Many years ago, I had an online conversation with a woman who was a devout, practicing Catholic.
She was also a polyamorous, pro-choice sex activist in a live-in relationship with her boyfriend, to whom she was not married.
When I asked her about the contradiction between these two things, she said that she recognized that Catholicism was behind the times on issues like women’s rights and nontraditional relationships, but that she remained Catholic because she wanted to change the Church from within.
I was reminded of that conversation recently when i had another online conversation with a guy who claims to be pro-gay rights and pro-gay marriage, who professes horror at the Republican Party’s treatment of women, who says he is appalled at the way the Republican party uses fear of immigrants and sexual minorities to raise votes, and who says that anti-Muslim sentiment is morally wrong…but who is still a member of the Republican Party and plans to vote the Republican ticket this November.
I asked him how he can, in good conscience, be a part of an organization whose values are so antithetical to his own. He said the same thing: “I want to change the Republican party from within.”
He and the woman I talked to all those years ago had one other thing in common besides saying they wanted to change the groups to which they belonged from within: They were both rather thin on details about what work they were willing to do to make that happen.
Both of them said they want to change these groups from within, but neither one of them was working to make that happen.
Which, in my book, is dishonest.
Changing a large, entrenched organization from within is hard. It requires serious work and serious commitment. It requires sacrifice. If you are a pro-life Catholic or a pro-immigration, pro-gay Republican, you will suffer if you make those beliefs known. You will face condemnation. You will face ostracism.
Working to change an organization takes dedication. If you actually want to change a political party, that means getting involved, deeply. It means showing up at the party’s national convention. It means becoming a delegate or an activist. It means voicing objections when the party attempts to make a platform plank out of hate and fear.
If you actually want to change the Catholic Church, that means becoming part of the church hierarchy. It means going to seminary. It means becoming a respected theologian and integrating yourself into the church’s structure.
Steering a ship requires getting on deck and putting your hand on the wheel.
Neither of the people I spoke to, all these years apart, were doing any of these things. Just the opposite, they were doing exactly what the rank and file are expected to do: go to church, tithe, vote in a straight line for every name with an (R) after it.
This is not how you change a group from within. This is how you signal the group that what it is doing is working.
It does no good to toe the line while secretly disagreeing within the privacy of your own head. If you do that while claiming to be “working for change from within,” you’re being dishonest. You’re running away from the genuine hard work and the real social cost of change.
You do not fight segregation by docilely sitting at the back of the bus like you’re told, then grumbling about it on the Internet. You fight segregation by sitting at the front of the bus, getting arrested, and inspiring others to do the same.
“I am changing things from within” is, all too often, a bullshit justification, a wimpy self-rationalization for complicity in atrocity. If you can not point to direct, tangible things you are doing to create that change, even when–especially when!–it costs you, you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem. You are not a force for change; you are a participant in the very structures you claim to want to change.
No bullshit, no evasion: if you’re working to change the world, ask yourself, what have I done to make that happen?