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Winter Books

Worried author offers advice on future of social activism

By Paul Rogat Loeb
St Martin’s Press, 355 pages, $15.95
To order: 1-800-221-7945


Well, that settles it. If social activism is going to have any kind of future, the church will have to be an integral part. Paul Loeb has been an activist for 30 years. He’s seen a lot. And he’s worried. He’s written a book, mildly hortatory in nature, on what is required for social activism, what it is up against and how we might respond to our deteriorating situation.

Loeb has tried to write an encouraging book, but he is a realist who knows how intimidating the task of political and social involvement is. He begins with some fine stories of people who overcame great obstacles and triumphed. One of his favorites is Virginia Ramirez of San Antonio, who became outraged when a neighbor froze to death because her dilapidated house wouldn’t hold heat. Ramirez was already upset about the streets and even more so about the education her children were getting. She joined COPS (Communities Organized for Public Service) and, after initial frustration, mobilized, organized, worked tirelessly, exposed corruption, testified before the city council and ended up receiving an award from the Clinton-Gore administration for her public service.

It doesn’t always end this way. Loeb talks a great deal about the difficulties in social activism. The social activist faces long hours, unpleasant work, well-organized opposition from people with honed skills and deep pockets. And that’s from the outside. From the inside, dissension within one’s own group about what to do and how to do it can be worse.

The author devotes much of the book to advice, but his advice is moral, not technical. His stories have an abstract character about them because they are told from the point of view of the moral qualities displayed rather than the political cunning or strategies used.

His moral advice is accurate but, I think, flawed. He urges activists to work terribly hard for a cause they passionately believe in while seeing the opposite positions with clarity and objectivity. He suggests they should frequently settle for short-term and partial victories. He asserts that celebration is necessary but seldom will be spontaneous because the glorious final triumph seldom comes.

Many NCR readers will finish the book with a vague hollow feeling. Loeb must have a substantial spirituality to have hung in there for more than a quarter-century, but he does not mention it. Instead, he moralizes and reverts to will power. When he talks about the uncertainty of our age, he says bluntly, “The cure for doubt isn’t certainty, it’s commitment.”

He makes an eloquent plea for forgiveness, first of the people we work with and then of the people and institutions we work against. He’s absolutely right. His description of the need for, the value and role of community is some of the most eloquent I’ve seen outside religious life.

But where does one go for moral heroism, community support, an emphasis on forgiveness and a mandate for social change? If, as Loeb assumes, it comes from the moral heroism of a few individuals, and we must have more, then we’re really in for hard times. He’s worried.

If only we had some institution that embodied these things. If an institution had a transcendent ideal, like the Kingdom of God, a central doctrine of forgiveness, a supportive community, a way of celebrating small triumphs, perhaps a ritual, and a spiritual tradition that nourished moral heroism, why, we could change the world.

It’s no wonder Loeb is worried.

Clarence Thomson is a freelance writer and lecturer and one of the nation’s foremost enneagram experts.

National Catholic Reporter, November 5, 1999