Review of Shaking the System by Tim Stafford

George Santayana famously said that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. Tim Stafford’s book Shaking the System: What I Learned from the Great American Reform Movements strives to heed Santayana’s advice by drawing lessons from U.S. history for would-be social activists. On the basis of careful study of the abolition, temperance, women’s suffrage, and civil rights movements, Stafford has mapped out the crucial choices and the bumps in the road that the aspiring activist of today can expect to face.

Anyone who has felt perplexed by the multifarious options and difficult choices in the world of activism today will be able to relate to Stafford’s personal story of activism. He tells of a Vietnam War sit-in during his freshman year at college that ended with a short-term success, but that also opened his eyes to some of the darker sides of activism. He explains how he felt manipulated by more experienced student leaders who failed to disclose their hidden agendas, and disillusioned when many of the protests turned violent. He mentions a pastor who advised him to focus on saving souls rather than changing society. He lists a diverse set of approaches to various issues of current interest, such as HIV/AIDS, war, poverty, and abortion. How is one supposed to sort through all the various options? Stafford explains the motivation for his book as follows.

There are many ways to work for justice, just as these examples show. No approach is perfect. Each approach tends to have its own unique momentum, sometimes leading to unexpected results. When activist movements are in start-up mode, you can’t always see what the long-term implications will be.

That is where history comes in. We have a long, deep tradition of activism in America. I learned about it in preparing to write a series of historical novels on the American experience. I became convinced that the best way to step back and think about activism, to see the long-term implications of our choices, is to learn from history.

Stafford devotes the bulk of his book to delineating the phases that an activist movement typically goes through, pointing out the positive features as well as the pitfalls that arise at each stage, and giving detailed examples from American history. If I group together some of Stafford’s chapters, I can identify four major topics that he addresses:

1. Truth: the starting point
2. Staying power in the face of opposition
3. Pressure tactics and the seduction of violence
4. Party politics

According to Stafford, every important activist movement starts with a core truth, and it is crucial to articulate and hold on to that truth through thick and thin. Stafford gives several examples of what he calls core truths. In the case of abolition, it is that slavery is sin. In the case of homelessness, it is that nobody should live like that. In the case of abortion, it is that that’s a baby you want to kill.

Truth matters. This I learned from abolitionism. Even in a post-modern society where truth is relativized, truth has the power to move people. Absolute truth, true truth, core truth—truth that you believe in your gut, truth that you will bet your life on. Contemporary society prefers Pilate’s question, “What is truth?” Even activists may grow fond of acting like hard-boiled skeptics. But the reality of unchanging truth cannot be undone by such skepticism. It exists at the core of human life. Such truth can launch a movement to change the world.

Truth, says Stafford, feels so powerful to those who apprehend it that they are sometimes led to believe that all they need to do is proclaim the truth. Then everyone will be convinced and the everything will automatically fall into place. Here Stafford issues his first major warning: That is not how the world works. Some people will be won over just from a proclamation of the truth, but usually there will be powerful forces that will push back. Stafford illustrates this point with detailed examples from the abolitionist movement. Theodore Weld was an abolitionist who focused much of his energy on public debate and intellectual engagement with the opposition. As a student at Lane Seminary in Cincinnati, Weld spearheaded a public debate on slavery in 1834 just across the river from Kentucky, a slaveholding state. “They met for eighteen consecutive nights, two and a half hours per night. They expected a furious debate, but Weld had done such a good job talking individually to students that support for slavery had vanished. It turned out to be less a debate than a revival meeting.” But despite this seeming success, Weld and others found that slavery did not just disappear in the face of reasoned argument.

True, antislavery sentiment eventually grew from a tiny splinter of opinion to a vague but deeply held majority opinion in the North. Northerners by and large grew unhappy with slavery, though most remained racists who by no means contemplated equality for blacks. But Northern unhappiness with slavery made no discernible impact. Fewer slaves were freed every year, and slaveholders grew increasingly resistant to change.

Some frustrated abolitionists lost faith in the movement and in God, drifting into passivity. “The great body of Abolitionists seem to be mere passengers on a pleasure sail,” complained Theodore Weld to his friend Gerrit Smith in 1839, just five years after the Lane debate. … It would not be long before Weld himself had given up abolition.

The possibility of burnout in the face of continued resistance is something that concerns Stafford greatly. In his chapter on “Staying Power,” he gives another striking example of a prominent activist who abruptly dropped out in midstream: Bob Moses. Moses got involved in the civil rights movement while a philosophy graduate student at Harvard. Influenced by Amzie Moore, Moses worked with astonishing fearlessness and determination to get blacks to register to vote. On one occasion, he was jailed for his efforts, but after his release, he went right back to the courthouse to try again, and he persisted despite bleeding from severe head wounds from an attack by the sheriff’s cousin. Incidents such as these caused his reputation to soar; he quickly became a legendary figure. Moses became heavily involved with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), whose climax was the Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964. Hundreds of white students from the north were invited to Mississippi to help the cause. The SNCC garnered national attention and achieved some successes, but was violently attacked, leading to some deaths. It also suffered from major internal strife, which ultimately got to be too much for Moses.

After two days of listening to the interminable wrangling, he suddenly stood up. “I have a message for you,” he said. “I have changed my name. I will no longer be known as Bob Moses.” He rambled for some time, claiming to be drunk, offering a block of cheese and a jug of wine to his listeners in a sort of parody of the Last Supper. Then he returned to his main message. “From now on, I am Bob Parris, and I will no longer speak to white people.” He left immediately.

Eventually he found his way to Tanzania under an assumed name, where he married another former SNCC volunteer and had four children. He taught in a village school. When he finally returned to the United States, he taught algebra. Never again was he active in the movement that had been ready to follow him almost anywhere.

As a contrast, Stafford cites Lewis Tappan, who was not the charismatic type but who dedicated himself to the abolitionist cause all his life despite many setbacks.

Why did Tappan stick? He seems to have been blessed by a dutiful temperament, reinforced around the disciplines of church attendance, Bible reading, hard work, punctuality, honesty and truthfulness. In short, he was a drudge. Dropping out, starting his own cult, declaring himself too good for the run-of-the-mill Christian was simply not a possibility for him. Something should be said for duty and a lack of imagination. Lewis Tappan would be the one to say it.

Returning to the question of what to do if simply preaching the truth does not produce the desired results, Stafford states the need for pressure tactics. He cites the plagues of Egypt and Jesus’ cleansing of the temple as biblical examples.

It is not enough to simply present truth and change people’s hearts, one by one. Activists must change laws, institutions, habits and customs, for these bind people’s dark hearts together into a formidable fortress. Activists must shake the system. …

When I was a boy, I worked in an almond orchard near my home. To harvest almonds in those days, we spread tarps under the tree and then shook the almonds out. But it wasn’t as simple as it sounds. You could hit and shake the tree with all your strength and get hardly any almonds to fall. But we also had a tool, a heavy ball of rubber attached to a stick. For some reason, if you hit the tree with that rubber ball, it would vibrate the tree just right and the almonds would cascade down.

This is the power of pressure tactics. The wrong approach will take all your energy and yield negligible results. The right one will vibrate the tree just right, leading to a cascade of results.

The system will resist change; pressure tactics can shake people loose from the system. If you want to change the world, you have to figure out how the system works and then how to shake it. Sincerity and moral conviction are not enough. Tactics really do matter.

As historical examples, Stafford cites the familiar example of Rosa Parks as well as less familiar examples such as Carrie Catt and Alice Paul, leaders of the women’s suffrage movement. According to Stafford, “Catt’s plan was essentially political, to lobby, cajole and campaign at every level of government.” Paul, on the other hand, was more radical, and picketed the White House—a novel tactic at the time. When imprisoned, she would go on hunger strikes.

The ultimate pressure tactic, of course, is violence. The line between pressure tactics and violent protest is a fine one, and Stafford seems to be ambivalent about the acceptability of violence. He does not want to endorse violence, but at the same time he believes that violence is sometimes necessary to effect change. What most troubles Stafford is that activist movements typically start out being avowedly nonviolent, but then have a tendency to turn to violence out of frustration rather than out of principle.

You can make a case that some institutions and governments are so hardened, violence is the only way to break them open. You can make that case in regard to Southern slavery. John Brown, in fact, made that case without apology. I can respect him for that, though not for the careless way in which he pointlessly murdered some and led his followers to pointless deaths.

What I find regrettable is the way the rest of the movement stumbled into supporting violence, or pretending not to see it, without ever discussing their reversal of principle. … They fell into supporting violence without counting the cost. So did America, one might say, for both North and South marched enthusiastically into the Civil War. Abolitionists had been a guiding light to America’s conscience in regard to slavery, but they failed to provide any guidance regarding the slaughter of America’s brothers and sisters.

The last general topic that Stafford treats in depth is politics. He points out that the world of politics is dominated by compromises and special interests and does not naturally mix well with prophetic truth. He cites the example of William Lloyd Garrison, who steadfastly shunned politics, and chose instead what Stafford calls “the prophetic alternative”—standing outside politics and criticizing it. However, Stafford recognizes that many will not be content to steer clear of politics, because Americans have a “strong streak of pragmatism and a fundamental instinct towards democracy” and even if they are idealistic, “there will be a strong tendency to convert those ideals into a practical political program.” One common approach is to form a single-issue political party. An example was the Liberty Party, whose only platform was abolitionism. Such parties allow activists to remain idealistic, but the big catch is that they never win elections. Conversely, successful political parties often have motives and consituencies that are suspect from an activist’s point of view. Stafford traces the history of how abolitionists became attracted to the Free Soil Party because it seemed to have a real possibility of winning, but how they were ultimately disillusioned when they discovered that Martin Van Buren’s lip service to abolitionism was insincere. Stafford writes, “Abolitionists joined an impure coalition because they wanted the political power to free the slaves. It didn’t work out as they had planned.”

Stafford also discusses in detail a slightly different approach to politics, which is to try to lobby or influence politicians who are already in power. One of his main historical examples is the civil rights movement, in particular Matin Luther King’s relationship with the Kennedys. King initially had inflated expectations of what his personal connections with JFK could accomplish, and had to learn the hard way that promises and actions are two different things. As Stafford says, “Access matters as an entry point. Unless you have bargaining chips, though—credible threats, credible promises—you can’t move a politician.” Furthermore, even when lobbying is successful, as in the case of the Anti-Saloon League, which had a huge impact on making Prohibition the law of the land, simply winning a legislative battle does not automatically mean that people’s attitudes will change. Indeed, as we all know, Prohibition was ultimately a failure.



Shaking the System is a fascinating read. Its biggest strength is its well-chosen and engagingly narrated historical anecdotes, some details of which will probably be new even to history buffs. In several cases, I found that the historical examples provided convincing evidence for Stafford’s points, such as the ineffectiveness of single-issue political parties, and the insidious way that violence often manages to creep into supposedly nonviolent movements. Stafford also does a good job of covering all the major issues and options that need to be considered by a prospective activist.

However, I do feel that there are a few points of weakness in the book. For example, Stafford is strongly biased in favor of activists who have staying power, and is disappointed in those who burn brightly for a while but then flame out. He presents good examples of both types of activists, but I do not think that the examples necessarily support his conclusion that staying power is critical. Theodore Weld and Bob Moses accomplished a great deal for the causes that they worked for. Stafford hypothesizes that they could have done even more had they had “staying power,” but I believe that this is just wishful thinking on Stafford’s part. Perhaps we need not just the tortoises but also the hares, and perhaps both have a vital role to play in activism.

A more serious criticism I have is that I am not happy with Stafford’s account of truth, especially since Stafford is claiming to write from a Christian point of view. A crucial question is, where does truth come from and how do we recognize it as such? Curiously, nowhere in the book does Stafford say that truth is revealed to us by God through Jesus Christ. Faith communities are recognized as being important, but mostly as a means towards an end—of preventing burnout. As I quoted above, Stafford describes truth as “truth that you believe in your gut, truth that you will bet your life on.” It seems that Stafford regards truth as self-evident; its validity is something that anyone who is honest with himself can apprehend directly. There is certainly something appealing about this view of truth, and it does seem to capture rather accurately how activist-minded people feel about truth, but it strikes me as theologically questionable to relegate truth to the gut.

Even if we set aside the theological objection, I am concerned that Stafford does not address the fact that there are many activists who have convinced themselves that they have the truth, but who are flat wrong. For example, when there are activists on diametrically opposed sides of some issue, at least one side has to be wrong. There are countless zealous Christians who are on fire to convert Muslims, and vice versa, and it is not possible for both sides to be in possession of “absolute truth, true truth, core truth.” Either Jesus is God incarnate or he is not. The only acknowledgment of this problem that I could find in the book was the following isolated paragraph, tacked on as a seeming afterthought to a discussion of the core truth underlying antiabortion activism:

Pro-abortion-rights activists also began with truth: that women have a moral right to control their own bodies. Two truths come into conflict, and activists claim one and reject the other. The result may be far from ennobling.

That’s it. There is no further discussion of what to make of situations where “two truths come into conflict.” Isn’t it the nature of truth that it cannot be self-contradictory? When there is a conflict, isn’t (at least) one side wrong about something? If so, how do we figure out what the truth is when one side’s gut believes one thing and the other side’s gut believes the opposite?

There does not seem to be any room in Stafford’s account of truth for an activist to come to a correct realization that what they formerly held to be “absolute truth” is wrong. This implicit belief in one’s own infallibility can have dire practical consequences. Activists who are thoroughly convinced, not only that they are right, but that nobody in their right mind could possibly think otherwise, are not likely to be magnanimous in victory. If they win, then the opposition will not be tolerated but will be steamrolled and obliterated. Recall the American Civil War. Even if we are correct that slavery is sin, surely we should have some qualms about literally annihilating the opposition? I am also reminded of a 2010 essay in The Advocate by Jonathan Rauch about the then “emerging gay majority.” Rauch is not a Christian, but in the essay he argues that once an activist movement (in particular, the gay rights movement) succeeds and becomes the majority view, it is important to show some degree of tolerance for the opposing view. Today, seven years later, many gay rights activists are ignoring Rauch’s advice, and many Christians with a traditional view of marriage are experiencing firsthand what it is like when activists who are totally convinced that they have the absolute truth are in power.

There is a very real danger that activists who answer only to a single truth will not listen to anyone, and may even let their activist cause become their god. That pastor who advised the youthful Stafford to focus on saving souls instead of changing society may have had his own wrong biases, but he was probably motivated in part by the correct realization that seeking first the kingdom of this world rather than the kingdom of God is a fatal mistake.

Having said all that, I do believe that Stafford has done the Christian community a valuable service by writing this book. As Stafford points out in Chapter 1, during the twentieth century, many evangelical churches went through a long period of shunning social activism, and have only recently started to re-engage with such issues. There is therefore a lack of institutional memory, which Shaking the System helps to fill. I will let Stafford have the last word.

Nobody’s parent or grandparent had been both evangelically minded and politically passionate. White evangelical Christians had lost the rich heritage of experience that might have guided them.

This book is meant to help retrieve some of that needed memory. What is it like to be an activist? How do faith and social reform affect each other? What are the problems, the dangers, the misconceptions, the struggles? Those who went before us can tell us, if we listen to their stories, so full of inspiration and admonition.

Posted December 2017

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