Part 3: New Way of Activism

Part 3: New Way of Activism October 22, 2009

Here is Part 1

Here is Part 2

Here is a quick summary of the discussion thus far: My thesis is that traditional forms of activism don’t actually work in changing policy and it ends up causing more harm than good—whether marches, protests, split-screen debates, etc. Though even after explaining why I believe such a thing, not one person agreed with me. Well, one did. 🙂 After reading all of the comments, emails and facebook messages in which people explained why I was wrong, I came up with a combination of everyone’s best-case scenario for traditional activism:

“Significantly large marches and protests are effective when they can leverage their numbers in combination with viral means before and after—all of which also depends on good media relations (thanks Robert) to get the message to masses. However, in order for this to happen the people must become the change they want to see (thanks again Robert), totally and utterly committed no matter what—as MLK Jr. said: “You can take away our jobs, you can criticize us, you can stab our families and you can bomb our houses and we’ll still keep going” (thanks Kevin). And doing all of this in person, directly in the face of violent oppression, it can, and will work (thanks Steven) because the crowd motivates the crowd to go back and keep pressing along (thanks Joe_S).”

Now that is something I can stand for! The problem is that combo of things hardly/rarely ever happen. In fact as I argued throughout this series, it has only happened 3 times in 600 years. But as we can see, when it does happen, the world changes.

So the broader question is:

Does culture keep banking on a 1/200 year potential of world changing activism that is event driven, or does the medium of activism change along with culture?

I will go for the latter. And here is how I think that can happen: As simply as I can put it,

21st century activism needs to adopt the mindset of loving the other side to their belief; doing so in a personal, concrete fashion that stimulates respect and results in trusting relationships with influencers who can change policy.

Let me give you an example, and then I will extrapolate more in the next post. I was on a conservative radio show this past Spring and one of the hosts was going out of her way to try and make me look stupid and irrelevant. She kept yelling at me saying that Christians need to expel the immoral brother; and since I was not expelling any GLBT person from my life I wasn’t being biblically correct. The following is her example (which personally, I don’t think had anything to do with her point). None the less … here it is:

The radio host felt that the public school system was forcing “gay agenda” books in the (and her) kids’ faces. Her immediate reaction was that Christian parent’s only response had to be consistent protests and fighting back. Before I continue with the story, I want to state three clear points about the mindset regarding school curriculum:

1. I know thousands of GLBT people, and not one of them has ever said to me, “You know what Andrew? I never thought about being gay until I was in elementary or middle or high school and got gay books thrown in my face as acceptable. It wasn’t until that moment that I said to myself, Well, if this is acceptable because the public school system says it is, then I’m definitely gay!” Nope … never happened. Not once.

2. Who do these parents think they are letting the public school system and its curriculum dictate the theological/social belief system of their children?! That’s the parent’s job. I don’t care what the school teaches; too many Christian parents these days are scapegoating the school system in place of doing their job as a parent. Who is raising your kids, the school or the parents? Take responsibility for the responsibility that is yours! Stop blaming teachers and schools.

3. If anything, such an opportunity of gay affirming books/etc should be looked upon by conservative Christian parents as wonderful opportunities to instill in your kids (and no, I don’t care if they are in kindergarten or high school) how to productively engage a culturally divisive topic in a productive manner that does significant things for the Kingdom.

Back to the story. So what she did was get together a group of about 50 conservative parents who gave themselves a clever Christian name, and they would show up to all the school administration meetings and forums to protest, yell and hold up signs. They would then go into the building when the meeting started and one by one go up to the mic and each ask the same question. Their thought is that if they kept repetitively asking the same question, making the same point, the school administration would have to listen to them because they (in their own mind) had such a powerful voice. Do you want to know what that did? The school superintendent just stopped paying attention and wrote them off as easily as they formed themselves together.

I know all of this because one of the dads in the group (who contacted me after hearing me on that radio show) realized this protesting and repetitive demanding was doing nothing but driving the school administration further away.

So one day he called the school superintendent, got a meeting with him, and went to his office to listen. This dad asked only one question to the superintendent: “Can you let me know the thought process behind the school’s decision to take away Christian books from the curriculum and then add gay affirming books to them?” After the superintendent was completed giving his answer the dad said, “I am so much better informed now and I appreciate your time.” The dad kept setting up meetings with the superintendent and kept asking one question and then listened to his rationale. Then one week, about two months into this series of private meetings, the superintendent asked the dad, “What are your thoughts about all of this?” The dad explained his thoughts and the superintendent listened. And from that moment on, before the superintendent made any decisions (about anything—not even just about the topic of homosexuality), he would call in that dad to meet with him, and he would run it by the dad to see how conservative Christian parents would think and react. It became such a close relationship that the superintendent has changed his plans and policies on a few occasions, just based on the dad’s conservative Christian thoughts on the subject. And it happened because he respects that dad more than he would ever respect the group that dad used to be a part of.

Here’s the kicker to this story: The mean radio host still to this day thinks it’s because of her protesting that certain things were changed. While she’s patting herself on her back for looking like an idiot, the dad calmly continues to meet with the superintendent once, sometimes twice per week. I recently asked the dad two questions that I think you’ll find interesting:

Q: What did the superintendent truthfully think about the radio host and her group?

A: He could have cared less about them, what they said or what they demanded. Nothing they would have done would have ever influenced any of his decisions, barring 100% of the parents in the whole school system being on their side. The dad told me that the superintendent once said, “It’s a small and annoying part of my job. But I don’t stress about it because I don’t care about them at all.” [Side note – funny how much the superintendent now cares about the dad?]

Q: Why haven’t you ever told the radio host about your meetings and the huge influence you now have through the superintendent?

A: He quoted Jesus’ words in Matthew 6:16-18 to me—“When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to me that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”

New Activism is built on sustainable relationships through faithful commitment. The main difference I see between the old and new activism is that the new doesn’t ever produce change or influence right away. Yet people are still grasping for a mythical old activism that actually works. But it doesn’t exist like it once did. That’s why the new activism is so hard, because it has to be patiently and faithfully built over a significant amount of time. It’s about what is inside us. What changes in us. What we can control in ourselves and our actions in living out our belief system in such a way that dignifies ourselves, others, and most importantly, God. What is on the outside is always uncontrollable, unsustainable and always subsidiary to what is inside.

In the next post I will continue with more strategies and thoughts on New Activism.

Much love.

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  • A lot of gay people I have been speaking with (including at the Equality March) agree that for those of us that are gay, perhaps the best thing we can do is put down our signs and live our lives openly, honestly and lovingly. I think there still might be a place for marches, but they are perhaps most effective when the marchers themselves are not the ones with the direct benefit. Imagine a march of evangelicals supporting gay rights (“we love all people” type of thing) – that might actually help bring amazing healing.

  • Melanie

    I have agreed with your views on this since your first post and have seen first hand the negative affect that abortion protesters have had on our efforts to offer hope and support to women facing unplanned pregnancies. Why would a woman walking into an abortion clinic think they are any safer in the hands of those protesters than they are in that abortion clinic? By building trust and showing empathy to these woman and their situations (NOT by protesting), they are able to open up about what is going on and we are able to help them realize that they don’t have to choose between their baby and their future. I believe this same priciple applies to those who are gay as well. There’s got to be a better way (which reminds me of the Ben Harper song “Better Way”. It gives me the chills every time I listen to it).

  • Jon Trouten

    Just curious. Did the school end up removing those “gay agenda” books?

  • Jon – No, but what they did do was add a few general conservative Christian books as well – not ex-gay books, but worldview type stuff for equal balance – which for a public school system is quite “progressive.” Funny usage of that word, huh? Since those beginning stages much of their relationship has moved outside of the topic of homosexuality.

    Melanie – Sweet example! I couldn’t agree more with the ‘safe’ issue.

    Brad – I’ll have to retract some of my post then…yes, some extremely large and countercultural marches would make a lot of difference in the cultural psyche.

  • “Does culture keep banking on a 1/200 year potential of world changing activism that is event driven, or does the medium of activism change along with culture?”

    The culture could remember how to pray to a sovereign God. “Nothing of eternal significance is ever accomplished apart from prayer.” A wise mentor taught me that. The dad in your story, Andrew, seems to have been aware of it, too. Great example. We naively see ourselves sometimes as the only force acting upon a situation.

  • Jon Trouten

    I think social change comes from all of the above: public protests, active contacts with political and public leaders, and other face-to-face encounters. I disagree that that have been only three public marches in the past 600 years that have spawned results. But I also think that people are delusional if they think that there is going to be spontaneous change after one march on the nation's capital (or any partcular city, or board meeting, or church gathering, or whatever).

  • Wendy

    Just have to say that I love Brad's idea…

    In our culture we've become good at tuning things out. When a protest is done the same way over and over again…people stop hearing…

  • Mrs T

    I think that prayer is the key. Even tho I am a big proponent of prayer, I often plunge ahead without praying. Often we are too reactionary & don’t stop to pray. Thanks for the reminder……

  • Jack Harris

    I am reminded of the famous bumper sticker : “Well behaved women never make history.” I am sorry but sometimes you have to get people’s attention with protest. We can’t all have warm and fuzzy coffee conversations with member of congress, state legislatures and school districts to effect change. While I am not suggesting that indivduals have to be rude, abusive or violent, I DO feel that protest is the best way to reach the ears of people making the decisions.

  • Libby

    Thank you Andrew for a healthy perspective on talking with schools. Here in Maine with the Question 1 seeking to repeal April's gay marriage law a lot of focus has been on the education aspect. As a first time parent of a kindergartener I have had my anxious moments over this issue, but what I did is email the guidance counselor and met with her and got an overview of the entire curriculum she uses from K-8. And so far I see nothing that alarms me. I think your example of the Dad meeting with the administration is such an encouragement and great example to follow because I've been nervous that I'm "going to have to protest" someday. An idea I'm totally uncomfortable with. The thing my school's guidance counselor kept telling me is "I wish all parents would come in and talk to me and be this involved."

    Please be praying for churches in Maine over the next week and year(s) as we are faced with the challenges of the outcomes of question 1.

    Also have you reviewed the movie "For the Bible Tells Me So?" yet? It is playing locally this week and although I can't attend the screening I've been reading up on it. I would enjoy knowing your thoughts on it.

    Thank you for your ministry, example, and book!!!


  • The 'yes on 1' campaign has publicly admitted that allowing gays to marry will have no effect on what's taught in schools about gay people. It's all boogey-man scare tactics. Fear, fear, fear, and lies. But whatever draws in the voters, right?

  • Libby – Your life is a perfect example of what it means to be a parent and not a passenger in your kids life, education, growth and development. Isn’t is amazing that the guidance counselor was amazed at your involvement? Just reiterates the main point. Thanks for caring enough to care.

    Jon – I couldn’t agree more that is it ‘fear’ being politically used as the basis for motivating voters. I find it extremely shameful that medium has become the most effective way to push policy. They’ll just stick with what works until we (the masses) start to push back on what fear really is.

  • Jack – Check out what I wrote in Part 4 of this series….I’d love to hear your thoughts!

  • Libby


    I wasn't aware that Yes on 1 had admitted that. I have heard Baldacci and Mill's comments about it though. There is so much talk about this I guess I missed that. I find it unbelieveable in a sense because it has been their biggest push throughout the campaign. Maybe they have changed course.


    The fear factor is pretty motivating, but I agree that it's the wrong tactic. I think it can pushes people away, and it motivates proponents for all the wrong reasons. Furthermore what I've been learning is that real faith in God has nothing to do with fear except a healthy fear of God himself, right? It's something I'm still learning in my life.

  • No, they're still seeking to scare the public with the lies about marriage equality being linked to school curriculum on gay sex and marriage. They've just admitted that the two aren't connected. Why stop the lie when it helps motivate voters to your cause?