But in the end, a boycott places a Christian squarely against something.
- AFA VP Ed Vitagliano
Why AFA uses this controversial method in the culture war
Since AFA has just announced its boycott of Target I thought it might be time to explain why our ministry has used boycotts throughout its history. After all, this remains a contentious issue among Christians. Should followers of Christ withhold their money from a company that promotes values antithetical to Scripture?
Not the customer’s fault
In its simplest form, a boycott involves the intentional withholding of money from a business. It is usually used as an instrument of protest, persuasion or even economic coercion.
On an even deeper level, however, consumers make decisions every day that create winners and losers in the marketplace. One of the rules of the business world is that it is the responsibility of a company to keep customers happy. That is how they stay in business.
If a company produces an inferior product or if a business offends the consumer, the company – and it alone – must accept responsibility for the resulting drop in sales.
It seems rather ridiculous that people have no problem when a Christian refrains from eating at a fast food establishment because it has crummy hamburgers, but when that same Christian boycotts a company because it promotes rebellion against God, the critics go ballistic.
A tool of persuasion
One such critic is Russell D. Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and a professor of Christian theology and ethics at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
A couple of years ago, Moore entered the fray when the popular coffee company Starbucks made explicit its support of efforts to legalize homosexual marriage in America. Some Christians (unaffiliated with AFA) responded with a call for a boycott.
“A boycott is a display of power, particularly of economic power,” Moore said. “The boycott shows a corporation … that the aggrieved party can hurt the company, by depriving it of revenue. … It is a contest of who has more buying power, and thus is of more value to the company. We lose that argument.”
Moore has the means confused with the goal. AFA does not primarily call for a boycott in order to hurt a company’s pocketbook. This is why AFA goes out of its way to focus boycott efforts on huge corporations, not the mom and pop grocery store on the corner.
Disney. Pepsi. Ford. Home Depot. And now Target. Such financial behemoths are virtually impervious to the “display of power” Moore cites – and AFA knows it.
Then why call the boycott? AFA uses the pocketbook to accomplish two things: Get the attention of the offending company in order to start a dialogue with the decision-makers; and get the attention of the public in order to begin a dialogue with our neighbors in the community over the main issue of contention.
This was the success of the civil rights movement and the 1955 boycott of the bus company in Montgomery, Alabama, that helped trigger it. People began to ask questions, and Christians – most notably, of course, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. – explained the evils of segregation from a biblical perspective.
Surely Prof. Moore doesn’t believe that Rosa Parks and the black community in America “lost that argument” following the boycott?
Do they work?
Of course, the bus boycott may have been an exception, and some Christians take such a pragmatic approach to boycotts. In a blog for the Christian Post, for example, media guru Phil Cooke said about the use of the boycott: “It raises plenty of money for fundraising campaigns, but as a strategy to change the culture, it simply rarely works.”
Do boycotts succeed against companies? AFA has had some tremendous successes with the use of boycotts – some of which were settled behind the scenes and thus could not be publicly touted as victories. On the other hand, some of AFA’s boycotts met with far less success.
What about changing the culture? In determining whether or not boycotts are successful, Cooke sets the bar so high that few boycotts could possibly be considered a success unless they “change the culture.”
Yet AFA has never set out to change the culture with a single boycott. Just as a culture often moves incrementally in one direction, AFA hopes to move it in the other direction one small effort at a time.
That’s a quite different standard from the one offered by Cooke. Are Christians only to participate in those efforts that always work or work most of the time, or only those that have the potential to change the entire culture? Aren’t Christians to pay attention to the spiritual principles at stake?
Is there an issue that Cooke – who is himself a Christian – finds important enough that he would boycott a business even if he knew that the company would continue its practices – i.e., that the boycott would “fail”? Would he continue patronizing the company merely because boycotts “rarely work”?
What would Jesus do?
Above all else, however, the Christian is to live life according to Scripture, and some critics of the boycott insist that it isn’t biblical.
One common argument in this vein is that Jesus never addressed the sinful conduct of the world – only the sins of God’s people (the Jews) and especially their religious leaders.
For example, Karen Covell, director of the Hollywood Prayer Network, had this to say of boycotts: “Jesus only got mad at the religious leaders – never at the people who didn’t know or claim to know Him. … I truly don’t see biblically where Jesus judged the nonbelievers.” (Emphasis in original.)
This is utter nonsense, because Jesus certainly did announce the judgment of nonbelievers.
In John 3:18, Jesus said those who did not believe in Him have “been judged already.” Why? Because “men loved the darkness rather than the light; for their deeds were evil” (vs. 19). That sounds judgmental to me.
Of course, it is true that Jesus only rarely addressed the nations outside Israel. That is because in His earthly ministry He made it clear that He “was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt. 15:24), not to the pagan world.
For the most part Jesus assigned to the church the task of confronting the world with its own sin. In fact, it is part of the Great Commission “that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (Luke 24:47).
It should go without saying that preaching repentance for the forgiveness of sins requires some mention of sin beforehand.
Jesus made it clear that the coming of the Holy Spirit would empower the church to do this. Jesus said, “And [the Holy Spirit], when He comes, will convict the world concerning sin, and righteousness, and judgment” (John 16:8).
There are many ways for the church to carry out this prophetic assignment. AFA believes boycotts are one of those ways.
Salt and light
In many ways Jesus merely assumed the wickedness of the world – and assumed that His hearers understood this as well.
That is why His followers were called to be salt and light in the world (Matt. 5:13-16). Why would Christians need to be salt unless the world was corrupt? Why would Christians need to be the light of the world if it wasn’t covered in darkness?
Christians are called to warn unbelievers that “the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience” (Eph. 5:6). Is there something wrong with indicating to sinners what exactly constitutes their disobedience?
Thus, from AFA’s perspective, boycotts are not “a display of power,” as Moore suggests, but a display of God’s righteousness.
When AFA initiated a boycott of Movie Gallery more than a decade ago, for example, it was triggered by the company’s practice of renting and selling hardcore pornographic videos.
Is it wrong for Christians to stand publically against the dissemination of pornography, with its malevolent power to corrupt the heart and destroy marriages and families? On the other hand, if it’s right to take that stand, why can’t Christians choose a boycott as the means?
Yes, the saltiness of the Christian is first evidenced by his own refusal to live according to the sinful ways of the world. Paul said, “Do not participate in the unfruitful deeds of darkness,” (Eph. 5:11).
Yet the responsibility of Christians as salt goes beyond the refusal to compromise (Rom. 12:1-2). Paul commands the believer to “even expose” such deeds of darkness (Eph. 5:11) – to uncover them, show them to be exactly what they are, and reprove them.
Naturally, a Christian must endeavor to do the right thing in the most loving way possible. We should never be arrogant and self-righteous. We don’t need to be sour and snarly either.
But in the end, a boycott places a Christian squarely against something. That is unpleasant – especially when the backlash erupts.
Whether it was Jonah crying out against the pagan city of Nineveh, Elijah challenging the corrupted people of God, or John the Baptist rebuking a sinful civil leader, the exposing of sin is one of the responsibilities of the Christian.
principles of boycotting
1. Pray about your participation. Only Scripture should bind the conscience of a Christian in this matter.
2. Keep a charitable attitude toward others who choose not to boycott.
3. Politely communicate your displeasure to the company. Let them know of your decision to boycott and why.
4. Persuade others to join in.