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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.