A Radical’s 5 Warnings for Public Christians

By David Mills Published on February 7, 2022

It’s not so much that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. In our one exchange about ten years ago, I was friendly, but Todd Gitlin was definitely not friendly. It’s more that the enemy of my enemy knows about being an enemy.

Whoever wins the elections this fall — whoever wins pretty much any election ever — matters, but not as much as we may think. Christians living as Christians will always live as a sign of contradiction to the world, and the world won’t like that. We’ll always upset someone. The man who loves the way you speak for personal responsibility will get angry when you tell him to stop his factory pouring poisons into the river. Worldly people love Christians until those Christians go from preaching to meddling.

Christians should take the advice of people experienced in the life of dissent and resistance. People who have clear ideas of the good life and want to change the world for the better may disagree on all the issues, but they’ll share the experience of challenging a mainstream that doesn’t want to be challenged. Todd Gitlin, who died over the weekend, for example.

Dissenters’ Advice

One of the founders of the Students for a Democratic Society in the early sixties and an early leader of the anti-war movement, he wound up teaching and writing. He finished a distinguished academic career as a professor at Columbia. Gitlin described his experience in the book Letters to a Young Activist

By no means a religious believer, Gitlin was a reflective and morally serious man. He was in that odd position of having firm and even absolute moral commitments, commitments to which he’d given his life, that he could not ground in any objective understanding of the world. He could have saved himself some problems and seen deeper into the role of the dissenter were he a Christian. He still tells Christians much that is useful about the life of public resistance.

Gitlin writes, starkly, “Living with the knowledge that our country perpetuates moral abominations is an everyday burden.” He was talking about the Vietnam War, but we will think of abortion, racial bigotry, experimentation on embryos, euthanasia, economic exploitation, and other common violations of the Commandments. It’ll be a long struggle, and people like Gitlin, whatever our disagreements, tell us something useful about the struggle.

Here are a few warnings gleaned from Letters to a Young Activist. He also offered more positive lessons, but unfortunately, he didn’t put those nearly so pithily.

Avoid Rage, Don’t Be Contrary, Stay Engaged

First, avoid rage even though it feels good. Gitlin doesn’t mean a proper response to evil but the kind of controlling, driving anger that activists can feel against those they’ve identified as the bad guys. He explains: “I know from experience that something happens to anger when it gets down inside you and stagnates. It congeals into rage, more diffuse and less manageable than anger. … Roughly, anger has an address, rage is broadcast. Anger wants change while rage demands, above all, punishment.”

Later, he warns against rage because it drives others away. “You want to change minds, so you don’t burn bridges. Burning bridges is the route of the fundamentalist who prefers the world purified but embattled, each pain a pleasure, each Antichrist a confirmation of Christ.”

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Second, do not be a contrarian. People who find themselves opposed on principle to their society will feel the desire to just say no. You must be “countercyclical,” Gitlin says, meaning that you move in the opposite direction of the world, move against the flow. But don’t do it “in the persnickety sense of the contrarian, who predictably follows orders but in reverse: He is enslaved to no, rebelling for the sake of rebellion. Contrarianism is a perverse submission to power. It refuses initiative.”

Third, avoid self-enclosure, and remain engaged with those you disagree with. Again, he speaks from his observation of the political radicals of the sixties. “Persevere, but don’t bury yourself in an army of the right-minded,” he says. “Beware the perilous rapture of shrinking your world to the tribe of the saved, the cheerleading good guys who brandish the same slogans, curse the same enemies, thrill to the same saints.”

He explains what happens when you bury yourself: “When you live in an echo chamber where your cheers boom and cheerleading substitutes for thought, you enclose yourself in a sect, though you may call it a movement. The world of the saved substitutes for the world as it is, full of the unsaved.” It’s the unsaved that dissenters of every sort need to influence, and they’re also the people dissenters tend to forget.

Don’t Get Discourage, Don’t Be Optimistic

Fourth, don’t get discouraged, even though you will always be a minority. He learned this from his own experience. “For most of the sixties,” he writes, “the political side was not so fashionable.” The Vietnam War he and his peers opposed was popular and stayed popular for years, especially (unexpectedly) on college campuses.

In the end, however, the protesters won and their view of Vietnam and of American power continues to influence the public debate. They were the nerds, the weirdos, the wonks, reading and writing and protesting when the great majority of their peers felt at home in the world and had a good time. Yet they formed the world we now live in.

Fifth, don’t be optimistic. “Optimism is balm,” Gitlin writes. “Certitude, not agnosticism, makes the blood race — not least in America, which cherishes a victory culture.” The feeling “will work on you like a drug.” The radicals of the sixties, he says, failed because they kept misreading the world around them and overestimating their chances of success. Their optimism made them excuse every left-wing tyrant as long as he was anti-American, for example, because they could convince themselves that the tyrant represented the liberated future.

“If you believe such things,” he writes his young activist, “you are riding for a fall — not only a moral fall but a practical one, for your cannot possibly win more than a smidgen of popular support for positions that defy common sense. … Please go on leaving the victory marches and the catch tunes to the tinny bands. The long-distance runner listens to the blues.”

Gitlin’s Music and Ours

As much as I like the book — and there’s a lot more good things in it — I think we have one advantage over the writer. Letters to a Young Activist is a wise book. Gitlin saw much and thought much about what he saw. But it has its limits. Gitlin hoped in human action, and only in human action. Like George Orwell, and Albert Camus, and other great figures of the secular left. They recognized something of the moral law that God has written on the human heart, as the Apostle Paul writes in Romans.

People who recognize that moral law and try to live by it as best they can have done great things. Sometimes they’ve done more than Christians. They know they’re in it for the long haul, and may fail in the end, and the best they can do is listen to the blues.

We’re in it for the long haul as well. But we hope in something beyond human action. Our help is in the name of the Lord. We hope in the God who so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son. That hope transforms our experience of dissent and resistance. It makes persevering easier, turning the cheek less painful, the sacrifices more rewarding, because we know they’re working toward something, something God will bless and complete.

We will sing the blues, for consolation, because the long haul is a long haul. But we’ll also sing the “Hallelujah” chorus, for the joy we have now and the joy we will have when the Lord wipes away every tear, when death shall be no more, when there shall there be no more mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things will have passed away.


David Mills is a senior editor of The Stream. After teaching writing in a seminary, he has been editor of Touchstone and the executive editor of First Things. He edits the site Hour of Our Death and writes the “Last Things” column for the New Oxford Review. A version of this article first appeared in his column in Aleteia.

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