A Guest Post by Ryan Stollar
I’ve never thought of myself as a radical activist. I’ve never fought for something that I thought was “evil.” What I value most in life are compassion, love, and respect. Compassion for the abused, love for my neighbor, and respect for marginalized voices. I fight for these things, so I guess in that sense I am an activist.
But somehow, over the years, I have found myself maligned by old friends, distant acquaintances, and complete strangers. I am now anathema in many circles; I am one of the dreaded homeschool “apostates.”
Because my pursuit of compassion, love, and respect led me to cross the picket lines of the culture wars.
I followed my conscience straight to enemy encampments — to individuals in poverty, women, LGBT* individuals, and abused homeschooled kids and alumni. For that, I am a radical activist.
The funny (and sad) thing is watching people explain why I became who I am today. It’s because my parents weren’t godly enough, because I didn’t read the right apologetics books, because I wasn’t spanked hard enough and often enough, because I went to college, because maybe I read too much Karl Marx or hung out with too many feminists or had premarital sex with one too many atheists while doing coke lines in a temple erected to Baphomet.
It’s funny and sad because, no, that’s not what happened. That’s not even close to the real story.
Let me explain.
“Focus world attention on the plight of so many men and women who have been brutally silenced.”
~ Gary Bauer
I was 13 or 14 when I first realized how fucked up the world was.
I blame Christian homeschool debate.
It was the first year I did debate. The topic was changing laws on U.S. businesses relocating overseas. I got swept away into a world of conservative Christian adoration for free trade and capitalism. Enamored with the Cato Institute, I earnestly sought out arguments in favor of granting China Most Favored Nation status.
In doing so, I discovered the Tiananmen Square massacre. I read about child labor. I heard testimonies of religious persecution. I began to doubt the goodness of humanity.
Then I came across Gary Bauer.
Observation one: I am a human rights activist today because of Gary Bauer.
I know, I know. 29-year-old me is also wondering how in the world I became interested in human rights on account of the former president of the Family Research Council, an organization now classified as a hate group by the Southern Law Poverty Center. But it’s the truth.
In a conservative Christian culture obsessed with capitalism, Bauer seemed like a lone voice in the wilderness.
I started questioning the universal goodness of capitalism because of Bauer. I learned about the horrors of the arms industry and weapons export trade because of Bauer. And I started looking more earnestly into human rights abuses because of him, too. Bauer seemed to be one of the only leaders in the Religious Right calling out his peers — and the Republican party — for not taking international human rights more seriously. As a kid, it seemed to me like the guy was a true maverick, knowing no loyalty to party lines to the point of picketing Chinese President Jiang Zemin alongside Richard Gere.
Reading Gary Bauer is what ultimately led me to Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. Which led me to realize the United States has played a role in a plethora of human rights abuses, imperialism, and genocide, too. Which made me doubt the “U.S. as God’s chosen nation” narrative, which led me to Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky, and so on and so forth.
Gary Bauer inspired that. Not a leftist, not a socialist, and not an atheist.
“We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.”
~ Dietrich Bonhoeffer
A few years later, I picked up a used copy of The Cost of Discipleship at the recommendation of a Christian friend. It was like my head had been underwater my whole life and suddenly I was breathing air for the first time. Here was a gospel that was not afraid to get its hands dirty. Here was a gospel willing to leave the white Republican suburbs of my youth and do more than summer Mexico mission trips.
I was raised thinking faith was the end all of religion, that “works” were what the oft-mocked Catholics were about whereas we noble Protestants, we had the Ultimate Truth. The Ultimate Truth was faith. Well, I lived my entire life in evangelical circles and I saw the emptiness of faith without works. Yet here was Bonhoeffer, boldly breaking down those inherited assumptions. Without discipleship, he said, grace was cheap.
In other words, Christians actually do need to give a damn.
Observation two: I became a radical because of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
I say that, and even I don’t really know what that means. What does it mean to be a radical? Apparently today all you need to do to be considered a radical is call out people for being racists and homophobes. I personally consider that basic common courtesy. But no, calling people out for furthering oppression is the new radical. If so, then I guess I am a radical and no, I am not ashamed of that.
I prefer to think of radicals as people living extraordinary lives, risking body and mind to change the world. I don’t think of speaking out as extraordinary. But I also know that not speaking out is ordinary. And I learned from Bonhoeffer that to not speak is a form of speech. To not act is a form of action.
So I refuse to be ordinary. I will speak out and I will act.
“The denunciation of injustice implies the rejection of the use of Christianity to legitimize the established order.”
~Gustavo Gutiérrez, A Theology of Liberation
During my junior year at college, I was trying to figure out the topic of my senior thesis the following year. I knew I wanted to write about sociopolitical activism and reconcile that activism with the idea of having a personal relationship with God. So, as I have written about previously, I took the patron saint of my alma mater, Soren Kierkegaard, and compared his ideas of inwardness with the ideas of outwardness I found in the patron saint of my Christian activist youth, Bonhoeffer.
But before I settled on Bonhoeffer to contrast with Kierkegaard, a friend of mine — one of the most brilliant people I know — suggested someone I had never heard of before: Gustavo Gutiérrez. A Dominican priest, Gustavo Gutiérrez was the father of something else I had never heard of before: “liberation theology.”
I was immediately intrigued.
I picked up a copy of Gutiérrez’s Theology of Liberation, and I found one of the clearest articulations of the ideas Bonhoeffer had so profoundly — yet so abstractly — articulated. Gutiérrez made me realize that to be in the world can and must mean something. It means not only must I live a life of discipleship, but that discipleship requires more than simply “feeding the poor.” It means moving beyond platitudes and soup kitchens and coming face to face with an entire system of injustice.
To be a Christian cannot mean neutrality towards injustice.
Observation three: I learned the importance of prophetic critique from Gustavo Gutiérrez.
Ironically, Gutiérrez changed my way of thinking on every matter other than economics. Which is ironic because he’s been panned for decades by the Catholic Church for being “too Marxist.”
But it wasn’t the Marxism that hooked me. (I already doubted capitalism because of Gary Bauer). Rather, I was hooked by the call to shake the foundations of power structures. To wrest my faith from ruling orders and principalities and reclaim its revolutionary tone. Faith means a revolution of the soul, yes. But that revolution happens in a radically contextual moment: here, now, in this body, in this place, with this action, with these neighbors. Which means revolution of the soul must manifest itself beyond the soul.
Gutiérrez taught me that this revolution begins on the margins. To love your neighbor means more than calling your T-Mobile Fave 5. To love your neighbor means seeking out the margins, standing in solidarity with the marginalized.
“Marginalization” isn’t newspeak. It is the language of loving your neighbor. When you find the margins, you find God asking you, “Do you love me? Then feed my sheep. This sheep. Right now. This person. Right here.”
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
~ Martin Luther King, Jr.
So there you have it.
I care about the rights of women, poor people, people of color, LGBT* people, and abuse victims because of Christians. I believe in human rights because of Gary Bauer. I believe in the radical power of actually living what you believe because of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. And I believe in reclaiming my faith from the hands of dehumanizing world power structures because of Gustavo Gutiérrez.
Sex, drugs, and Nietzsche — and all the other windmills at which American Christianity tilts — don’t factor into my story.
Granted, I am not the same person I was when I was 13 or 14. Today, Gary Bauer makes me alternate between wanting to cry and wanting to rage. I have changed, I have left many foolish things behind; I am always becoming, evolving, changing. I believe life is process and I am learning to embrace process.
But one thing has not changed: my passion for human rights, fighting for justice, and seeking the shadows and the margins. That passion has only grown. But what once made me the “cool” Christian now makes me the cautionary tale, because I now refuse to draw lines in my advocacy. Because I see compassion, love, and respect extending to each and every human being.
So yes, I am a radical activist.
But I learned to be one from giants of the Christian faith.