The first tumultuous weeks of Donald Trump’s presidency have seen marches, rallies and demonstrations across the country, held in opposition to, or in support of, at least some part of the president’s agenda. Millions have taken part, and the trend shows no sign of stopping. To put it mildly, activism is in the air.
While some of these demonstrations have drawn attention to commendable causes, too many have been characterized by vulgarity, hysteria and discord. The leaders of the Women’s March on Washington, in particular, seemed more concerned with insulting and offending political opponents than they were with fostering any sort of meaningful conversation, as Madonna and the rest reacted to a perceived authoritarian president with their own brand of power politics.
Authentic activism should inspire peace and conversation. The fact that so much of what currently passes for “activism” breeds the opposite is an indication that something is awry. The disconcerting elements of these demonstrations are symptoms of a deeper spiritual sickness plaguing our democracy.
In his masterful spiritual work, “The Soul of the Apostolate,” Trappist abbot Dom Jean Chautard warns us against what he calls the “activistic heresy.” It is a tendency, even among Catholics, to falsely believe that social and political ills must be fought exclusively with worldly weapons. In doing so, we can mistake the important work of social activism as an ultimate end, and sacrifice even our interior life for the sake of social and political gains.
By putting the active cart before the spiritual horse, the activistic heresy cuts off our access to the only thing that can sanctify our works and make our actions truly fruitful: a living relationship with Jesus Christ. We come to love “action for action’s sake,” Dom Chautard says. Even the sacraments and prayer can be subverted as tools to serve a temporal agenda.
Or worse, we might even come to disdain the interior life as a hindrance to action. We see this tendency from secularists who, after a tragedy, ridicule the religious community’s call for prayer as worthless. Or from those who, having only political and not eschatological horizons, embrace unjust or divisive means to achieve their ends, ends which themselves might be noble.
Foundation in Christ
Political activism is important, but it can only be authentic if it is rooted in Christ. Our interior life cannot merely be an aid to our active life, but must be its very foundation. Through prayer, penance and reception of the sacraments, we invite Christ to enter into our lives, inform our decisions and guide our actions. As St. Paul says in his letter to the Galatians, “I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me.”
This approach to activism was at the heart of the annual March for Life in Washington, which took place for the 44th time this January. The march did not begin with a rally or a star-studded concert. Instead, it began with a vigil Mass in which those who received the Eucharist literally became channels of God’s love and grace. Is it any wonder that, instead of grotesque hats and cussing celebrities, the March for Life was marked by joy, peace and love?
Perhaps this approach might not shame the Supreme Court into immediately overturning Roe v. Wade. But it will succeed in changing the hearts and minds and souls of those who encounter it, which is far more valuable in the long run.
An opportunity for authentic activism
On March 9, Minnesota Catholics will have an opportunity to engage in this kind of authentic activism at Catholics at the Capitol. We will gather in St. Paul to learn about some of the key issues facing our state, tie them all together within a consistent ethic of life, and then head to the State Capitol to share our message with legislators.
We’ll begin our day of advocacy and activism at 7:30 a.m. with prayer, followed by 8 a.m. Mass at the RiverCentre in St. Paul. We do this not to merely check a box or attempt to channel God’s grace toward our own agenda, but because we know that without Christ, all the activism in the world will fail to accomplish the one thing it needs to: the glorification of God and the advancement of his will.