What an Unjust World Also Needs: Connecting Vocation and Activism

Soon after the murder of Trayvon Martin, the acquittal of George Zimmerman, and the rising prominence of Black Lives Matter in rallies and marches around the country, students from my institution planned their own protests. Dezi, a non-binary Black US American individual who graduated with Religion and Sociology majors five years ago, led the way. As they planned a “die in” to take place in Augustana’s campus coffee shop, Dezi wisely consulted with a number of faculty members. They conveyed their intention and their list of demands to Augustana, and asked us to help them refine their tactics and messaging. I was both honored and anxious to be among those informal consultants.

Some of my anxiety stemmed from inexperience. It had been 20 years since I participated in marches in DC and Atlanta, and those were large and sanctioned. More recently, I attended an “Anarchism and Christianity” gathering in Minneapolis, but only as a participant-observer and curious outsider. (I tried not to show my utter surprise when I read the t-shirt of a fellow participant: “F*** the Police—But Love the Police Officer.”) I have some Catholic Worker friends who are currently awaiting trial after breaking into an Enbridge site to manually shut off the flow of tar sands oil in Minnesota, having prayerfully concluded that “it was necessary to take urgent action to address the severe and imminent threat posed by climate change.” But when I bring my Environmental Ethics students to meet with them, I am learning right beside the students about the nonviolent civil disobedience of others.  

Augustana students protest lack of diversity on campus, September 2016.

Photo by Marlen Gomez.

My anxieties also arose from the place and scope of my vocation as a professor of the college. Dezi and other students leaders were, after all, publicly demanding that Augustana make institutional changes that would increase the sense of belonging of its non-white students. I didn’t know, and still don’t always know, how to live out my paid vocation in educating students and directing a center for faith and learning while also responding to the unfamiliar, powerful call to stand in solidarity with those critiquing the institution that pays me.  

Many of these questions and anxieties spring from my own enduring white fragility, even as I try to learn how to become an anti-racist. (This summer, our college is beginning two studies of books by Robin DiAngelo and Ibram X. Kendi). Beyond my personal shortcomings, however, there are ways that vocation has been framed and taught that make putting it together with activism difficult for many of us.

Here, I will name three challenges while making some suggestions for connecting vocation and activism.

First of all, the students most inclined to work for structural change through direct action, civil disobedience, and other forms of activism are perhaps the least likely to participate in vocational exploration programs on our campuses. This is so even if those engaged in advocacy work, work that uses established governmental and NGO positions to support and give voice to (ad + vocare) underrepresented groups and justice issues, are the most likely to participate.  According to sociologist Tim Clydesdale, such advocates, or what he calls “reforming activists,” are intrinsically motivated to make a difference in the world. They are the first ones to volunteer at food banks, to attend vocational discernment retreats, and otherwise to link their education with their felt responsibility to a world that needs their gifts and passions.

For an interview with Tim Clydesdale on his book, The Purposeful Graduate, see “Why ‘Vocation’ isn’t a Dirty Word,” Inside Higher Ed, June 24, 2015.

At the same time, those students who have moved from advocacy to activism, those for whom reforms to the system seem overly cautious or even amount to selling out, are perhaps the hardest to find in vocational exploration programs.  Such “rebels,” as Clydesdale calls them, may not go to college at all, or may quickly drop out, convinced that higher ed amounts to another bureaucratic institution that warrant rejection rather than reform. According to Clydesdale:

These students reject mainstream culture for is superficiality, academia for it hypocrisy, and reform as unattainable…. On occasion, they find class engaging (because its topic or professor is rebellious) or join a broader cause (e.g. antiwar protests, efforts to decriminalize marijuana). But they generally occupy the margins of campus life.

Tim Clydesdale, The Purposeful Graduate (Chicago UP, 2015) 88.

Can institutions support activism work, as well as respond openly and creatively to charges leveled at it, in ways that would bring such rebels into our schools, keep them enrolled, and move them in from the margins? How can we better address the porous, shifting line between established advocacy and grassroots activism (and perhaps walk it ourselves), so that students don’t leave our institution when they take the step from one to the other?   

Second, many colleges root their understandings of vocation in religious traditions who connect calling to established roles and official offices rather than to the work of critically questioning that establishment. Ironically, this may be especially true for Protestant colleges and universities, whose name carries only distant echoes of the cataclysmic sixteenth-century protests. Martin Luther famously extended the concept of calling beyond explicitly religious work, and the word came to characterize various positions within the three “orders” or arenas of activity—that of the household, the state/government, and the church. This extension of God-ordained work to include that of the governing authorities (as well as parenting, farming, etc.) was radical for its time. Luther’s driving question about vocation was whether soldiers and hangman are doing the work of God when they responsibly assume their prescribed duties. (His basic answer was yes.)

For more on Luther’s understanding of vocation, see Mark U. Edwards, Jr.’s “Historical Digression on ‘What’ and ‘How’ in Vocational Discernment.”

But those questions tend to leave out our questions about whether people with or without sanctioned positions can still use their bodies to abolish prisons, shut down oil pipelines, give sanctuary to undocumented people, or defund the police.  Because many church-related colleges have inherited an understanding of vocation as linked with pre-established, official offices in government, commerce, or marriage, our schools are less practiced and more reticent to consider the callings of would-be activists. Some even deal punitively with those who criticize the establishment in unestablished ways. I commend the documentary film Same God for depicting how the same Christian faith can both inspire courageous activism (here in solidarity with persecuted Muslims) and instigate its suppression.

Finally, many of our habits for teaching about and leading vocational reflection presuppose that we live within political, economic, and civic systems that generally work to serve the common good. Many of our institutions have become equipped to help students discern whether they should be a nurse or a doctor, a schoolteacher or social worker; we do so by inviting students to consider how their interests and abilities overlap with “what the world needs.” We thus tend to translate “what the world needs” with opportunities ready at hand. This plugs students into the market, the nation-state, or other establish spheres so that those systems continue to work. That work and those systems can and do serve the common good—except when they don’t. How might our discernment sessions change when they include critical consideration of who benefits from such systems, as well as who is left out, and, indeed, upon whose exploitation the systems are built in the first place? (Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me asks such questions about America’s white supremacist culture—what he calls “the Dream”—as built on black bodies.)

It is a good deal easier to help students discern whether or not to be a police officer, or investment banker, or pharmaceutical sales rep, than to lead and support them in considering the systemic injustices of mass incarceration, global neoliberalism, and privatized healthcare. Doing the latter requires that we help them discern when and how established orders can lead to deep reform, as when the Minneapolis City Council unanimously voted to replace the city’s police force with a community-led public safety system. It also requires that we help them discern moments when the injustices of the world may also call them from advocacy to activism, from the use of established positions to the unsanctioned and sometimes disobedient use of their voices and bodies. That activism work is exhausting, as Dezi emphasized to me in a recent conversation.  Educators are thus called to care for the mental, spiritual, and bodily health of student activists, as Chris Arguedas so helpfully insists. We educators might find ourselves also moving from advocacy to activism (and back again) as we stand beside students who courageously stand before an unjust world that so desperately needs them.


Jason Mahn is Professor of Religion and Director of the Presidential Center for Faith and Learning at Augustana College in Illinois. He is the author of the essay, “The Conflict in Our Callings: The Anguish (and Joy) of Willing Several Things,” which appeared in Vocation Across the Academy: A New Vocabulary for Higher Education, ed. David S. Cunningham (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017). Jason is working on a new book project, tentatively entitled Neighbor Love through Fearful Days: Real-time Reflections on the Coronavirus. For other posts on this blog by Jason Mahn, click here.

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