Shaking the System: What I Learned from the Great American Reform Movements by Tim Stafford


George Santayana famously said that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. Recently, John Tiersma-Watson, one of the missionaries that Stone Hill Church supports, drew my attention to Shaking the System. Written by Tim Stafford, senior writer for Christianity Today, it is a book that strives to heed Santayana's advice by learning from Christians of the past who engaged in activist movements.

When Stafford himself was a college student during the Vietnam War, a pastor advised him not to waste his time on social activism but to focus on saving souls. That pastor was typical of an entire generation of evangelicals, especially white evangelicals, who saw activism as a distraction from the gospel.

That attitude is changing today, but many American churches today have no institutional memory of Christian activism in our country’s history. Stafford aims to fill that gap. The strongest point of the book is its well-chosen and engagingly narrated historical examples, featuring fascinating people from various reform movements such as Theodore Weld (abolitionism), Carrie Nation (temperance), and Bob Moses (civil rights).

Stafford carefully describes the promises and pitfalls of various options facing the would-be activist. For example, he shows how easy it is for avowedly non-violent activist movements to unwittingly slip into violence, and how alliances with political leaders so often lead to compromise and betrayal. These are lessons we could well apply to the many social upheavals of today. 

If the book has a weakness, it is Stafford’s treatment of truth. Nowhere does the author state that truth is revealed to us by God through Jesus Christ; instead, he refers to "truth that you believe in your gut." But what if your gut and my gut disagree? Who is right? Stafford does not address this problem.

Nevertheless, I believe that Stafford has done the Christian community a great service; studying his book will certainly help churches today pursue social activism more thoughtfully and effectively.

Read Tim’s full-length review of Shaking the System here.

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