Why I Am a Radical Activist for All Things Evil: R.L. Stollar’s Story

CC image courtesy of Flickr, Ryan Hyde.

HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from R.L. Stollar’s personal blog. It was originally published on January 12, 2014.

I’ve never thought of myself as a radical activist. I’ve never fought for something that I thought was “evil.” What I value most in life are compassion, love, and respect. Compassion for the abused, love for my neighbor, and respect for marginalized voices. I fight for these things, so I guess in that sense I am an activist.

But somehow, over the years, I have found myself maligned by old friends, distant acquaintances, and complete strangers. I am now anathema in many circles; I am one of the dreaded homeschool “apostates.”


Because my pursuit of compassion, love, and respect led me to cross the picket lines of the culture wars. 

I followed my conscience straight to enemy encampments — to individuals in poverty, women, LGBT* individuals, and abused homeschooled kids and alumni. For that, I am a radical activist.

The funny (and sad) thing is watching people explain why I became who I am today. It’s because my parents weren’t godly enough, because I didn’t read the right apologetics books, because I wasn’t spanked hard enough and often enough, because I went to college, because maybe I read too much Karl Marx or hung out with too many feminists or had premarital sex with one too many atheists while doing coke lines in a temple erected to Baphomet.

It’s funny and sad because, no, that’s not what happened. That’s not even close to the real story.

Let me explain.


“Focus world attention on the plight of so many men and women who have been brutally silenced.”  

~ Gary Bauer


I was 13 or 14 when I first realized how messed up the world was.

I blame Christian homeschool debate.

It was the first year I did debate. The topic was changing laws on U.S. businesses relocating overseas. I got swept away into a world of conservative Christian adoration for free trade and capitalism. Enamored with the Cato Institute, I earnestly sought out arguments in favor of granting China Most Favored Nation status.

In doing so, I discovered the Tiananmen Square massacre. I read about child labor. I heard testimonies of religious persecution. I began to doubt the goodness of humanity.

Then I came across Gary Bauer.

Observation one: I am a human rights activist today because of Gary Bauer.

I know, I know. 29-year-old me is also wondering how in the world I became interested in human rights on account of the former president of the Family Research Council, an organization now classified as a hate group by the Southern Law Poverty Center. But it’s the truth.

In a conservative Christian culture obsessed with capitalism, Bauer seemed like a lone voice in the wilderness.

I started questioning the universal goodness of capitalism because of Bauer. I learned about the horrors of the arms industry and weapons export trade because of Bauer. And I started looking more earnestly into human rights abuses because of him, too. Bauer seemed to be one of the only leaders in the Religious Right calling out his peers — and the Republican party — for not taking international human rights more seriously. As a kid, it seemed to me like the guy was a true maverick, knowing no loyalty to party lines to the point of picketing Chinese President Jiang Zemin alongside Richard Gere.

Reading Gary Bauer is what ultimately led me to Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. Which led me to realize the United States has played a role in a plethora of human rights abuses, imperialism, and genocide, too. Which made me doubt the “U.S. as God’s chosen nation” narrative. And so on and so forth.

Gary Bauer inspired that. Not a leftist, not a socialist, and not an atheist.


“We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.”

~ Dietrich Bonhoeffer


A few years later, I picked up a used copy of The Cost of Discipleship at the recommendation of a Christian friend. It was like my head had been underwater my whole life and suddenly I was breathing air for the first time. Here was a gospel that was not afraid to get its hands dirty. Here was a gospel willing to leave the white Republican suburbs of my youth and do more than summer Mexico mission trips.

I was raised thinking faith was the end all of religion, that “works” were what the oft-mocked Catholics were about whereas we noble Protestants, we had the Ultimate Truth. The Ultimate Truth was faith. Well, I lived my entire life in evangelical circles and I saw the emptiness of faith without works. Yet here was Bonhoeffer, boldly breaking down those inherited assumptions. Without discipleship, he said, grace was cheap.

In other words, Christians actually do need to care.

Observation two: I became a radical because of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

I say that, and even don’t really know what that means. What does it mean to be a radical? Apparently today all you need to do to be considered a radical is call out people for racism and queerphobia. I personally consider that basic common courtesy. But no, calling people out for furthering oppression is the new radical. If so, then I guess I am a radical and no, I am not ashamed of that.

I prefer to think of radicals as people living extraordinary lives, risking body and mind to change the world. I don’t think of speaking out as extraordinary. But I also know that not speaking out is ordinary. And I learned from Bonhoeffer that to not speak is a form of speech. To not act is a form of action. 

So I refuse to be ordinary. I will speak out and I will act.


“The denunciation of injustice implies the rejection of the use of Christianity to legitimize the established order.” 

~Gustavo Gutiérrez, A Theology of Liberation


During my junior year at college, I was trying to figure out the topic of my senior thesis the following year. I knew I wanted to write about sociopolitical activism and reconcile that activism with the idea of having a personal relationship with God. So, as I have written about previously, I took the patron saint of my alma mater, Soren Kierkegaard, and compared his ideas of inwardness with the ideas of outwardness I found in the patron saint of my Christian activist youth, Bonhoeffer.

But before I settled on Bonhoeffer to contrast with Kierkegaard, a friend of mine — one of the most brilliant people I know — suggested someone I had never heard of before: Gustavo Gutiérrez. A Dominican priest, Gustavo Gutiérrez was the father of something else I had never heard of before: “liberation theology.”

I was immediately intrigued.

I picked up a copy of Gutiérrez’s Theology of Liberation, and I found one of the clearest articulations of the ideas Bonhoeffer had so profoundly — yet so abstractly — articulated. Gutiérrez made me realize that to be in the world can and must mean something. It means not only must I live a life of discipleship, but that discipleship requires more than simply “feeding the poor.” It means moving beyond platitudes and soup kitchens and coming face to face with an entire system of injustice.

To be a Christian cannot mean neutrality towards injustice.

Observation three: I learned the importance of prophetic critique from Gustavo Gutiérrez.

Ironically, Gutiérrez changed my way of thinking on every matter other than economics. Which is ironic because he’s been panned for decades by the Catholic Church for being “too Marxist.”

But it wasn’t the Marxism that hooked me. (I already doubted capitalism because of Gary Bauer). Rather, I was hooked by the call to shake the foundations of power structures. To wrest my faith from ruling orders and principalities and reclaim its revolutionary tone. Faith means a revolution of the soul, yes. But that revolution happens in a radically contextual moment: here, now, in this body, in this place, with this action, with these neighbors. Which means revolution of the soul must manifest itself beyond the soul.

Gutiérrez taught me that this revolution begins on the margins. To love your neighbor means more than calling your T-Mobile Fave 5. To love your neighbor means seeking out the margins, standing in solidarity with the marginalized.

“Marginalization” isn’t newspeak. It is the language of loving your neighbor. When you find the margins, you find God asking you, “Do you love me? Then feed my sheep. This sheep. Right now. This person. Right here.”


“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

~ Martin Luther King, Jr.


So there you have it.

I care about the rights of women, poor people, people of color, LGBT* people, and abuse victims because of Christians. I believe in human rights because of Gary Bauer. I believe in the radical power of actually living what you believe because of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. And I believe in reclaiming my faith from the hands of dehumanizing world power structures because of Gustavo Gutiérrez.

Sex, drugs, and Nietzsche — and all the other windmills at which American Christianity tilts —  don’t factor into my story.

Granted, I am not the same person I was when I was 13 or 14. Today, Gary Bauer makes me alternate between wanting to cry and wanting to rage. I have changed, I have left many foolish things behind; I am always becoming, evolving, changing. I believe life is process and I am learning to embrace process.

But one thing has not changed: my passion for human rights, fighting for justice, and seeking the shadows and the margins. That passion has only grown. But what once made me the “cool” Christian now makes me the cautionary tale, because I now refuse to draw lines in my advocacy. Because I see compassion, love, and respect extending to each and every human being.

So yes, I am a radical activist.

But I learned to be one from giants of the Christian faith.

How I Learned To Stop Being Afraid and Love Other Religions, Part One: If Satan Made Xanax, And Other Worldview Myths


HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from R.L. Stollar’s personal blog. It was originally published on July 30, 2013.


“Nothing short of a great Civil War of Values rages today throughout North America. Two sides with vastly differing and incompatible world-views are locked in a bitter conflict that permeates every level of society.”

~James Dobson and Gary Bauer, Children at Risk: The Battle for the Hearts and Minds of Our Kids, 1990


Part One: If Satan Made Xanax, And Other Worldview Myths

When I enrolled in the Eastern Classics program at St. John’s College back in 2005, I encountered many and varied responses from fellow evangelical Christians. Some proved encouraging and others not so.

The most common response, though, was: “Are you a Buddhist?”

As the months passed and the time of graduation grew closer, the question changed, but only slightly:

“Have you become a Buddhist?”

At first the question provoked but a smile. As it grew more regular, however, and as I began to know more about Eastern philosophies and religions as well as what actually occurred in the minds of the questioners, it provoked a thought process. I realized that, to many Christians I knew, “Eastern” meant “Buddhist.” And “Buddhist” meant some tranquil species of rebellion against the American Jesus — like if Satan made Xanax for the mind. I vividly remember one individual who commented that, if I were to study Eastern religions, I better not become a Buddhist: Buddhists have no emotions whereas, you know, Jesus wept.

Such comments are likely the result of ignorance regarding world religions. A good number of the people who asked this question in 2005 did not shun inquiry. They merely lacked familiarity with Buddhism. They did not know (as I did not know prior to a year of study in the Eastern Classics) that Buddhism, like Christianity, has a dizzying number of denominations, each vying for doctrinal dominion. Consequently, when someone asks me now if I agree with Buddhism, I experience great difficulty answering the question: “Which denomination?” I have to ask. I have great fondness for the emotional freedom and experience-based practices of Diamond Way Buddhism, for example, whereas I dislike the asceticism of Theravada Buddhism. American Zen Buddhism is another story.

I have thus realized, after these conversations with friends and fellow students, that the American Christian mind (maybe even the American mind) has a paltry understanding of some of the longest-standing and deeply rooted ideas of the world. American evangelicals especially do not take time to appreciate, let alone understand, a good number of their strongest opponents in the sphere of religion. Those who have taken time (seemingly not much) only do so to construct flimsy card-houses with the purpose of a surprise attack.

You have groups like Summit Ministries and Worldview Weekend, training up the next generation with nothing more than an arsenal of generalizations, simplifications, and shameless reductionism.

No one seems interested in taking the ideas of other religions at face value and learning to see any sort of beauty or value in them.

To say that other religions can be beautiful or valuable is not an exercise in relativism. But granting this beauty or value will likely suffer the fate of being interpreted as such by many of today’s “worldview” champions. The old guard of American Christianity and Christian homeschooling — Dobson and Bauer, from this post’s opening quotation, and people like Summit’s David Noebel and John Stonestreet, or homeschooling’s Kevin Swanson and Ken Ham — is terrified of anything that sounds “postmodern.”

Postmodernism is like intellectual dub step to the old guard.

In today’s evangelical culture, a defense of religion as an aesthetic and social phenomenon seems indistinct from a defense of religious pluralism and intellectual apathy. But that’s because this culture is so afraid of “liberal” arts to the point that it cannot comprehend some basic philosophical and sociological concepts. The fact is, to understand religion as an aesthetic and social phenomenon grants humanity the freedom to explore a ground to aesthetics and society that condemns, rather than condones, an unwillingness to pursue truth.

But first: what does “religion” mean? And what would it mean, that one can perceive this noun’s content as “aesthetic” and “social”?

To the evangelical culture, religion is either Christian and thus true or pagan and thus untrue. This proves a stunted understanding, however, because religion is neither one nor many truth-claims which one can either affirm or reject. Religion is no doubt a phenomenon which entails truth-claims. But it also entails much more. Religion is a complex totality of human and other elements, only one element of which is the sort of truth-claim that one can package into propositions.

We need to start seeing religion — and any particular religion — not as a mass of disembodied doctrines but as what sociologist Peter Berger calls a “world conspiracy.” “World conspiracy,” in fact, seems the best definition for religion.

What does this mean?

In The Sacred Canopy, Berger explains that,

“The condition of the human organism in the world is…characterized by a built-in instability. Man does not have a given relationship to the world. He must ongoingly establish a relationship with it.”

The world abounds with the sort of innate precariousness that a Buddhist would term as impermanence — “All things pass,” sighs Kaoru, one of the main characters in Murasaki Shikibu’s Tale of Genji. This line is almost identical to Solomon’s sentiment in Ecclesiastes.

Human and other life forms, buildings and projects, ideas and romances—these all rise and fall, constantly, perpetually, each and every day. As a result of this precariousness, human beings go about selecting structures of meaning in which they can operate. Humans construct families, work places, technology, and institutions in which to control the elements of the world that bear chaos. Out of their constructions human beings hope for an order, a society. Peter Berger says,

“Society, as objective reality, provides a world for man to inhabit. This world encompasses the biography of the individual, which unfolds as a series of events within that world”

But humans need more than order: they need to feel meaningfulness within that order. They require that order to be “ordained” in some way. Thus,

“a meaningful order, or nomos, is imposed upon the discrete experiences and meanings of individuals.”

This nomos is religion:

“Religion is that human enterprise by which a sacred cosmos is established, wherein ‘cosmos’ implies not a galaxy but order.”

This final addition to the human world-building project grants the project and its everyday objects and endeavors a sense of purpose, an all-encompassing reason for pursuing the ends of the society. Berger terms this sense of purpose or reason a “sacred canopy” cast over world-building. It is a “world conspiracy” in the sense that humans work together to give their reality a meaning:

“Religion is the audacious attempt to conceive of the entire universe as being humanly significant”

What Berger as a sociologist calls a “world conspiracy,” or “sacred canopy,” a theologian like N.T. Wright might term “worldview.” (1) Jamake Highwater, a historian and philosopher of sexuality, preferred the term “mythology” in his 1991 book Myth and Sexuality:

“All human beliefs and activities spring from an underlying mythology—those metaphors, informing imageries, and paradigms which deeply influence every aspect of our lives and which determine our attitudes about reality—about the world and about ourselves: good and evil, normalcy and abnormalcy, fact and fiction, justice and injustice, beauty and ugliness, power and powerlessness.”

Whether one prefers world conspiracy, sacred canopy, worldview, or mythology as a descriptive, the common factor among the ideas is that human being itself contains within it a hope and passion for carving out a home in a hostile existence.

This hope and passion — and all its nuances, quirks, failures, and successes — is the stuff of religion.


Part Two: When Buddhism Saved My Life >