The Trouble With Earthly Cities

I’m grateful to Tyler Wigg-Stevenson and the conversation he’s invited with his new book, The World Is Not Ours to Save. It is a challenge for high-strung activists who come from privilege to acknowledge our limits and learn to lean on the Lord.

For folks who consider themselves “progressive,” it is a call to more conservative religion.

The confession at the heart of Tyler’s book is one that exposes how much the early 20th century Social Gospel and the late 20th century Religious Right had in common–namely, the assumption of power and privilege. At different times and in different settings, these movements had differing opinions about which way to steer history. But the purchase of each–the energy that drove the activists in both movements–was the belief that it is our job to save America.

As a white person who was captivated by the latter movement in my teens, I know this temptation well. But as someone who has spent the past fifteen years learning social engagement from America’s black-led Freedom Movement, I don’t see “cause-fatigue” as our greatest challenge. True, if you’re a 20-something who thinks you’re going to change the world by ending nuclear armament or drilling a million wells in Africa, you’re going to wear out. There’s not a smart phone smart enough to keep you fighting windmills like that into the second stage of life.

But such a realization has always been part and parcel of youthful idealism in the Western liberal tradition. You set out to change the world only to learn by the time it’s all said and done that God has saved you. And it’s all grace.

I don’t for a minute deny the importance of this realization. But it is increasingly clear to me that this is not the end of the story–especially for evangelicals in America today. For after so-called “privileged people” have learned our own limits and seen clearly what Augustine diagnosed as the “lust for power” in all worldly cities, we still have to somehow learn what it means to pray and work with all God’s people for a new world here and now. That is, after we’ve learned that privilege doesn’t help us follow Jesus, we still need saints to show us the way.

In my experience, the black-led Freedom Movement in North America is one great source of the wisdom we need. For since before the early abolitionist movements, black folks in America have known that it’s not their job to “save America,” but rather to proclaim liberty to captives and to carve out spaces where that liberty can be exercised. Strikingly, their religion has consistently been more conservative than that of progressive white allies. The sort of radical dependence on the Lord that Tyler’s story points toward is one that many educated people in the Western liberal tradition have struggled to accept.

But I think of someone like Bryan Stevenson, my fellow Eastern University alumus who’s doing incredible work for justice in Alabama. The identity out of which Bryan’s lifework flows is the conservative realism and radical hope of his grandmother and Ms. Rosa Park’s faith.

So, while I’m deeply grateful for this conversation–and for dozens of others like it about what it means for evangelicals today to hold Jesus and justice together–I hesitate when I read a line like this in The World Is Not Ours To Save:

Stewardship is thus the operative term guiding Christian public engagement, as with vocational activism.

Words can mean different things to different people, of course. But “stewardship” is a word that has carried a great deal of weight among white Christians in America. And it’s one that has been noticeably absent from the black-led Freedom Movement.

My point is not that Christians can deny or neglect our responsibility for social engagement. It is, instead, that those of us who have assumed that the world, if not ours to save, is at least ours to manage, must learn from sisters and brothers who’ve practiced our faith on the margins how to keep our eyes on the prize and hold on when the work is hard, hard, hard and we get tired, tired, tired.

From them, we might learn to sing even as we work, “I feel better, so much better / since I laid my burdens down.”

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