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

Holed up in the Applied Electronics Laboratory on the Stanford campus with several hundred other students, Stafford protested the secret research being done by the Defense Department to advance the Vietnam War. Though his motivations, as he admits, were at least partially selfish (he didn't want to go to war!), his half-hearted decision to step into the fast moving current of protest proved to be the beginning of a life long pursuit--a pursuit to change the world.

Stafford is a senior writer for Christianity Today and the author of a number of books. But it seems the moniker "activist" fits him better than any job title. Countless hours volunteering in soup kitchens, pioneering outreach movements in Africa, serving on mission committees at churches, chairing boards of non-profit organizations, writing letters to congressmen - these are the activities that punctuate Tim Stafford's life.

His experience qualifies him to write a book like this. Unlike experts of our own day who often loom high above the fray, pontificating from their ivory towers, Stafford situates himself in the middle of the muck and madness. He has consistently chosen to move toward the hurt and the heartache in this world, to hope against hope that things can be different...that things can be better. That's why he writes, no doubt, Shaking the System.

The book is historical, but it's not a history. Stafford is not so much interested in getting the record right, though he does a fine job recounting the important details and turning points in the great American reform movements. Rather, he is more interested in what the historical record teaches us about the successes and failures of those who strive for social, political, and moral change. In Shaking the System, Stafford guides us through the sorted details of abolition, prohibition, civil rights, and women's suffrage but always with an eye to the general principles and patterns that each movement share in common. These principles and patterns are then used to inform and train up would-be activists for the work of reform.

Great effort is expended to highlight the Christian moorings which lay at the foundation of many American reform movements, but with clear recognition that not everything that was thought, believed, or done within these movements was consistently Christian. As Stafford makes plain, movements often drift from their founding vision and negative, unintended consequences are often the product. Nevertheless, it was evangelicals who understood resistance to evil and promotion of good as a natural expression of their Faith, and so the foundation of activism in America has typically taken on a peculiarly Christian flavor, though it may not taste particularly Christian in the end.

It's important to understand that Shaking the System is written by an activist for activists. At its best moments, Shaking the System is a training manual for those who set out to change the world--particularly for those who have passed through the initial enthusiasm of activism and have come to understand that lasting change takes more than passion and bluster. Stafford's desire is to forge a bold, historically informed consciousness among would-be activists, so that they might avoid the pitfalls that lead to failure and make wiser choices which have a higher likely hood of bringing about long term change.

One thing that struck me in reading this book is how we need good, sustained reflection on the ways and means of reformation. In each of the reform movements in question, fundamental incongruity existed between the medium and the message at different times along the way. Things may have started out right, but they went awry in no time flat. In fact, there are times in each of the reform movements when Christian truth was employed in ways that was more akin to Nietzsche or Capitalism than Christianity.

It's so important that Christians learn not to assume the means and mechanisms of the world to bring about the kind of change they want to see. This was the temptation the disciples constantly put before Christ during his earthly ministry; it's why Peter drew his sword and cut off the ear of a Roman centurion the night Christ was betrayed. "When are you going to overthrow the Romans and set up your Kingdom, Jesus?" What his disciples didn't realize, and maybe we have failed to realize this too, is that Jesus was setting up his kingdom all along - he was moving in obedience toward the cross with every word he spoke and every step he took. The cross, lest we forget, is not just a message we're saved by, it is the way we live. The cross, in other words, is its own reformation.

Tim Stafford / Downers Grove: IVP, 2007
Review by Nate Shurden, Assistant to the Editorial Director