If It Isn’t Costly, It’s Not Commitment – Tyler Wigg-Stevenson Interview, Part 2

If It Isn’t Costly, It’s Not Commitment – Tyler Wigg-Stevenson Interview, Part 2 March 13, 2013

It was my pleasure this week to interview Tyler Wigg-Stevenson, whose book, The World is Not Ours to Save, is really rocking some boats.  Some of my most conservative friends, as well as some of my most progressive friends, have really enjoyed the book, so I was eager to talk with Tyler.  Patheos is also featuring an extended discussion on the book here — and you can see the first part of this interview here.  To set the stage, Tyler argues that many amongst the younger generation are eagerly rushing into a cause-oriented evangelical activism that quickly burns out and tunes out.  Instead he calls for a more richly theological conception of calling that can provide meaning, strength and courage through the hard times.  This is where the next question picks up:


5. Is it mostly a matter of perspective, or are there tangible practices we can integrate into our lives to be faithful servants for the long haul?

That’s a great question. It’s significantly a matter of perspective, but that perspective must be lived out in tangible practices.

The second half of the book is really all about the shape that “welcoming the kingdom from a distance” will take. I interpret the kingdom vision of Micah 4.1-5 as a description of three interrelated forms of peace: peace with God, peace among the peoples or nations, and peace in community. And in my read of Micah’s portrayal, each of these has three facets. Peace with God entails worship, discipleship, and evangelism. Peace among the peoples is justice, industry, and nonaggression. Peace in community requires dignity, prosperity, and security.

So I tell stories about what each of these looks like when lived out. For example, how the architecture of Coventry Cathedral speaks to the centrality of worship. Or the amazing way that an unassuming CEO named Dave Kiersznowski has formed his business as an exemplar of biblical industry. Or how my wife’s grandfather garbed black skin with dignity in Apartheid South Africa.

Telling such stories of fidelity is maybe as much as I can do. I’m not sure that I can tell readers that they should be doing X, Y, and Z – like, oh, the secret to lifelong activism is daily quiet time or regular communion. If the book does its work, readers will write their own final chapters with their lives. I hope I get to read some of them.

6. You’re known for your work on the global abolition of nuclear weapons. When did that become a calling for you, and not “just” a cause?

Well, it’s never purely one or the other. I think there are two competing logics or spirits at work in any activism – in any do-gooding, really. One is control, and one is faithful service. The former is my desire to have the world look the way I want it to – even if that desire is for good. And that logic of control, or mastery, was shot through my earliest anti-nuclear activism. I wasn’t a Christian then. I’d say that the cause started to become a calling for me at my conversion. That’s when I heard the voice of God say “The world is not yours, not to save or to damn. Only serve the one whose it is.” That’s when I began to surrender the goal of my activism. I began to give up efficacy as my benchmark and strive for fidelity instead. On my best days, it’s the latter spirit that animates my work.

One other thing on this point: I’d never want to dichotomize “cause” and “calling,” because I do think it’s both possible and desirable to strive for excellence in causes. The International Justice Mission exemplifies this. There’s no doubt in my mind that IJM is an authentic outgrowth of Gary Haugen’s calling. I look at how he lives his life, the accountability to which he submits himself, the way he describes IJM’s work, and I think: this guy is submitting to his vocation. But that organization is also a phenomenal cause. They do amazing, disciplined, strategic, patient, goal-oriented work.

7. It’s become rather common for books from young evangelicals to bash the earlier generation of the Religious Right. Yet you see both the Religious Right and progressive evangelicals having some positives and negatives in common, right?

A very cautious yes! I should say up front that I do not align with the Religious Right. One side of my spiritual family tree runs through folks like John Stott, Ron Sider, and Jim Wallis; the other comes from the African-American Baptist congregation that brought me up as a new convert and ordained me. Nevertheless, I’m leery of bashing the Religious Right because it smacks of an entirely unwarranted generational smugness. Just because we’re later doesn’t make us better or smarter.

Also, as you say, the Religious Right and progressive evangelicals are both committed to systemic change. Their difference is in content, not method. Mainline Protestants trace this systemic commitment to the Social Gospel movement at the start of the twentieth century, and Roman Catholics have their own history of social teaching. But the Religious Right and progressive evangelicals together represent a sea change in earlier twentieth-century evangelical approaches to public life. And they share, in my view, the blessings and curses that come with a systemic paradigm.

Finally, I have to admit that as a professional organizer I stand in awe of the Religious Right’s discipline and commitment. Think about it. They worked for a quarter-century to build a base, getting folks active in school boards, local political parties, etc. That meant their national power wasn’t empty rhetoric, but grounded in their capacity to reach a huge number of people.

Maybe most important, they understood that activism is not about enthusiasm or good intentions, but power and its exercise. That’s a lesson that makes many on the left uncomfortable, but it shouldn’t. Consider William Wilberforce, or Martin Luther King, Jr. Faith-based activists have to be willing to fight, and they have to be willing to win.

8. If you could speak to the 22-year-old faith-inspired activist right now, what advice would you give?

Embrace this very moment the possibility afforded by your position in life. You’ve got audacious commitments, huge passions, and unfettered imagination. So think, dream, and act big. Move to India. Move to your inner city. Stay exactly where you are and live radically.

If you’ve got the spiritual stomach for it, live into the status quo as Jesus’ own Manchurian candidate, and seep grace throughout its cracks. Love with everything you’ve got, wherever you are.

On the flip side, refuse mediocrity. This means: don’t just live the cultural script written for you by your class, gender, race, sexuality, or education. This means: don’t treat Facebook likes or Twitter followers or the pithy gems of contemporary Christian books and speakers as a substitute for real activism. If it isn’t costly, it’s not commitment.

As you look to the future, know what it is you are working for, and why. Is it worth fighting for? Are you willing to win? Are your tactics commensurate with and oriented toward your goals?

Be suspicious of activist jargon, like “raising awareness,” “spreading the word,” and “joining the movement” with the hopes that these things will “make a difference.” These are means, not ends. And unless such words describe concrete activities that lead to the strategic, concerted effort and commitment of large numbers of people – a goal which requires foresight, intention, planning, and discipline – you will waste everyone’s time, including your own.

Don’t be too serious, at least not all the time. Life is not a checklist. It is funny, and fun, and beautiful.

Recognize that enthusiasm is not a substitute for excellence, and most people are not excellent professional activists. Early in my activist career all I had was a B.A. and good intentions, and that got me an entry-level job at a non-profit. But everyone I saw who did genuine good had been deeply formed in another discipline – business, law, politics, religion, etc. Non-profit work is its own sphere of excellence, and most are not suited for it. So discern as early as you can where your professional gifts are and commit yourself to that field. You will stand out in an age of dilettantism. And excellence, regardless of the discipline in which you achieve it, will multiply your contribution to the causes you care about by an order of magnitude.

If you aspire to be a leader, remember that you cannot lead those whom you do not love.

Build for the long haul by cultivating balanced habits, because the architecture in which you live your life will define the parameters of the decisions available to you. To carry your cross is to live in the freedom of condemnation. In that vein, build around personal holiness.

Receive the Sabbath as a gift; I dearly wish I had done this earlier in my life. It lets the world get on without our oversight. It is our arrabon of divine rest.

Look up arrabon. Read more classics and history than you do new releases (including mine). Read them with a heart that is at once generous and critical. But above all, read.

Wherever you are, whether you’re light-footed or firmly rooted, prioritize a local church that lives the gospel – preferably one that is intergenerational, interracial, and mixed economy. Commit to its unglamorous, inefficient life. Learn from those who are different from you, especially the elderly. Make informed, responsible, and lasting political commitments in your community.

You are not the hero of the story. The worst problems you face cannot be fixed. It’s your job to be on God’s side, not the other way round. And remember that you (and I, and everyone) are what’s wrong with the world: as Solzhenitsyn wrote, the line between good and evil runs straight through each heart, not between “us” and “them.”

Nevertheless, in Jesus Christ the peace of the Lord is with you. Mull on this and accept it.

And then get back out there and turn your flesh, blood, and breath into fidelity, for as long as God gives you.

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  • Doc Mike

    Your two-part interview with the author prompted me to order TW-S’s book; upon its arrival, I had a quiet impulse to send it back for a refund. I didn’t.
    I’m two-thirds of the way through it and, sadly, now regret not having paid heed to the impulse.
    I’ve tried hard to like the book, to find something that is profound or insightful, but to no avail. It reads like a Micah 4.1-5 polemic against nuclear weapons – hardly surprising, given the author’s life-long commitment to the elimination thereof. Even less surprising was Sider’s rousing endorsement of the book. Well, we know how endorsements work, don’t we.
    It also seems that it was not the author’s faith that led him to his commitment to eliminating nuclear weapons but that his commitment was only given a more mainstream vehicle by his faith. I’m not questioning either his sincerity or faith; I’m just describing how the book struck me.
    Perhaps it was because I had just finished Tom Bergler’s “The Juvenilization of American Christianity” – which admittedly is strong on history and somewhat weak on conclusions – and was re-reading James Davison Hunter’s “To Change the World” that I was so disappointed with the bland, lukewarm flavor of TW-S’s work.
    In short, I found it to be more of the same and not nearly as engaging as anything Donald Miller has written. But perhaps I’ve missed something spectacular. I would indebted to you to explain what that might be.

  • Hey Timothy,

    Love your writing and would like to talk about you doing some articles for Christian Media Magazine. Shoot me an email and let me know if you are interested!