandate who want to paint groups like WSFT as “people who hate sex” or people who don’t understand that birth control is not the same as abortion. What is your response?

WSFT: It’s playground bully stuff, although — as someone with just a little bit of journalism experience under my belt, it amazes me that some people apparently believe its “journalism.”  Those claims have nothing to do with our materials. They ignore the data we use from sources like the Federal Reserve Chairman Janet Yellen and even Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

People like to say that there are “reasonable people are on both sides of the debate,” and while that may be true, the megaphone that has been given to these preposterous claims give me more motivation to double down on our efforts at WSFT. We have had some success getting our data into the papers and on television, and we will work to get more of the media’s ear, but the heart of our efforts are in the communities where our women live.

I don’t think we should underestimate the power that lies in women standing up for their beliefs–whether it be in their homes, their neighborhoods, their kids’ school, or at their city or town hall meetings. Cultural and political change doesn’t happen overnight, but these two years of WSFT activism have shown us that one woman and her friends standing up on their community can make a difference. WSFT isn’t going away; in fact, we intend to grow!

If you want to join our efforts, please sign up at www.womenspeakforthemselves.com 

[1]Vella Francis, Do Catholic Schools Make a Difference? Evidence from Australia, 34 The Journal of Human Resources 208 (1999);

http://www.catholic.com/magazine/articles/is-the-education-of-women-a-modern-idea.

[2]See e.g. Roy Gardner, Denis Lawton, & Jo Cairns, Faith Schools (2005), p. 148; Gerald Rupert Grace & Joseph O’Keefe, “Celebrating the past: Claiming the future: Challenges for Catholic Education in Ireland”, in Grace, Gerald; O’Keefe, Joseph, International Handbook of Catholic Education Challenges for School Systems in the 21st Century (2007), 15–22.

[3]http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/secretariat_state/documents/rc_seg-st_doc_04031999_status-women_en.html

Andrew Walker
Andrew Walker is the managing editor of Canon and Culture. He also serves as the Director of Policy Studies for The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, the denomination’s entity tasked with addressing moral, social, and ethical issues. In his role, he researches and writes about human dignity, family stability, religious liberty, and the moral principles that support civil society. He is a PhD student in Christian Ethics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Andrew lives in Franklin, TN with his wife and daughter and is a member of Redemption City Church. You can find him on twitter at @andrewtwalk.

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By / Mar 17

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.