in praise of activism
Like her or loath her, Melinda Tankard Reist has made an impact. Listening to her in Toowoomba yesterday, I was struck by the challenge and cost of the activism she lives and calls others into. I would not personally agree with exactly everything she says. Yet she remains one of the foremost contemporary 'pro-life feminist' voices and her grassroots campaigning movement Collective Shout is a lively force against the objectification of women and the sexualisation of girls in media, advertising and popular culture. Melinda is also a powerful encourager and embodiment of activism. Indeed, as the Glennie School and others locally have found this week, she is a particular inspiration to girls and women to stand up for themselves and for the needs of others. Does Melinda sometimes overestimate the negative effects of pornography and over-emphasise prohibition and protection rather than choice and liberation? Perhaps. Does her socially conservative background cause liberal concern? Maybe. How far does she contribute to the deep and thorny challenges of working through shame and honour, economic, cultural and gendered power, and the place of eros, sexual identity and expression in our contemporary world? Feminists seem divided on whether they agree with her or not, and how she contributes to their cause. Yet, whatever her own failings - and all activists have them - all would surely agree that she is an impressive agent provocateur for activism...
OK, I guess I generally love activists! They fill the ranks of my heroes and heroines. Maybe it is because I am in many ways one of them - albeit sometimes that kind of quintessentially English 'Robin Hood' activist who ventures out into ambitious forays only to blend away later into the trees to be re-energised in the solace of the forest and wilderness. I love the courage of activists. I love the determination to be true to themselves in solidarity with the pain and dreams of others, whatever it takes. I love the sheer passion of activists and I love the often so-hard-won victories which they achieve against the odds and the armchair demons of complacency, comfort and cruelty. Oscar Wilde put it beautifully for me in speaking of agitators in his wonderful essay The Soul of Man under Socialism:
Agitators are a set of interfering, meddling people, who come down to some perfectly contented class of the community and sow the seeds of discontent amongst them. That is the reason why agitators are so absolutely necessary. Without them, in our incomplete state, there would be no advance towards civilisation.
Of course, we tend to appreciate only those agitators who articulate what we feel, think, or dream of, but are too afraid or tired to articulate ourselves. Yet sometimes it is those who most enrage us who also do us a favour, in provoking us to better responses and to our own, sometimes reluctant, action.
Activism comes however at a cost, sometimes a terrible one. As a great personal mentor, a former Dean of St Paul's Cathedral London, used to say, 'the cross comes when you try to change things.' Such a cost comes from violent resistance outside and from the personal pain we all wrestle with within - some of which can be masked or directed outward by our very activism. So activism requires contemplation as its balance, just as contemplation needs activism to avoid its own descent into self-absorption. Prayer and prophecy are but two sides of the coin. Monks and mischief-makers are ultimately one, even if some are more one than the other and some are more impish than blessed. Each of us, drawn to activism or into contemplation, has to work out our own balance. For those who are activist, Thomas Merton, that divinely 'active' contemplative, put it so well:
Do not depend on the hope of results. When you are doing the sort of work you have taken on, essentially an apostolic work, you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself...
The big results are not in your hands or mine, but they suddenly happen, and we can share in them; but there is no point in building our lives on this personal satisfaction, which may be denied us and which after all is not that important.
The next step in the process is for you to see that your own thinking about what you are doing is crucially important. You are probably striving to build yourself an identity in your work, out of your work and your witness. You are using it, so to speak, to protect yourself against nothingness, annihilation. That is not the right use of your work...
The great thing after all is to live, not to pour out your life in the service of a myth: and we turn the best things into myths. If you can get free from the domination of causes and just serve Christ’s truth, you will be able to do more and will be less crushed by the inevitable disappointments.
The real hope, then, is not in something we think we can do but in God who is making something good out of it in some way we cannot see. If we can do God’s will, we will be helping in this process. But we will not necessarily know all about it before hand.
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Jo Inkpin is an Anglican priest serving as Minister of Pitt St Uniting Church in Sydney, a trans woman, theologian & justice activist. These are some of my reflections on life, spirit, and the search for peace, justice & sustainable creation.