Sunday, 6 September 2015

'The Activist(?) Undone': A Re-Writing of Ecclesiastes

The words of the theologian, educator, and activist:

Futility; all is futility. Nothing is worthwhile; everything is worthless. What do we get for the amount of work we do?

Generations go, generations come; causes go, and new causes arise; movements arise and then pass away, and newer movements arise… But the earth is unchanged.

Day in, day out, sunrise to sundown… What has been is what will be; what’s been done is all that is done.

Nothing changes; nothing is new. Try to think of one thing of which you can truly say, ‘now THAT is new.’

Been there, done that.

The movements are forgotten, the issues are blurred, the activism is not nearly as effective as we try to convince ourselves it is.


I, the teacher, was dedicated and committed to social transformation.

My social media was filled with all the right causes.

I ‘liked’ all the right things; I ‘followed’ all the right people.

I prided myself on how well I kept people informed about the important issues of the day:

The plight of the Palestinians, the heroic actions of the Kurdish fighters in Rojava, environmental issues in the Cascadian region, the struggles of peacemakers and social activists…

I encouraged people to educate themselves, to be informed, and to take action.

But now I look at it all and say, ‘what has it accomplished, all the ‘liking’, the ‘following’, the ‘trending’?

The poor starve, the weak die, the cruel win, the forests burn, the fish die, and I got 37 ‘likes’…

In my opinion, nothing is worthwhile; everything is worthless.


My wardrobe was politically conscious. I had badges that declared my beliefs, shirts and scarves that showed solidarity with important struggles;

My jacket was covered with patches that supported the saving of the oceans, that made clear I stood with the Zapatistas, and that called out racism and homophobia.

I said to myself, ‘When people look at me, they can see my dedication; they will be inspired to ask questions, to learn more, to strive, to struggle, to change the world.’

But actually, few people asked. It was, first and foremost, for me- to make me feel active, involved, and keyed in, to look cool…

Most of it was futile, worthless, a chasing after the wind, not doing anywhere near what I made myself believe it was.


I dedicated myself to theology that was progressive and radical, public and political.

I devised the most clever and intricate theological reflections; I presented new interpretations of the biblical text designed to stimulate social transformation.

I filled my CV with accounts of seminars given, papers delivered, chapters written, and accolades collected.

I said to myself, ‘you are making it happen. You’ve achieved a lot. Your wisdom is acknowledged by incredible people.’

But now, I wonder…  I perceive that it might all be a chasing after the wind.


I was condescending to theology and spirituality that was ‘personal’ or ‘individual’. Theology, I reasoned, was about building the movement, pushing things forward, transforming the social context.

God was a liberator;

Jesus was a child refugee, a worker, a prisoner, and finally a victim of state terror;

We drew strength for the social struggle out of understanding his social struggle;

He wasn’t your ‘best friend’, your ‘co-pilot’, or your ‘lover’;

He was our ‘comrade’, our archetype, our example… our leader…

I said to myself, ‘Jesus exists to give the struggle for social transformation meaning. He is our lens, our paradigm. The personal prayers and poems are a distraction at best and a detour at worst.’


Then my world fell apart…

Everything familiar vanished.

The days became a wash of confusion, loss, loneliness, despair, screams, and tears…

I descended to the depths, becoming ever more frightened at every new realization of just how deep it went…

I, the teacher, was undone- a naked, weeping heap on the floor of an empty room.


I looked back on my social media posts of the weeks before;

The Kurds, the PLO, the IRA;

The Ulster Unionists, the struggle in Western Sahara;

The buffoonery of Donald Trump; the wit of Jon Stewart;

The impeccable arguments of social theorists; 

The right political music; the most conscious hip hop, world music, and reggae;

None of it mattered. 

It was futility, worthless, a chasing after the wind… A wasting of time…

I was alone… and none of it was good company.

I said to myself, ‘why did you think this was who you were? Why did you invest yourself in this? Did you think that this was your strength, you sustenance?

‘Fool… You utter fucking fool’…


I, the teacher, noticed something very strange and disorienting:

All became personal and individual

All became survival.

I found myself weeping on the shoulders of people who attended churches of which I disapproved;

I found myself having to pull over, weeping on the side of the road, at Mark Heard singing ‘I Know My Redeemer Lives’, a hymn that, a week earlier, I’d probably have dismissed as overly sentimental and theologically dubious; 

I stopped thinking so much, lit a candle in front of an icon of Christ and, as I had no wisdom to give or knowledge to share, was quiet…

I found myself praying very simple prayers, prayers like ‘Please help me. If you’re there please help me’…


My world became very small. 

Rojava, Western Sahara, the Greek economy, the refugee crisis, Congress, Westminster, the Dáil, and the faltering Irish peace process all receded across a far horizon.

I was re-introduced to Jesus- a simple man who grieved at the death of his cousin and wept at the grave of a friend;

I was reintroduced to God- a God who an ancient Hebrew declared ‘near to the broken-hearted and saves those whose spirits are crushed.’

I removed badges and patches from my jacket. 

A great many causes and movements will need to do without my endorsement for a time.

I’m listening to very different music and reading very different books.

I said to myself, ‘find out who you are, apart from all this’…


The people are still there, but they look different.

The 'Palestinians' and the 'Irish' that I cared for in the abstract have become people again. They are are still there, but now they are individual brothers and sisters, in Bethlehem and Belfast, who message to say that I am in their prayers...


I, the teacher, am leaving aside my teaching for a time.

I have only one thing left to teach:

Know God; know yourself;

Be just and do good…

But don’t neglect your deepest heart while you do it…

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