Being a highly-educated, financially stable white male gives me enormous privileges that most people don’t enjoy. And Spiderman has taught me that “with great power comes great responsibility.” In a world where power is not equally distributed, in which my advantages come at the cost of someone else’s disenfranchisement, it seems obvious that those of us who enjoy unearned privilege have a duty use it for the good of those who do not have everything we do. But how arrogant is that?! In Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem from 1899, he urges us to
Take up the White Man’s burden, The savage wars of peace—
Fill full the mouth of Famine And bid the sickness cease;
And when your goal is nearest The end for others sought,
Watch sloth and heathen Folly Bring all your hopes to nought.
It is sickening how similar many calls to charity and social justice are to Kipling’s entreaty for the United States to “civilize” the Philippines by reducing it to an American colony. The assumption that others need my help implies a prideful disdain for those I am helping. On the other hand, the thought that maybe my charity does more harm than good can be crippling, which is why I found Adam Taylor’s Mobilizing Hope (2010) a great encouragement. The brilliant son of two successful academics, Taylor is the epitome of privilege and success. His bio reads, “Taylor previously served as the Vice President of Advocacy at World Vision U.S. and as the Senior Political Director at Sojourners. He has also served as the executive director of Global Justice, an organization that educates and mobilizes students around global human rights and economic justice. Taylor is a graduate of Emory University, the Harvard University Kennedy School of Government, and the Samuel DeWitt Proctor School of Theology.” Before beginning a prestigious fellowship at the White House, he worked with Jubilee 2000, fought the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Africa, and campaigned to end racial and economic inequalities in American schools and universities.
Taylor’s activism is motivated by his outrage at injustice, not by a need to alleviate his guilt or spread his culture by helping others. Activism must take the form of “pragmatic solidarity,” Taylor argues, a term he borrows from Paul Farmer. He writes that “pragmatic solidarity is both ‘the desire to make common cause with those in need’ and offering ‘goods and services that might diminish unjust hardship’.” I had always thought of solidarity as standing alongside the poor and the oppressed, and imagined that privilege and power inhibited my ability to do so. Taylor’s version of solidarity, on the other hand, means harnessing power and using it to aid somebody else’s cause. One big difference between Kipling and Taylor is that whereas Kipling promotes his own civilization, Taylor stops to ask what other people are working towards and how he can contribute to their struggle. In the words of Lilla Watson, an Australian Aboriginal activist, “if you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is tied up with mine, then let us work together.” Taylor’s vision of social justice is an eschatological one in which “every person’s dignity and rights are respected.” He recognizes that “a perfectly just society will always be just out of reach until God’s kingdom is fully consummated,” but this is precisely what motivates him to act: Taylor works out his own salvation as he seeks justice and mercy. This doesn’t mean supporting specific political parties, but it does involve doing “politics” as a way of combating systemic problems that individual acts of kindness cannot tackle.
One of the most useful chapters of the book is when Taylor explains what Christian activism should look like. We change the world when we unite together behind campaigns, Taylor argues. He defines campaigns as “highly energized, intensely focused streams of activity with specific goals,” and notes that successful campaigns “make your organization stronger by giving people a sense of their own power, win concrete improvements in people’s lives, and over time alter the relations of power, making leaders more responsive to your concerns and interests in the future.” The book brims over with detailed descriptions of effective campaigns, and Taylor notes that campaigns must be flexible and able to change when situations change. They must also be constantly alert to the needs of their constituents, never focusing on a political goal at the cost of the people involved. This approach to activism nourishes us as well as achieving worthwhile ends. “New converts are proliferating across the Global South,” Taylor points out, “yet a lack of understanding and deep relationship with these new Christians drives an unnecessary wedge between us. Yet the southern church could help save the northern church from its indifference and fragmented faith.” Transforming the world will transform us in the process.
Finally, Taylor argues that we need to be responsible stewards of what God has given us: our finances, our civic and political rights, our consumption, and our relationships to the environment and to each other. “Relationships are the conduit through which we demonstrate our love for God,” Taylor says, and he insists that our relationships need to be real, local, and global; always focused on the needs of others and never on ourselves. Activism must emerge out of genuine relationships. Clicking buttons on online petitions and sharing news about good causes on social media is great, but as Adam Phillips notes, “taking up one’s cross and following Christ is about much more than wearing a t-shirt and being on an email list.” Unlike Kipling, who sought to convert all men to himself, we must lose ourselves in serving others, because it is when we lose ourselves that we find Christ.