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Playing to Your Strengths: Activism and Different Roles

Not too long ago, I was in a Christian Climate Observers Program (CCOP) leadership meeting discussing and making plans for COP25 which concluded last month. During the course of this planning meeting, our team wrestled with the idea of what ‘role’ as well as the scope of engagement our CCOP delegates would have with other civil society groups present at COP25. 

It was imperative,  to be able to establish the best strategy and role for our CCOP delegates.

Now our consideration to the matter at hand, I believe, was born out of an awareness that far too often (at least in the climate movement), there is a tendency to push a prescribed role in addressing the climate crisis. There is also a tendency to elevate or disregard specific efforts amidst different efforts to address the issue. With the urgency of the global climate crisis and a situation some have referenced as “rearranging furniture on the Titanic”, it was imperative, in fact necessary, to be able to establish the best strategy and role for our CCOP delegates to employ at the summit.

The goal is to include everyone’s best contribution.

Fortunately for our team, a friend and a colleague shared with us Bill Moyer’s Four Roles of Activists This helped our thinking and shaped what ended up being a very productive planning meeting. Indeed, there are different roles to play when it comes to bringing about social change and social movements. But perhaps more importantly, the goal is to include everyone’s best contribution, embrace and harness that contribution and channel it into an all-powerful movement. As any good Reformed Christian, I did not let my mind rest at only that conclusion and realization. I began to see the parallels between the different roles Moyer had described, and different biblical personalities who exemplified those roles and employed them to bring about needed social change in their time.

According to Moyer, the Citizen is one who articulates a vision of a good society and lends legitimacy to the movement in the eyes of ordinary citizens. The Rebel puts issues on society’s agenda, causes “creative tension” by highlighting the gap between what is and what should be, and represents society’s moral vanguard. The Social Change Agent nurtures a new public consensus, and acts as an ‘open system’ by informing the public while learning from dialogue with the public and the powerholders, so that his or her ideas are open to change. And lastly, the Reformer is one who uses institutional means of getting real change and who leads in dialogue with the powerholders at the interface between the movement and the public.

The point here is that you are playing an important role. 

Now in a perfect world, we ought to naturally play each role well and wear ‘all four hats’ as it were. However, as human psychology will tell us, we tend to instinctively be drawn to one role or the other. But the point here is that whichever role you find yourself playing—be it the protester, the writer, the political advocate or the garden planter—be reminded that you are playing an important role. 

Nehemiah and the journey he embarked on to rebuild Jerusalem and its ruined structures struck me as an example of the ‘citizen’ role. Here, Nehemiah, in his effort to bring about the much needed political and social change in Jerusalem, played the role of a ‘responsible citizen’ as described by Moyer. He successfully articulated a vision of the good for the people of Jerusalem and awakened the people to the necessity of repopulating the city and rebuilding its walls. The completion of the rebuilding, done in the space of 52 days and amidst strong opposition, served as a testament of his legitimacy in the eyes of the ordinary citizenry.

One could argue that most of the prophets, if not all of them were “rebels”

In terms of thinking about biblical personalities through the lens of the ‘rebel’ role, perhaps, one could argue that most of the prophets, if not all of them were “rebels”. But I singled out the story of Elijah. Elijah’s entire prophetic career can be regarded as a strong protest to put on the people of Israel’s societal agenda the primacy of Yahweh. From proclaiming drought to the contest on Mount Carmel, nothing screams ‘creative tension’ to highlight the gap between what is and what should be, than Elijah’s actions.

The personality of Esther exemplified Moyer’s explanation of the ‘Social Change Agent’ role. Esther skillfully averted the killing of her people as a result of her dialogue and learning from the public (Mordecai and the Jews in Susa) and the powerholders (King Ahasuerus) of her time. Through acts of the King’s edicts, she masterfully nurtured a new public consensus among the people and promoted a long-term perspective (establishment of Purim) which secured the interests of her people for years to come.

We must shy away from exalting or disparaging one role above the other. 

Finally, Daniel came to mind as a personality who fits the ‘Reformer’ role. Competently operating and navigating within the institutional framework and powers of his time, Daniel was able to turn the heart of King Darius in favor of Daniel’s people and his God. A reformer is a leader in dialogue with powerholders and the book of Daniel reveals how well-positioned Daniel was in effectively playing this role and bringing about change and progress.

In the end, each biblical personality and the role they employed were not only needed but applicable to their strengths for the glory of God. In thinking about our roles in addressing the global climate crisis, I would contend that all the different roles are needed in the fight. But perhaps more importantly, we must shy away from exalting or disparaging one role above the other because each one of us, and subsequently each one of these roles, has a place in the great tapestry of God’s faithfulness.


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