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On Serving Hostile Authorities

Updated: Sep 10, 2021

Abby Johnson

In my last blog piece I offered some comments on Grant Castlebury’s advice on Serving Hostile Authorities. His article, in sum: work virtuously, work excellently, and be willing to say “no” when called to do so. My comment, in sum: ok yes, but there’s a lot of gaps there, and the devil is in the details. This post is my feeble attempt at working out some of those details, or at least acknowledging them.

The temptation that Fischer puts his finger on in the tweet thread about Collins is one that I, as a teacher in public schools, feel very acutely: the impulse to justify compromise in the name of being a “faithful presence.” It is very easy to justify being unfaithful by telling ourselves a nice story that actually, it’s all good, when in fact, it’s not all good. Going along to get along is most often the path of least resistance, so crossing the line and then reverse engineering a rationale after the fact ad hoc is incredibly common.

A related danger is this: even when a person in an institution/organization doesn’t flat out compromise, is his presence making a significant kingdom impact, or is his presence and efforts simply propping up decadence and barbarism, “shoring up the imperium? Are your time and skills helping to maintain the continued strength of a general organization that is doing damage and leading people astray? Even if you aren’t directly involved in compromise, you can still indirectly contribute to the maintenance of the system. I know I’m using the concepts of social justice activism there when I say someone’s efforts can indirectly contribute to the “maintenance of the system,” but I have no other way to describe it. If the shoe fits. Systems are real, and they have power. (No, that doesn’t make me woke) Maybe someone on the inside will answer no (I’m still here at my job, for instance), but we should all wrestle with the issue. A great example of this, by her own admission, is Abby Johnson. She started working at Planned Parenthood out of a sincere desire to help women. She was very uncomfortable with abortion so she sought to avoid that part of the business, but her day by day presence helped keep PP strong and helped draw women into the clinic to have abortions. And little by little she began to contribute to the abortion mill, and at each step along the way, as it was changing her, she kept telling herself that she was just there to help women and that what she was doing and what PP was about was actually reducing the number of abortions. In the name of “helping women,” she ended up becoming someone she never intended to be. It took something pretty crazy to shake her out of that.

At the same time, I want to ask some questions: what, exactly, is his definition of the “faithful presence” model that he is so skeptical of? Surely it isn’t simply having a job in a secular field or institution. Besides pointing to extreme examples such as Collins, what does a wrong headed faithful presence look like? If he argues that it’s a bad idea to work and operate in a corrupt institution, that describes almost every organization out there, so where is the line? For the record, I don’t think he’d argue that all working in secular institutions or corrupt organizations is out of bounds. He would no doubt nuance it better. I am raising the basic questions as starting points for inquiry on this important issue.

If the "faithful presence" model of engagement is fatally flawed, what is the alternative? Is leaving and working from within a Christian institution that is more friendly to your values a better alternative? Sometimes, perhaps, but how often, exactly, and when? How do you know the move was good?

So when do you persist, and when do you fish and cut bait? No easy answers. But I do have a few guiding thoughts, basic principles, if you will. I recognize these are easier said than done, but nevertheless: First, let me readily admit that my skepticism of the faithful presence model is easy and cheap, simply because I have greatly benefited from the faithful presence of a huge number of brothers and sisters in the Lord. So much of my life that I take for granted depends upon their sacrifice and hard work, much like the comfortable citizen who never ponders the protection of the soldier who sullies himself in the nitty gritty of defending our country. That being said...

1) Be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Yes, quite a few in the Church have played an active part in bringing real harm to people and doing damage to the Kingdom, while at the same time comforting themselves that they were having a “faithful presence.” All the same, it doesn’t follow that the faithful presence vocational model is hopeless. This is a call to rigorously work out what a faithful presence really *is,* to not be satisfied with the same platitudes and to really wrestle with what that word--”faithful”--really means and looks like, not to discard the concept wholesale. The history of conservatism is one littered with running. When the heat in the institutional kitchen gets intense, we tend to leave and go start other institutions. There is a time for that, but maybe, just maybe, staying a bit more here and there is called for. By the way, the liberal/progressive/activist/revolutionary's ability to do this--to hunker down and stay when the institution isn't exactly to your liking--over the long haul is one reason why we are in the crazy predicament we are in right now. They are experts at the "long march," at taking the long view and working from within for decades, chipping away. Maybe taking a few cues from them would be a good idea. We don't have to buy their revolutionary ideas or woke power politics to see that they've been incredibly effective at cultural change, and that is partly due to their willingness to stay in the trenches over many, many years. 2) On the other hand, acknowledge that oftentimes, the institution and/or organization ends up shaping the individual believer more than the reverse.

We are much more conformity oriented and creatures of our environment than we are healthy individuals. The simple fact of the matter is that swimming with the tide is much easier, and we humans are much better at that than the opposite. If there is any sort of leftward/secular momentum in an organization, that will most likely continue to intensify, and going along with that will be harder and harder to resist, and easier and easier to dismiss as nothing. Swimming with the tide changes you; it can’t not change you. Most often it changes you without you noticing it until you are very far gone (cf Abby Johnson’s story above). This is how human nature works. We tend to overestimate our ability to make a difference and avoid compromise, while we underestimate the institution’s ability to change us. Do some thorough soul searching assessing your backbone. 3) Yes, maybe you will need to steer clear of certain institutions, organizations, and fields, because the pressure to compromise in them will be too strong, and their ability to shape you will be too much.

If you are a doctor, will the hospital you work at force you to perform “gender affirmation” surgeries? If you are a nurse, will you be made to participate in abortions? If you are a psychologist, will you have to celebrate and affirm a client’s self-identification, no matter the circumstances? If you are a teacher, will you be compelled to act and teach as if the dogma of the sexual revolution and contemporary social justice movements--dogma that is absolutely toxic to human health and flourishing--is settled fact? These are just the obvious ones. There are more. They are legion. Instances like the above and countless others have the tendency to weigh on people in those fields, wear them down over time, and slowly but surely nudge them into compromise. If you don’t want to end up there, be real. You’ll need to ask yourself some very pointed questions. Where is the line for you? Why is that a deal breaker for you? Which leads me to the next principle:

4) Decide your limits beforehand.

Be specific! This is similar to the dating advice I received as a single man trying to honor women physically. Best to decide your boundaries and what situations are wise to be in well before you get there, and to make that decision in community with other trusted mentors. If you don’t, you’ll get into a compromising environment and will no doubt say “wellllll, how faar *is* too far, really?” Same goes in the work world. The more exact you are in terms of where your breaking point is, and thinking through all that prior to jumping in, the better it will serve you in the heat of the moment. If you wait until you are faced with a situation, the pressure to jump first and rationalize later will be immense, and most people will not have the strength to hold frame then.

5) Count the cost.

What could resistance cost you? Could it cost you your job? Could it mean not being able to get stable employment elsewhere if your reputation is tarnished? How likely are both? Be realistic, not optimistic. Remember, hope and optimism are two different things. At the very least, do some prior planning so that you have a plan B to fall back on should resistance cost you, and save up so you have a bit of a financial cushion. It is much more difficult to say “no” if you could get fired for doing so but have no recourse to pay the bills and/or would have no time financially to figure things out. You must count the cost on the opposite side of the ledger too. What will compromise do to your soul? Your relationship to Jesus? Your witness to your family and church? You must reckon with the trade-offs. This reminds me of a little anecdote (I forget where I originally got it) from Martin Sheen: Daniel Barrigan was a Jesuit priest in New York who organized nonviolent protests against Vietnam. A reporter asked him, “It’s fine for you to go to prison, Father Barrigan. After all, you have no children. What’s going to happen to our children if we go to prison?” Barrigan’s response? “What’s going to happen to them if you don’t?”

Your integrity is no trifling matter. Don’t let anyone scoffing that you are merely “trying to keep yourself pure” manipulate you into crossing lines that you cannot in good conscience cross.

6) What do you want to do there?

Is your purpose to just pay the bills, or something deeper? Figure it out. If you want something deeper, be realistic in your ability to achieve that end.

7) Be ruthlessly honest.

Know your own capacity for rationalization, and put safeguards in place, such as church accountability with men/women of intelligence that you respect.

8) Form your own intellect.

It is a bulwark against future compromise. Not sufficient, but necessary. You must read deeply and widely, both inside and outside your field. Read apologetics. Read philosophy, sociology, history, cultural commentary, and classical literature. I’m talking about books, not Facebook posts. Write, even if just in a journal. Spend time in silence and solitude, away from screen technology and noise. All this will help you more clearly see the “lines” of compromise I keep alluding to. A strong intellect begets strong eyes.

None of these are silver bullets. It is still possible to follow all the above and be an impotent presence at best and an active contributor to corruption and harm at worst. You’ll no doubt be unable to be completely clear at the outset, and you’ll come to several realizations along the way. Yet, following the above advice should provide a degree of help.

I fully admit, this *is not easy.* Incredibly, incredibly messy, and there is more gray than there is black and white. I don’t have tidy answers, just questions and some introductory thoughts. I’d appreciate the input from people who’ve thought deeply about this so I can work this out more thoroughly in my own head.

We must prepare.

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