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Here’s How Christian Action Is Distinct from Mere Activism

July 9, 2020


I recently posted an article here at Word on Fire titled “How Does a Christian Respond in Time of Social Crisis?” I was encouraged by the reactions and replies, but a number of readers asked if I could more clearly define and articulate the distinction between activism and Christian action, a topic that is multifaceted and perennial, stemming back to the early Church and still relevant today.

It is no secret that contemporary culture is permeated by activism. Our solution to every problem is to do something about it—to create a program, form a committee, or lay out tangible steps. But we Christians must be rooted in being before doing. St. Thomas Aquinas provides us with a helpful maxim in this regard: agere sequitur esse (action flows from being), which means what we do necessarily flows from who we are. Some may think this leads to passivity, the negation of action. But it is quite the contrary! Being is the prerequisite of action. Action cannot be suitably taken without a contemplative core. Catholic living is more than just doing things; it is a process of personal conversion and formation. A brief reflection on Scripture will illuminate this point.

Perhaps one of the most fascinating interactions in the New Testament is the conversation between Jesus and Judas Iscariot at Bethany. After “a woman” (John identifies her as Mary, the sister of Martha) anoints the feet of Christ with costly perfume, Judas turns to the Lord and asks, “Why this waste? For this ointment could have been sold for a large sum and given to the poor” (Matt. 26:6-13). In fact, the Gospel writers have Judas specifying the exact monetary worth of this waste (“three-hundred denarii”; see Mark 14:5 and John 12:5).

Jesus’ response seems both curt and unexpected: “Why do you trouble the woman? . . . The poor will always be with you, but you will not always have me” (Matt. 26:10-11). One would expect Jesus, a proven champion of the poor and a warrior against injustice, to commend his Apostle for being conscious of those on the peripheries. Instead, Judas is scolded for his disapproving remarks.

This passage is key to our considerations. In it, we see the Lord establishing a precedent of Christian living. Just as he used Mary to reveal the “better part” to her sister Martha in their village-home at Bethany (see Luke 10:38-42), so now he uses Mary once again, in the same town, to reveal the “better part” to his disciples and persecutors. The message is clear: to serve is right and good, but it must be preceded by sitting at the feet of Jesus. Mary recognized this; Judas did not.

When we know Christ intimately and love him, we learn what it means to be poured out like a libation for the sake of others. This is why work must be rooted in and organically flow from our abiding with Christ. Hans Urs von Balthasar affirms this point lucidly in his book Love Alone Is Credible:

Prayer, both ecclesial and personal prayer . . . ranks higher than all action, not in the first place as a source of psychological energy (“refueling,” as they say today), but as the act of worship and glorification that befits love, the act in which one makes the most fundamental attempt to answer with selflessness and thereby shows that one has understood the divine proclamation. It is as tragic as it is ridiculous to see Christians today giving up this fundamental priority.

Josef Pieper echoes these sentiments emphasizing that “an activity which is meaningful in itself . . . cannot be accomplished except with an attitude of receptive openness and attentive silence.” In other words, we cannot legitimately accomplish a meaningful Christian activity unless it begins with prayerful contemplation. Our first and most significant duty as Christians is not to make fiery speeches, open soup kitchens, or organize a march. Rather, every visible expression of faith should be based on a more central relationship—namely, an intimate communion with the living God.

Thus, before we ask, “What should I do?” we need to ask, “Have I truly encountered Christ? Am I praying daily and spending time in silence with the Lord? Am I participating in the sacramental life of the Church? When was the last time I went to Eucharistic Adoration or confession?” We see in these questions a consciousness informed by authentic discipleship; a longing to know the Lord and heed his voice. An obedient (from obedire, “to listen”) disposition toward the will of God must become our fundamental orientation.

One is molded for service, like St. Mary of Bethany, by sitting at the feet of the Master in silence and stillness. This is why the Desert Fathers asserted that every Christian is called to be a “monk” (monos/monakhos), one who is “alone in solitude with Christ.” The Desert Fathers are not suggesting that all Christians should live in a cave or a monastery. Rather, they are highlighting the fact that all of us are all called to be one with Christ and solely dedicated to him through contemplation and prayer. Solitude and solidarity with Christ are the prerequisites of Christian activity.

We should never think, “Jesus, this is what I would like to do for you.” Rather, in the spirit of St. Paul, we should say, “Lord, what would you have me do?” (Acts 22:10). This subtle paradigm shift from ego-derived activism to theo-inspired mission is key to genuine Christian action. If we do not possess the appropriate posture before the mystery of our “being-called,” discipleship quickly develops into an autonomous, human-driven initiative lacking zeal and divine direction. Our initial excitement and enthusiasm will quickly dissipate, and our duties will become tiresome, humdrum, and uninspired. Soon, we will just be going through the motions.

St. Paul reprimands the Thessalonians for this very thing when he rebukes them for “acting like busy-bodies” (2 Thess. 3:11). The Greek word St. Paul uses for idle is ataktōs, literally meaning “without proper order.” Some among the Thessalonians had inverted the order of Christian logic. They neglected contemplation of the Gospel, resulting in a stale activism, a busyness that produced superficial results.

How many parishes around our country are filled with busy-bodies? How many of our ministries are pervaded by a spirit of activism and functionality while lacking a substantial spiritual center rooted in contemplation of Christ? This is one of the reasons many parishes struggle to attract volunteers and minsters in their communities. Why would someone want to contribute to a parish ministry when it subscribes to the same work-a-day mentality as their secular job?

Answering the call of Christ is more than becoming a social or ministerial activist. Pope Francis makes this clear in the first paragraphs of his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium:

The joy of the Gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus. Those who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness. With Christ joy is constantly born anew. . . . I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to letting him encounter them; I ask all of you to do this unfailingly each day.

Before he talks about going out to the margins or being involved in some form of ministry, the Holy Father avers the absolute necessity of a daily encounter with the living Christ. This encounter is an event to be experienced concretely and personally in the life of the Church, especially through her sacraments. For in the sacraments of the Church, the Creator seeks the creature and makes the creature his dwelling place. What better example of going out to the peripheries is there than this?

Please understand that by no means am I calling for a suppression of zeal in the area of social justice or ministry. “Whatever you do for the least of my people that you do unto me” (Matt. 25:40), and “Love one another as I have loved you” (John 13:34). These mandates of Christ remain, and will always stand as the full expression of one’s genuine encounter with the Lord.

However, love of neighbor must be rooted in love of God. A dull blade pierces nothing, no matter how adamantly it is wielded. Only the blade beaten and forged in the furnace of contemplation proves effective. As St. Bonaventure so beautifully reminds us in his classic work The Soul’s Journey Into God:

The fire is God
and his furnace is Jerusalem [the Church]
and Christ enkindles it
in the heart of his burning passion

May we subject the steel of our souls to this “burning passion” so that it may gild us into effective minsters. Only then can we become authentic missionary disciples of the Catholic Church and effectively redeem the culture.