boycotts

The main point of my last post was that our disintegrating culture is going to need scapegoats. This has happened before. At the end of the second century Tertullian said the Romans blamed Christians for “every public disaster.” “If the Tiber rises as high as the city walls, if the Nile does not send its waters up over the fields, if the heavens give no rain, if there is an earthquake, if there is famine or pestilence, straightway the cry is, ‘Away with the Christians to the lion!’ What! Shall you give such multitudes to a single beast?” (Apology, chapter 40).

Our culture will probably find a way to blame us, but we should at least make them work for it. A public boycott of Target, Starbucks, Apple, PayPal, Bruce Springsteen and so on may make us seem like the reason the culture is imploding. I believe in standing up, and consider this blog to be part of that. I’m only concerned that an evangelical boycott may not be the wisest or most gracious response. Also, if we’re committed to following this to its consistent end, Christian date nights will be limited to eating at Chick-fil-A, browsing Hobby Lobby, and watching the latest God Is Not Dead movie (I’ve heard they’re fine, but if they come out with God Is Not Dead III, somebody should probably check).

Some readers skirted past this main point of my last post and wanted to discuss the merits of boycotts. That seems fair, though I wasn’t prepared to go that deep. I still may not be ready, but after a couple days of thought, here is what I think (I welcome respectful dialogue, as I’m sure I have much to learn).

A boycott will succeed to the extent its proponents are perceived to possess both right and might. So before embarking on a boycott, we must ask two questions.

1. Who is perceived to be in the right?

The Montgomery Bus Boycott (1955-56) worked because everyone could see it was evil to treat black people as second class citizens. Rosa Parks and other black women were sympathetic figures, and our culture was shamed into taking their side.

Who are the sympathetic figures in our national debate about restrooms? So far it seems to be the small number of transgender people who are stuck between bathrooms. Christians must love these people and seek to accommodate them, even while we show them a better way. We must also defend the privacy and safety (both emotional and physical) of all people. But until we tragically have victims, the culture is not going to see our side.

The culture suspects we are bigots who hate others who are not like us, and from what I’ve seen in the news and online, our Target boycott has reinforced that stereotype. We are not perceived as sympathetic figures, so our boycott lacks the moral authority to be successful. The culture thinks we are bigots, and they put our boycott in the same category as the KKK.

Here is the question. Do most people share the concern of our cultural and media elites that Christians are reactionary bigots? Or do they know better but are too afraid to speak up in this environment? If you think it’s the latter, then you probably believe the boycott of Target can work. If you think it’s the former, then you worry that this boycott may do more harm than good.

2. Who is perceived to have the might?

Successful boycotts require economic leverage, which requires sufficient mass. Are Christians with traditional values the majority—or at least a sizeable minority—of this country, or are we an increasingly ostracized minority? If you think the former, then the Target boycott may work. If the latter, then it’s simply the latest, defiant surrender of the culture war.

The answer might actually be both. Traditional Christians are a sizeable minority whose influence is rapidly shrinking. In this case we might win the battle of the Target boycott and still eventually lose the war, at which time our boycott will be used against us. The culture will feel justified in taking away our freedoms because they were offended by how we used them when we had them.

At this moment in America it seems that traditional Christians lack might and are wrongly perceived to not be in the right. If this is true, then a boycott will not work. But there is still a lot we can do. We must continually speak truth to power and defend the rights and safety of all people. We must strive to live peaceably with those whose values and lifestyles are fallen, even as we call them to follow Jesus. And we must guard our own hearts, so that we always speak and act in love toward those who oppose us. We may have to say NO!, but even that gesture must come from a larger posture of YES! We are against sin and distortion because we are for God’s best for everyone.

The good news is that the church has always functioned best as a faithful minority. We are purer, more prayerful, and dependent on God than when we are the majority. For a long while preachers have longed for the good old days of the New Testament church. Why can’t we be more like them? Hang on, those prayers are about to be answered.

Photo by Wayne Hsieh. Via Flickr. Used by permission.

11 Comments

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  1. Mike: I suggest that your premise in the following statement will not stand up to historical scrutiny: “The Montgomery Bus Boycott (1955-56) worked because everyone could see it was evil to treat black people as second class citizens.” If the publications from that era (media and legal), and since (books and articles) were examined your “everyone” would require qualification. Many, whether due to racism, Southern traditionalism, states’ rights concerns, legal precedent, anti-Federal government intervention concerns, etc., opposed what was done then. I suspect that many of those who opposed it then, and their heirs today still do. The victory that was won in this case which began with a boycott was won by a minority without “everyone” supporting them either in Montgomery, Alabama, the South, or the nation. My point in bringing this up is not to argue against your “right and might” points in relation to current Christian attempts at boycotts, but to put this example in historical perspective.

    The boycott in the 1950s worked in one city not for the reason you stated, but because:
    1) one race put forth a united front for 381 days under the leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr., Ralph Abernathy, E. D. Nixon, Jo Ann Robinsin, and others; and
    2) the Federal government rendered a legal decision in favor of the boycotters cause.
    The boycott in this case began on 5 DEC 1955, exceeded the expected 50% support by reaching an estimated 99% of the black population of the city, spread to other cities, and did not end until:
    1) the 13 NOV 1956 decision by the United States Supreme Court declared such segregation unconstitutional; and,
    2) the city passed an ordinance in compliance with the decision on 20 DEC 1956.

    Even then “everyone” in Montgomery and elsewhere did not see the legal decisions as the righting of wrong, or justice being done to prevent evil. The legal decisions by the Federal and city governments were followed by:
    1) multiple extremely violent responses,
    2) increased segregation on other issues,
    3) an unfavorable state court decision,
    4) Rosa Parks being forced to move away from the city, and
    5) most blacks reverting to riding in the back of the bus within the subsequent seven years.

    Sources: History at http://www.history.com/topics/black-history/montgomery-bus-boycott [accessed 3 MAY 2016]; U.S. History at http://www.ushistory.org/us/54b.asp [accessed 3 MAY 2016]; and Wikipedia at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Montgomery_bus_boycott [accessed 3 MAY 2016].

    If this historical precedent has anything to teach evangelical Christians anything in “the present distress” the lessons may be more along the lines of the following:
    1) a minority may bring about social change;
    2) a minority may gain legal credibility for their cause;
    3) efforts like boycotts will only succeed with close to unanimous support and a very united leadership;
    4) efforts like boycotts will not result in any lasting or significant change without government action;
    5) there is a price to be paid;
    6) there will be opposition in every sphere, and on every level; and,
    7) any enduring change when it comes to such evils will only happen over time, meaning decades at a minimum.

    Soli Deo Gloria,

    John T. “Jack” Jeffery
    Pastor, Wayside Gospel Chapel
    Greentown, PA

  2. I feel like there is another reason to boycott, though it is quite unlike the boycott we are seeing with Target. In the Target boycott then goal is to punish Target financially for their policy. Because of the reasons you stated, not only will it not work, but it will probably backfire.

    But I admit that I sometimes engage in a different kind of boycott with a different purpose. If an organization is a blatant supporter of sin then in my conscience I feel compelled to financially disassociate myself with them. The goal isn’t really to financially punish, but to not become an unwitting supporter of sin. Also, whenever I do it, I do it as a private matter, or perhaps as a family matter.

    It’s possible that in some of these cases I am simply acting out of a “weaker conscience” and really shouldn’t feel like my patronage represents support, but in a few cases I have felt strong enough to privately “boycott” a business.

  3. Thank you, Jack. That is the kind of historical analysis I need. Interesting implications for today, too.

    Steve, I do the same as you. I realize that each purchase is a vote, and whatever I buy I should expect more of. I think these personal ‘boycotts’ are different from the public boycott where we are attempting to inflict economic damage in order to persuade.

  4. Being part Cherokee, I can point out another aspect to John’s post. A group can win at the Federal Supreme Court, but then be ignored by the Federal Executive Branch while a state government drives them out (with 25% dying in the process). The Cherokees are doing pretty well now. However, that came after the Civil Rights Movement’s victories, and more than a century after the Trail of Tears. Their early Supreme Court win never really amounted to anything.

  5. Elden Stielstra May 4, 2016 — 8:02 am

    Where is point three? All preachers make three points. That’s simply how it’s done. I’ll wait quietly here in the bathroom.

  6. Right, Might, Sight. As in, I’m glad Elden is out of sight as he is reading this.

  7. Elden Stielstra May 4, 2016 — 1:25 pm

    Bonhoeffer had greater things to worry about than the sign on the bathroom door. But from his poem “Voices in the Night” we learn:
    “Our eyes must see violence,
    entangling us in their guilty offense;
    Then as they silence our voice,
    like dumb dogs we have no choice.
    We learned to call lies just
    uniting ourselves with the unjust.
    When violence was done to the weak,
    our cold eyes did not speak.
    Stretched out upon my prison bed,
    I stare at the empty wall.
    Outside a summer morning,
    regardless of me,
    goes rejoicing into the country.
    Brother, while the long night waits,
    until our day dawns,
    we shall hold our ground!”

  8. Reblogged this on The Deep End and commented:
    I wonder if there is a connection to be made between these thoughts and Question #2 from Genesis 34? What do you think?

  9. Dr. Wittmer, I’ve been thinking about this post, and there’s a part you wrote here that’s been on my mind. You said, “Christians must love these people and seek to accommodate them, even while we show them a better way.” Suffice to say, such a view was not brought up in my upbringing, so I was wondering, what are some practical ways to go about doing this? How can the church (or even myself as an individual) accommmodate without conceding or compromising what we believe in?
    Thanks!

  10. I think we’d need to have a single user, ‘family’ restroom that could be used by someone who didn’t want to use the restroom that corresponds to their present genitalia. This will likely be offensive to them, but it’s the safest and most loving solution for all.

  11. I know of a church in Colorado that rents space in a public school. They have children use a set of restrooms in a section of the building that only children and children’s workers have access to during services.

    A church could do something similar and have some bathrooms promoted for guest use. Any child or member who felt unsafe in them could use bathrooms that guests are not told about. You don’t have to put obvious signs for every bathroom unless you only have the minimum number required by law.

    Note – I am currently working at a mission in Charlotte. When they built a warehouse not too long ago, they planed to have a single bathroom with one toilet and a separate shower. (Only a handful of people work in that building.) The city would not let them. They had to install two bathrooms, one for men and one for women, and they didn’t have room left over to install a shower…

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