#FFWgr2018: Am I a writer or an advocate — or both?

Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.

1 John 3:18 (New International Version)

That Bible verse came to my mind Saturday night at the Festival of Faith & Writing after listening to author Jen Hatmaker and environmental activist and author Bill McKibben. (Only at Calvin could you hear both of those people on the same day — one of the many reasons I adore my alma mater!)

During her talk, Hatmaker praised writers as “word-builders,” saying they are needed to counteract “this world of deconstructionists, tearing down common ground that we used to share” by “building communities and onroads to faith with words.”

She encouraged the audience to be advocates through their writing, especially in light of current political and social issues in the U.S.

“The world is so full of garbage words right now. We are part of the resistance to the garbage,” Hatmaker said. “Words matter. When hateful words turn into policy, that matters.”

Although writers tend to be a solitary bunch, she said they need to overcome that, for other people’s sake.

“We’re not just a bunch of weirdos in our writing caves,” Hatmaker said. “We don’t get to opt out. It is our responsibility to speak out for our maligned neighbors.”

For her, that has meant being “an ally” of LGBTQ people and people of color, taking some theological and political stances that caused “tension with white Christian America.” When it comes to her writing, “I’m not speaking on [other people’s] behalf. I’m just their friend.”

As I listened to Hatmaker (and laughed a lot — she is incredibly funny), I wondered whether I needed to be an advocate in my writing as well — something I have usually shied away from. Since my background is in news journalism, I’ve sought to be as neutral as possible unless I’m writing an opinion piece. Washington Post religion reporter Sarah Pulliam Bailey said during a panel discussion Saturday on civil discourse that journalists “don’t have to give answers.” Instead, she just listens and asks questions — and that suffices.

I do think Hatmaker is right about the power of words to shape reality and the necessity of using them for constructive purposes. (The Book of Proverbs agrees, and folk musicians such as Festival performer Carrie Newcomer represent another great tradition of words that can bring about change.) But, as the writer of 1 John notes, words on their own may not always be sufficient. In his talk, McKibben said that when he saw the very human consequences of Western pollution in Bangladesh, “it felt obscene to just write about it.” And since the books he had written about climate change and other environmental threats didn’t seem to be convincing people, he turned to nonviolent movements and organizing, although he continues to write.

Ultimately, I think the trick for a writer is to find balance — know when to be an advocate, when to let other people speak, when to speak up yourself and when to act. Together, words and actions are a powerful combination — and when they’re used in truth, the world can’t help but benefit.

Postscript, April 22: Thyra VanKeeken, a pastor in Canada, has some good thoughts on the power of words at the Christian Reformed Church’s Do Justice blog. (The CRC is the denomination Calvin is affiliated with.)