In my short occupation of it, I have learned that social activism can be an angry business. In fact, that’s sort of the appeal, sometimes. It feels good to put all your frustration into the condemnation of a particular group or company. I feel like I’m making the world better, while exorcising some negative feelings. Then, sometimes it can be a much less pleasant experience. Being faced with injustice in the world can be overwhelming. It can force me to fight against being overcome with anger, or melancholia.
My wife and I have watched quite a few documentaries and have read some books about the state of the world, and its particulars, including the unfortunate rights of cooperations, the mistreatment of animals, Wal-Mart’s unethical policies, etc. There tend to be two attitudes in the presentation of this information: anger and hopelessness, which are often interrelated. We’re angry at those who have made the world this way, and wonder whether it can ever be changed.
Actually, I’ve never had the occasion to attend a protest, although I don’t think such a thing is outside the prophetic duties of the Church. In fact, I fantasize about it from time to time. I imagine confronting an unethical company like Forever 21, who have been apprehended twice in the last decade for using the labor of immigrant workers who were paid less than minimum wages in sub-standard working conditions. I daydream of standing at the front gates of corporate offices, angrily yelling clever, cutting phrases, demonstrating that they are a terribly people. Instead, I simply glare at the stores or consider accosting teenagers at the mall, as they leave the store, giving them information about the company.
In a conversation with my pastor last week, we agreed that social justice, though very important when rooted in Christ’s love, is the new legalism in the younger church. While sweatshops and world hunger are better targets than playing cards, dancing, movies and rock ‘n’ roll, there should be a stronger motivation behind the fight against structural evils than the strict moral code of a new generation. Often, it is easier to find our identity in what we dislike, and even what we hate.
I recently read an article by ethicist and theologian Stanley Hauerwas titled, “Peacemaking: The Virtue of the Church,” which was based on what is commonly known as “the church discipline passage” in Matthew 18, in which Jesus outlines how confrontation should occur in the Church (first go alone, then go with another and thirdly, if she or he does not listen, go into confrontation with the whole church). Hauerwas asserts that confrontation is rooted in our belief in forgiveness. We confront those who partake in evil because we believe there is forgiveness for them, “for such confrontation is based on the presupposition that forgiveness is also to be offered.”
While we must confront our own sisters and brothers in Christ, we cannot limit this belief in forgiveness to those in the Church. Hauerwas writes: “The habits of peacekeeping acquired in the church are no less relevant when the church confronts those not part of our community and who may not even threaten or wrong our community. For it is our belief that God is no less present in our enemy calling us to find the means of reconciliation.” That is, God is as interested in the redemption and reconciliation of the unbeliever, as with individuals within the Church. Our duty of confrontation and forgiveness is to all.
Righteous anger has its rightful place. You can hardly read any of the Old Testament prophets or the gospels without noticing this theme. This shows up in the first chapter of Isaiah: “See how the faithful city has become a harlot! She once was full of justice; righteousness used to dwell in her—but now murderers!” (21) Yet, God, who is angered by oppression, still desires not to destroy the oppressor, but to make them righteous. Within the same passage, he states, “I will turn my hand against you; I will thoroughly purge away your dross and remove all your impurities. … Zion will be redeemed with justice” (25, 27).
Even after a degree in Bible and Theology, I’m not sure how forgiveness works with corporations, although and I don’t believe it is at all related to the U.S. having granted corporations the same rights as individual citizens. Nonetheless, I do know that as we speak with prophetic voices against structural evils, we must do so out of our belief in redemption, rather than anger, hatred and hopelessness. While we might be stretching our theology to offer forgiveness to a company, we can do so regarding the individuals within it, such as Do-Won Chang and his wife, Jin Sook, founders of Forever 21, and professing Christians.
As followers of Christ, we must have a distinct voice, one that does not cry out only in anger, but also with hope and forgiveness. So many, including myself, have trouble aligning ourselves with the Gospel because it is scandalous: At the same time that it calls unethical exploiters to justice, it also offers forgiveness and redemption to these same people who have committed such atrocities against humanity. Judging the world with self-righteousness is an empty endeavor; we must confront such evils with the full power of the Gospel.