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I’ve been writing for the post calvin for almost eight years, off and on. All my posts have themselves emerged from what I was most preoccupied with the week they were due, the things I most needed to say to myself. This is my last post. It will be much the same, but because it’s the last one, I’ll be a bit more pedantic. I might say that I’ve earned it.
Here’s what I’m thinking about, and what I want all my stalwart readers to do:
1. Join something.
2. Don’t apologize.
My dissertation study about raised-evangelical social media writers centers on the now-bygone “long 2020”— approximately December 2019 through lockdown and protests against police brutality to Biden’s inauguration. In that period, folks were, strangely, energized. It was a terrible year, of course, and lockdown drove people to the internet with even greater intensity, which was more a coping mechanism than what one might call a good thing. The hunger, though—it gave people purpose. My study participants were posting about combating white supremacy, protecting democracy, calling out nationalism and the callous treatment of sexual assault survivors in the church. It felt like a reckoning. Felt like it mattered.
And now — well. It’s too early for findings, and this is not a publication venue. I noted on my participants’ informed consent form, so here I speak more anecdotally: in the data and in my own life, I see a great deal of exhaustion and disillusionment. Folks left churches in 2020, and haven’t found a new one. Folks find themselves too embittered with Christian nationalism and right wing violence, hypocrisy, and triumphalism to participate in anything that might put them in contact with it. “You’re the only person I know who still goes to church,” a friend said. “You’re the only Christian I even want to talk to.” And I can’t blame this person, or the many other friends who might echo the former. I’m not here to tell you to go to church — though if you have access to a healthy one, I have to say I support it. But I am here to tell all disillusioned, (rightly) grumpy millennials that the best way to revive your sense of purpose and political possibility is to join something.
Posting about political and social causes feels emptier now, I think, because even the study participants report that they’re often not talking to anyone in particular; they’re not getting responses from people who disagree, anymore, and they don’t expect anyone’s mind to change. Online interactions are often filtered through archetypes: Trump supporters, liberal white women, that kind of Christian. And this is true for the posters and the commenters; it is the a symptom of the effectiveness of exclusively-digital activism: if the only contact we have with members of a particular demographic is the generalizations made about them on the internet, we have very little in the way of counterstory. We have so few sources of resistance to our own impulse to caricature people we don’t like. It becomes easier to think that they are all the same; they are unpardonably ignorant or vapid or foolish or evil; they have it out for us.
Let me be clear: this is not a both-sides argument. I have little patience for folks who think that their disagreement with both democrats and republicans or “not liking politics” makes them holy; the Jesus of the Gospels was not much interested in bipartisanship. But I see the logic of ideological purity continuing to isolate and petrify people who sincerely want to do good, and I do not think we make humanizing social change more possible by condemning most of the people whose rights and dignity and well-being we claim to champion.
So, please: join something. A church, a club, a campaign, a local meet-up, a mutual aid facebook group, a meal train or a carpool; become a regular somewhere, get on a board, volunteer at the humane society or a retirement home or a school — any place where you will interact with real people who defy the stories you map onto them, and particularly a type of person with whom you’re disinclined to empathize or to empathize in real proximity. Maybe those are other people who agree with you, politically, but are just more annoying about it! It’s still good and important work. It fills your life with actionable problems and human connection. It consistently places you in situations where you must practice dialogue and engagement and negotiation and compromise, the very skills and habits that sustain the kind of coalitions that advance real political and social change.
And — this is key — don’t apologize.
Here’s another observation, from both life and data: we’re thinking about affiliations increasingly as endorsement, rather than membership. And the problem with that trend is that if you think about being part of something as “endorsing” it wholesale, then the only thing you can do to effect change in the institution or group with which you’re affiliated is to disavow and leave it. If you think of affiliation as membership — as a member, as a citizen of that group or institution, you have many, many more options. Sometimes leaving is good, and necessary, and I defer to your more intimate knowledge of the situation about when your options are exhausted or too costly to be borne. But still, I commend this to you: in part again to practice the skills of coalition-building, of the kind of community and civil society that sustains us in moments of exhaustion and disillusionment, that in fact can bring us and our society out of them, if slowly and painfully — join something, and stay in it. And do it without apology.
There’s much discourse on Twitter mocking politicians’ calls for Americans to vote, people who say that “I did vote, and it didn’t fix anything.” This really grinds my gears. Voting is preventative medicine, not surgery—you have to do it every single year. (Register or check your registration here; midterms are on November 4.) Civil society — all those NGOs and advocacy organizations and professional associations and religious and cultural institutions and neighborhood associations and unions, all those damn committees — is in this metaphor both healthy habits and treatment; it’s how people organize to pressure the politicians we vote for, at every level of government, to do the things we want them to do. They will not do it otherwise, because they — like all of us — are self-interested and short-sighted and we — all of us — need other people to introduce new ideas and help us assess the best path forward and guide our decisions and hold us accountable. We also need one another in order to be brave. I need to feel brave right now, and I say this to myself and to you: join something. Don’t apologize. Trust yourself to recognize what is good. Hold yourself open to learning what is better. You are not responsible for everything anyone in your coalition has ever done; you do not have to spend all your time justifying why you have chosen to join that establishment or defending the charge that you have sold out to something “problematic” or “toxic,” the two most useless words in the English language insofar as they mean anything and nothing when you want them to. That is largely a distraction, and one that benefits the powerful. You are responsible for doing all the good you can in all the ways you can. And, perhaps regrettably, that involves working with — as well as for — other people.
The don’t apologize part is mostly about fighting off the social media critics in one’s head that my research has suggested I’m not alone in having. I hypothesize about what various constituencies on the internet have to say about my decisions, I play out their critiques that I’m a sell-out or a square, and because of this I have chosen to critique rather than create and also have apologized too much for what I believe in and how I work for justice and mercy in the world. I suspect that my fear of the spectral opinions of unnamed others has often led me to cowardice; I have failed to do all the good in all the ways available.
I pledge to redouble my efforts in this critical moment. I hope you will, too.
This first appeared on the post-calvin on July 16, 2022.