TWI’s Missio had the privilege of talking with Tyler Wigg-Stevenson about his book, The World Is Not Ours to Save (IVP, 2013) in which he examines the common activist instinct that many of us have to “save the world,” but which easily devolves into disillusionment and spiritual “slacktivism.” With his life in activism and other lives as lenses, Wigg-Stevenson moves the reader through the pages of Scripture to show how God is the one at work saving the world and that we have a vocational role to play in it. Freed from the burden of a false, narcissistic messianism, we can seek to do good in a world secure in the knowledge that God is ably at work, saving it and redeeming it as his own. 

In this conversation, we talk with Tyler about how his book has been received in the last year, and his take on common misconceptions about the idea of vocation. He also reveals below what is in store for the Two Futures Project, the state of nuclear weapons disarmament policy, as well as his latest Barnes Frames book, co-authored with Carol Howard Merritt, on the prevalent culture of violence in the United States.

TWI: Your book – The World Is Not Ours to Save [TWINOTS] – came out about a year ago. Reflect on the past year for us—conversations you’ve had about the book, how reviewers and readers have engaged the topic, and perhaps share any helpful criticisms you’ve received.

TWS: The past year has been interesting, and the book’s success continues by the slow burn of word-of-mouth. I’ll hear that someone is reading it in a small group, or it’s been assigned for a college course.

As far as its critical reception, I’ve been gratified to see that both my conservative and my liberal friends really like the book, and that it’s been able to speak to two different “camps.” I was trying to write about what I see as a cultural disposition of a certain strain of Christianity in the United States, which I think is true both on the liberal and conservative sides.

This question is a bit like that awkward job interview question: What are your greatest weaknesses? I’m not aware of major, pointed criticisms of the book, but there have been some good critiques. The most salient would be the omission of practical advice for a church to implement the ideas in the book, or how a church is to internalize the critique in a serious way. I think that’s a legitimate question, and answering it would probably require another book.

Yet I really do have the conviction that the final chapter to this and many other books has to be written by the reader. The usefulness of the material in my book hinges on the degree to which a reader is able to incarnate it. So, no, there’s no “TWINOTS” church planting kit, or something like that. It would have been good, though, to have some more reflection on what this all looks like concretely in churches.

TWI: Early on in the book, you tell your own story of becoming a Christian activist. I’m interested in that personal narrative, especially that you were born to a family that was already quite engaged on questions of nuclear weapons proliferation, making it a seemingly natural next step for you to embrace this issue as well. How much of this book represents a conversion of that vocation for you?

TWS: That’s an interesting way of putting it – “the conversion of a vocation.” I think I have to answer “yes” and “no” to that question. The reason for “no” is that, while it’s true that I was raised in a context in which, as a child of the 1980s, I was probably more aware of the dangers of nuclear weapons than most, my parents were not professional activists. They were a schoolteacher and a computer programmer — typical middle-class Americans that had a profound ethical engagement to the cause. But they had left that work by the time I went to college in the mid-1990s because, frankly, nobody was afraid of nuclear weapons anymore.

Depending on how you look at it, my “return” to this field is either coincidental or serendipitous and providential. I didn’t really have that as a plan for my life. In fact, almost the reverse is true.

This story will reveal what I mean. One of the more stinging experiences I had in my career came shortly after I had finished college and was beginning to get more involved in activism. I had written to a former professor for his support for a particular project, and he wrote back and, in essence, said, “I don’t know why I would listen to you. You were never an activist in college, and you really are kind of a Johnny-come-lately to this issue. Why would I want to do anything for you?” It was harsh, but it wasn’t inaccurate. I wasn’t engaged in activism in college, let alone nuclear activism. My work was a coming home of sorts, but more like coming home after being an expatriate for a long time. So, no, I didn’t take the torch from my parents; that part was unsought.

The part that can answer “yes” to the question also coincides with a personal criticism that I would level at the book: To what extent am I just working through my own theological and personal demons, and projecting them onto a generation? That’s a totally legitimate thing to say back to the book. But because it has resonated with readers, I feel that maybe I’m not alone in this wrestling. Still, much of my thinking is grounded in my own personal experience.

My own conversion—when I heard the voice of God—spoke directly to where I had been coming from, how I imagined my place in the world, what I was supposed to do, and how I was supposed to be. Everything since has been an outworking of that. The movement was from a standard of efficacy to one of fidelity. Those standards are not necessarily opposed to each other, but they are different benchmarks. That’s really how I have thought of my coming to faith, as a movement from efficacy to fidelity. It changes how one understands the world, even how one makes sense of history as tragedy, and so on. It’s all a working out of that movement. To that extent, yes, it is very much a story about the conversion of that kind of vocation, and what it means to live out one’s faith in public.

TWI: A lot of your book centers around the concept of vocation. What would you say are common misconceptions prevalent within Christian culture today about vocation?

TWS: The old idea that there’s a pyramid of vocations is as true now as when it was, say, perceived as better to be an overseas missionary than a pastor, and better a pastor than a businessman, and better a businessman than something else. There is a similar sense that there are certain callings that are intrinsically nobler than others, and it seriously conflates occupation and vocation. Some of the best learning I’ve done on this is from friends whose vocation is wholly distinct from what they do to put food on the table.

My belief is that the biggest misconception about vocation is that there are multiple vocations. I think that the vocation of the Christian is to become like Jesus. Period. The end. Full stop. No further detail needed.

But, obviously, more detail is needed because none of us is going to become a first-century Jewish rabbi who also happens to be the natural-born Son of God. So what does Christ-conformity look like? We’ve got instructions throughout the New Testament, but the key is that they are dispositional. There’s nothing in it that suggests a pyramid; that “to be a priest is better than being a money-changer.” It does ask of us, though, How are you what you are? And we are told that those who have much should be generous; that those who can teach, should teach; and that if you can offer hospitality, do so.

It’s kenosis (cf. Phil 2.7): everything is gift and everything is meant to be given. I try to get at this outpouring and self-emptying in chapter 10 of TWINOTS by offering a self-assessment. It’s not a quiz, like a spiritual gifts tests, but it’s an attempt to get at the question, “Who am I? If I am constituted as gift, then what are my gifts?” Let’s be honest about them. And then I ask, “How I can pour those gifts out?” I think that focus is important. The tightrope to walk, then, is between the pyramid of vocations on the one hand and an utter pietism on the other that thinks this is all a matter of the mind and heart and there aren’t real ramifications to these gifts being worked out in daily life.

TWI: One of the many people you introduce your readers to in TWINOTS is Daoud Nasser. You met him on a visit to his farm. Tell us about Daoud, and how he incarnates many of the ideas you write about in your book.

TWS: I met Daoud on a trip organized by World Vision and The Telos Group to Israel and Palestine. We visited various sites in Israel and Palestine, which was a tremendous privilege and incredibly eye opening, for I was vastly underequipped to wrestle with that conflict intelligently. I thanked the people involved in that trip in the acknowledgements of my book, and let me thank them again here.

Near the end of our trip, we visited Daoud Nasser’s farm. Briefly, for those who don’t know, Daoud is a farmer who lives on the last hilltop outside Bethlehem in the West Bank that is Palestinian-owned. The rest have been taken over by Israeli settlers, and Daoud’s hilltop is surrounded by hilltop settlements. The only reason he still has control over his land is by a twist of wisdom and luck. His grandfather had the Ottoman-issued papers for the land, which was the legally required burden of proof for a Palestinian to keep property in certain contested areas of Israel. The Israeli government can’t technically take it away from him, but some people have been trying to make life as miserable as possible for him and to cut him off from the outside world.

Daoud’s response has been utterly Martin Luther King-like in its nonviolent ethos. He has resolved to choose not to be enemies with those who would make him their enemy. The Nasser family is not allowed to have any power or water lines to the property – those have all been cut off – and there’s a demolition order on every building on his property, so they live in caves. (That sounds rather primitive, but they have made it quite lovely and homey. But still, people like to live above ground.) They have this remarkable place where they have established a self-sufficient farm, but it’s a self-sufficiency that reaches outward and works for peace.

Visiting Daoud’s farm comes in the chapter where I’m trying to get at how our activist sensibilities often play out in what we perceive as a dualistic environment. That is to say, we come to identify that the problem is “those people doing bad things,” and if we could eradicate the problem, then good would triumph.

I think that’s a deficient view of the fall. Every college student has the Gandhi quote—probably a misattribution—on their dorm room wall, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” But I adhere to the Calvinist inversion of that sentiment, which is, “I’m what’s wrong with the world.” So if I really want to get rid of the evil in the world, it would include getting rid of me. I’m complicit in the problems that I seek to solve.

That doesn’t mean there’s no place for oppositional justice. There are people who do bad things, and there is room for the procedures of law to offer an approximation of justice on earth. I am not suggesting any kind moral relativism here, that somehow all of us are as bad as every other one of us. But to acknowledge that larger truth about our own sinfully complicit condition alters the way we approach things.

Daoud really incarnates this. The logic he lives by is, if Christ is his friend, then who really can be his enemy? Because to whom has Christ refused to extend that hand of friendship? The answer is no one; there is no one to whom Christ wouldn’t do that to and for. I remember standing there at Daoud’s farm near an American pastor of a very famous church who said, with tears in his eyes, “This is the closest thing to the kingdom of God I’ve ever seen.” He said what we were all thinking.

TWI: In 2011, you and your wife moved to Toronto, Ontario, for her work as a professor of theology, and you are at work there as well. Is this the first time you’ve lived outside of the U.S.? And how has living outside of the U.S. influenced the way you see American culture or contributing to the common good there?

TWS: It’s not the first time I’ve lived outside the United States. My wife and I lived in the U.K. during our first year of marriage. She’s British by birth and lived in Canada starting in her later childhood. So, no, it hasn’t radically eye opening. But, has it made me more cosmopolitan, or more theologically cosmopolitan? Again, I don’t think it’s radically shifted the lens with which I engage the world. We’re still pretty close to the U.S., and I do a lot of work there.

But for anyone who is engaged in American public life, there’s a din – a cacophony – that never stops. When you go to New York or especially to Washington, D.C., it’s like entering a heavy metal concert and you realize that you have to shout to be heard. You actually begin to acclimate to it, and you start shouting, as if that’s a normal volume of speaking. That din really recedes when you leave, I’ve found. It’s calming to be away from that noise.

Vocationally speaking—now I’ll commit the error I identified earlier and conflate my occupation with my vocation—my five years before coming Canada involved working hard on the Two Futures Project, my anti-nuclear work. That was exclusively America-focused, largely focused on American evangelicals and other American Christians. When I came to Canada, I had to make some hard choices, and one of those was dialing back that work a bit. There’s something really untoward, I think, about trying to change a political system of a country that you aren’t primarily living in, or that you haven’t been exiled from, for instance.

But this move has given me more opportunity to shift my attention to the World Evangelical Alliance, where I chair their Global Task Force on Nuclear Weapons. Being out of the United States has enabled and positioned me to focus more on that work.

TWI: What is the current work of the Two Futures Project then? Does it still exist?

TWS: [Laughter.] It does exist! But I should say something about that.

One of the things that I learned through the Two Futures Project [2FP] was my capacities as a leader. For reasons both external and internal, it was challenging to grow the organization to a reality bigger than my personality. Let me be very clear: There were people who worked with and for 2FP who were essential to every achievement we had. But I wasn’t able to get it to a place where the organization could engage beyond my own arm-span. I just wasn’t mature enough to equip others to do the kind of work I was able to do. Or maybe the field of nuclear disarmament, with its very particular sets of expertise, just wasn’t big enough. Or some combination of the two. But it was always a sadness of mine that I couldn’t do more, because we did have some victories, and I was proud of them.

By way of a teaser, there is something in the works for 2FP. A formal announcement will be forthcoming, but the gist is that I’m hoping to give the organization away. A friend of mine has approached me about using the 2FP website – which has been down for a bit – as a platform for young Christian activists to engage on nuclear weapons. It will be a place for them to speak, think, work, and engage. I love this idea, of being able to turn it over and offer advice where helpful, but basically to let people do what they will with it. I’m hopeful to be able to announce that and invite participation with it in the not too distant future.

TWI: That’s exciting news. Thanks for sharing it with us. So, can you give us a quick briefing on the state of nuclear weapons disarmament to date?

TWS: It’s a bit stagnant right now. In my observation nuclear politics moves in a sine wave, with a very long wavelength. When I was engaging anew in 2007, there was more activity, especially catalyzed by an op-ed from some former Cold Warriors advocating disarmament, which really changed the state of play. When President Obama coming to office, he spoke enthusiastically about disarmament and raised a lot of hopes. There was a new START treaty in question—a modest treaty, but a treaty nonetheless, which was an important, irreversible, and verifiable step to reducing nuclear stockpiles.

In 2011, the wave began to come back down. Now, all points of engagement on nuclear weapons in the policy sphere largely hinge on budget commitments: namely, what are we going to commit to building in the next ten, twenty, or thirty years, and questions about tactical situations like Iran and North Korea. As a professional activist, line items in a budget or tactical situations are not great opportunities for grassroots public engagement. I mean, the public can say broadly, “No War with Iran,” which is important, but beyond that, it’s not easy to know how to resolve or engage it.

On the international level, the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty [NPT] is reviewed every five years, with the next review in 2015. The efforts to prepare the agenda are already well underway. The NPT, as it’s called, is the backbone of the international nonproliferation regime, which is the regime that prevents the spread of nuclear weapons among counties and the numeric growth within nuclear weapons arsenals. At the core of the NPT is a promise that nuclear weapons states will eventually get rid of their nuclear weapons. The NPT and its regime is slowly unraveling as the non-nuclear states see that virtually every nuclear weapons state is modernizing and upgrading their arsenals. They don’t have any intention of getting rid of these arsenals. The participation of non-nuclear states in the regime is perfectly voluntary; they can back out at any time. That’s what North Korea did. It will be disastrous if it falls apart.

That contention is at the core of the Two Futures Project. What people see as the status quo—a few nuclear weapons powers sustaining the peace and overseeing a world where most other nations don’t have nuclear weapons—is unsustainable. We will either see an equilibrium of zero nuclear weapons and zero nuclear weapons states, or many nuclear weapon states but probably with smaller arsenals than we see today. When you have many nuclear states, there’s no way to prevent their use over the long term. It will happen, by accident or by intention. I think it was N.T. Wright that said something like, “I’m neither an optimist nor a pessimist; I believe in the resurrection.” I’ll cloak myself in that mantle, all the while acknowledging that I’m pretty pessimistic. Absent significant change, I think we are headed into more dangerous territory. I think nuclear weapons will be used, and we have no idea what’s on the far side of that.

TWI: What are you doing now? Do I understand correctly that you are currently pursuing doctoral studies? If so, I’m assuming your next book will be your dissertation.

TWS: I am in a doctoral program, but actually “my next book” just came out. Carol Howard Merritt and I both contributed to a Barna Frames book entitled Fighting for Peace: Your Role in a Culture Too Comfortable with Violence, part of the same series as TWI’s own Kate Harris’s book, Wonder Women.

But, yes, my next big project is my dissertation. My research interest is in secularity and a theological re-conceiving of what the secular means. I’m in my comps phase, so I’ll just leave it at for now.

TWI: Thank you, Tyler Wigg-Stevenson, for talking with us today.

TWS: Thank you.