Passing Bull 227 – What’s wrong with activists?


Many people of the Murdoch press, especially Sky News after Dark, are fond of sneering at activists.  In truth, they are fond of leering, jeering and sneering at large.  They do more than sneer at young Greta – they snarl, roll their eyes, and froth at the mouth.  It has not yet occurred to them that their behaviour is of itself her vindication.  A friend and colleague of mine, Julian Burnside, is routinely shellacked for being an activist on behalf of refugees.  (Although, there, jealousy of one sort or another is well to the fore.)  But some people seem to think that there is something inherently objectionable about activism – especially about the environment – or the climate.  Why is this so?

An activist is a person who actively seeks to change the world for the better.  Outstanding examples are Ghandi, Bonhoeffer and Mandela – all as near to sainthood as a secular world might conceive.  All through the 1930’s, Winston Churchill was the supreme activist in warning the world of the rise of Hitler.  His activism then failed, with consequences that could well have been terminal.  Keynes was an activist in looking after institutions that had taught him.  After the Second World War, two of the greatest minds of that century – Bertrand Russell and Einstein – were activists about disarmament.  Not many people sneer at Ghandi, Bonhoeffer, Mandela, Churchill, Keynes, Russell or Einstein.  Sneering at any of them would be like a gnat straining at a camel (if I may invoke Shelley).  And that’s before you get to religious activists.  Or people in charities, or sports, or clubs, or churches, or unions – or, for that matter, political parties.

If you believe, as I do, that no state that allows slavery can be called civilised, then civilisation did not arrive until the early nineteenth century.  It came with one of the most remarkable exercises in self-denial that the world has ever seen – or is ever likely to see again.  It came when the English abolished slavery.  And who was it who actually drove this almost miraculous confiscation of property and denial of wealth?  You got it – activists.  They were led by Evangelical Anglicans, but they were driven by the Society of Friends – the Quakers.  God, therefore, was in this up to His neck, and the achievement of these people of faith is one unquestionable gift of that faith to the world.

The Quakers had been pitifully persecuted on each side of the Atlantic.  As happens to victims of persecution, they were very sensitive to the persecution of others.  They set out to mould public opinion.  They door-knocked and they petitioned and they signed people up in the first great PR campaign the world has seen.  They showed a determination that some would now deride as fanatical.  And they succeeded by winning over the establishment and the public and the parliament.  They had shifted from quietism to activism.

In his book Moral Capital, Christopher Brown describes the foundations of British abolitionism.  He said this of the Quakers.

In addition to adhering to vows to do no harm, Quakers would have to commit themselves to the more difficult mission of stopping harms performed by others.  For a program of this kind, Friends in England had few precedents.  Never before in the eighteenth century had they tried as a group to shape national legislation through a public crusade.  Indeed, taking a stand on moral questions broke with their established habit of leaving sinful neighbours to their devices.  And standing forth publicly deviated from their scruples against political activism.

Here then was what Edward Gibbon may have called a ‘singular prodigy.’  And their success came in the face of one great unwritten law of the politics of the Western world.  When there is money on the table, this is an issue for mature adults, and there is no need to complicate matters with the Sermon on the Mount.  There are, after all, some things in there that are simply impossible in dealings between nations.  (Good grief, Karl Marx himself may have said that the meek shall inherit the earth.)  The Quakers had shouted a loud affirmative to the questions: Can you be a serious Christian and retain public standing?  Can a serious Christian act in the world without compromising faith?

Mr Brown refers to this issue as Lord Dartmouth’s predicament.  What do you do when your conscience does not permit you to live as others do?  When Mr Romney dissented on the impeachment, he said, as Hamlet may have said, that not to do so would ‘expose my character to history’s rebuke and the censure of my own conscience’.  The sorry failure of other Republican senators to think of history or their conscience looks to have been driven by cowardice born out of pettiness.  This was a failure that will scar America for a very long time.

The Quakers were committed to the proposition that all men are equal.  By including the Negro in the term ‘all men’, the Quakers repudiated the great lie of Jefferson and the other Founders of the United States – so many of them being the owners of slaves.

And of course they had God.  They found it indefensible to preach the Golden Rule and yet withhold security and justice from those most in need.  Can anyone seriously maintain that the founder of their faith would have acted differently?  And the Quakers excoriated slave owners ‘toiling years after years, enriching themselves, and thus getting fuel for our children’s vanity and corruption.’  Well, they were prophets too.

The Friends thought of themselves as a ‘spiritual remnant…among the unconvinced’ and ‘as bearers of truths and ideals for which this world was not ready.’  One Friend saw his church ‘as encamped in the wide extended plain of the world, under the direction and command of the great Captain and Leader and surrounded as it were in their tents with the impregnable walls of their discipline.’  Let dogmatic atheists sneer at that.

Mr Brown says:

The sum of Quaker efforts between 1783 and 1787, from the canvassing of the elite to the dissemination of antislavery literature, profoundly affected the political and cultural landscape.

So, those who deride activism in and of itself combine two errors that infect public life – they fall back on a label to express their intolerance of people who think differently to them.  And as a perceptive correspondent to The Age remarked, those who celebrate quietism, as our Prime Minister apparently does, may wish to reflect on the contribution that such people made to the horror of Auschwitz.  It is after all far easier just to look the other way.

If you wanted to look for activists who don’t do much for the common good, look for those commentators who actively seek the demolition of the ABC or to prevent the election of any government tied to Labor.  The hypocrisy, as ever, is breathtaking.

And except for the repudiation of quietism by the Quakers, we might still be buying and selling human souls as chattels, and claiming to do so under the aegis of Almighty God after the manner of our various ancestors.


On Twitter, Trump lashed out at the magazine, labelling it a ‘far left’ publication that ‘has been doing poorly.’ Graham’s eldest son, Franklin, who became the head of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association after his father’s death, in 2018, claimed that his father would have been ‘very disappointed’ by the piece and had, in fact, voted for Trump in the 2016 election. ‘It’s obvious that Christianity Today has moved to the left and is representing the elitist liberal wing of evangelicalism,’ Franklin wrote … On Sunday, Timothy Dalrymple, Christianity Today’s president and chief executive officer, issued a statement defending the editorial and reaffirming one of Galli’s assertions: that ‘the alliance of American evangelicalism with this presidency has wrought enormous damage to Christian witness’—the heart of believers’ evangelistic mission.

The New Yorker, 22 December, 2019

All those labels – and all for nothing.   Sadly, American ‘evangelicals’ are trashing that term by claiming that they can live with Trump and not compromise their faith.  Only God knows what damage they do to that faith as a result.