Voluntary Submission: The Art of Becoming Bigger than Yourself

Our culture (both within and without the church) regularly misrepresents the concept and practice of submission. Most people believe submission only ever involves a restriction of the will. Some endorse this restriction as the engine of sanctification (“I have to stop doing what I want and submit to God’s will for me”). Others disparage it as an instrument of authoritarianism (“Submission is about keeping women barefoot in the kitchen”). But nearly all of us believe submission necessarily opposes freedom and individual expression.

In contrast to Western liberty myths, biblical submission doesn’t turn humans into automatons. And, on the other hand, free individual expression can severely (perhaps ironically) constrain individual capacity.

The Self-Defeating Freedom to Choose

Most of us want the freedom to choose what we think is best for ourselves. Additionally, we want to believe we know what’s best for ourselves. Most of us, from our youngest days even, firmly believe that no one else could possibly possess the knowledge or affection we have of and for our own selves, and we consequently believe we are the most qualified arbiters of our choices.

Even small children, quite apparently the most helpless and ignorant of all humans, generally refuse to be convinced that their quite apparently more competent and experienced parents know better about anything. Children remain quite impervious to the reality that, despite all appearances to the contrary, it actually is in their best interest to forego the exquisite joys of jabbing into the electrical socket with a screwdriver, twirling heedlessly in the middle of a busy street, or eating all of their Halloween candy the very night they acquire it.

Once we get a bit older, and perhaps start to raise some stubborn children who look and act just like we once did, we recognize just how foolish we were as children. Yet, in our purported maturity, we don’t recognize how foolish we still are as adults. We continue to think we know better than anyone else what’s best for us. And the flat fact is we regularly don’t—especially where it matters most.

If you spend enough time with addicts (which is another way of saying, “If you spend enough time with people”), you begin to realize a few things:

  1. Most people readily admit they often don’t know what is good for them.
  2. Most people want and do things (sometimes compulsively) that they fully recognize are bad for them.
  3. And yet, in spite of this, almost no one is willing to give up “control” over any of his decisions.

Ironically, the unwillingness to give up the illusion of control ends up enslaving most people to their basest longings and most unproductive habits. But, even knowing this, most of us still act like we know what’s best for us. Why? We all think we’re right.

We All Think We’re Right

It’s a fact. You can’t get around it. Whatever you believe at any given moment on any given topic is what you think is the best and most right thing to believe. Otherwise, of course, you would cease to believe it. That’s why the biblical conception of repentance (metanoia—change of mind/heart) refers to nothing short of a miracle. True repentance requires supernatural intervention. Left to our own devices, none of us would change our minds about anything. I don’t mean that we wouldn’t learn new things following the track of what we already believed (i.e., confirmation bias). I mean that, on our own, not a single one of us would ever learn to love what we currently hate or hate what we currently love. What we love, we think is actually superior. What we hate, we think is actually inferior.

Things get tricky here though because most people think repentance has to do with a change of thinking when it has more to do with a change of affections. Taste has more to do with who you really are than thought does. As I’ve written elsewhere, we sin because we have bad taste. A person can say, “I think it’s wrong to murder” and yet still murder or at least consider murder as one choice among many (and possibly not the worst option of the bunch). But a person who has a deeply ingrained hatred and disgust for murder will avoid it just about universally without ever having to reason through his decision (if you can even call it that). It’s not that a person who hates cargo shorts decides not to wear them. Cargo shorts just don’t even enter the argument.

In the same way, final righteousness will not depend on a carefully reasoned rubric for faithful decisions, but rather a natural outworking of righteous affections. Repentance, then, is a change of affections that produces a change of identity that produces a change of affections that produces a change of … (you get the idea).

Like a Leopard Changing His Spots

But how do you learn to love something you don’t currently love or hate something you currently long for? It seems about as impossible as a leopard changing his spots (Jer. 13:23). How do you change your tastes?

Well, consider your culinary taste. Some people do not like the taste of black licorice, for instance. I know a few of these people, and when I offer them salty, hard black licorice (which I love) they have trouble hiding their disgust. We all have foods we love and foods we hate, and most of us would prefer not to challenge those preferences.

After all, how would a person change his taste? As in, if you hated black licorice, how could you learn to love it? There is really only one way: by eating, and trying to enjoy, black licorice voluntarily.

And that voluntarily is essential. If you hate black licorice, and I were to force-feed it to you, I would only be reinforcing your repugnance. If anything, I would be sealing your prevailing tastes. A change of taste requires a voluntary change of behavior.

Typically, when we think of changing our tastes in repentance, we think about learning to hate the sinful things we once loved. We don’t usually consider that repentance also involves learning to love the righteous things we once hated. The only way to gain a taste for something is to keep tasting it voluntarily, and likewise, the only way to gain a love for righteousness is to keep practicing it voluntarily.

So, finally, we come back to submission. Voluntary submission is God’s prescribed avenue for developing new tastes and new states of mind. We obviously need those. Because we are ignorant and wrong. Like a child confessing ignorance to his parents, we say to God, “I don’t know what’s best for me. I believe you know better than I do, and I also trust that you have my best interest in mind. I am going to try my best to do what you ask. I will act as if it is best until I believe it is best. In fact, I will act like it is best in order to believe it is best.”

In this way, voluntary submission to God becomes an expansion of the will, rather than a restriction of it. Rather than being enslaved to whatever limited apparatus we presently contain within ourselves, voluntary submission allows us to access the mental/spiritual reservoirs that lie beyond us. The person who practices voluntary submission is working regularly to become bigger than himself.

But here’s where things get even trickier, because submitting to God almost always involves submitting to other people.

Submitting to People is Hard

And submitting to other people is very difficult. Like us, other people regularly make mistakes and overlook important information, and that makes it difficult for us to ever trust that other people know better than we do.

Recently, I had a discussion with a Christian friend of mine who is addicted to alcohol. I and his other friends have told him countless times that he should be working toward quitting alcohol altogether, but he is convinced that he can control his use over time with enough effort. He wants to replace drunkenness with moderation. His friends, nearly all of them, think abstinence would be a more prudent goal. In response to that, he told me, “I’m not willing to submit myself to your rules.” I said, “Are you willing to submit to anyone?” He replied, “Only God.”

Reflect for a moment on the powerful deception of that declaration: “I will submit to God alone.” One of the greatest lies deceiving the American church is that one can submit to God without submitting to other people. Like faith without works, submission to God that refuses submission to others is dead. I wager that most of the time, we want to “keep it between us and God” because we fear men more than we fear God. In fact, one might say there is a subtle atheism involved in the Protestant distortion of individual conscience that has more in common with Tupac’s “Only God can judge me” than Luther’s “Here I stand.”

The implication is that God won’t judge you. Perhaps because you believe he doesn’t actually exist. Think about it. How stupid do you have to be to say, “If I’m wrong and deserve to be disciplined, I’d rather be disciplined directly by the all-powerful Creator of the universe than have to deal with his representatives on earth who have far smaller capacity to harm me.” True fear of God makes us grateful to submit to his servants.

The author of Hebrews warns against the foolish insistence to be judged directly by God:

Anyone who has set aside the Law of Moses dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much severer punishment do you think he will deserve who has trampled under foot the Son of God, and has regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has insulted the Spirit of grace? (Heb. 10:28–29)

Even Job, about whom God said, “there is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man” (Job 1:8), could not stand or speak in a hearing with God.

Submission to our brothers and sisters is therefore a means of grace. By submitting ourselves to the Law of Moses (administered by men and confirmed by human witnesses), we avoid the wrath of the Son of God.

Paul encapsulates these truths in the statement: “Submit yourselves to one another in the fear of Christ” (Eph. 5:21). The reality is that God commanded us to submit to one another, so you can’t actually submit to him without submitting to others.

Two Kinds of Submission

The only kind of submission that expands the will rather than constrains it is voluntary submission. This is the only kind of submission God recommends. Involuntary submission, the kind most people think of if they consider the word, is not transformative. Like I said, if I force you to eat black licorice, I may submit you to my will (through force or coercion), but I will not have reached your tastes (heart/mind) in the process.

Human agency (free will) in the Scriptures supports two important realities: human culpability and sincere worship. When Jesus says “God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth,” he makes it clear that doctrinally correct submission in the wrong spirit isn’t enough. God wants to know that our love for him, similar to his love for us, doesn’t depend on fear or blessings or coercion. God desires voluntary love. That statement shines in bold gold letters over the course of redemptive history.

There are those who refuse to bend their necks, yet their necks are still bent. If you refuse to voluntarily submit, you still become submitted. As Bob Dylan rightly said, “You’ve gotta serve somebody.” Everyone submits or is submitted to others. You can’t help it. You submit or are submitted to employers or clients. To the police and civil authorities. To the demands of crying babies. To the worst tyrant of all: your own fleshly desires.

That’s the beauty of voluntary submission: by submitting voluntarily to the circumstances of providence, the demands of loved ones, and rightful authorities in their spheres, to name a few, the submitting person maximizes the expansive possibilities of his will and his opportunities for growth while learning to humbly submit to God. For, ultimately, it is God who orders our steps and circumstances, places kings and presidents over us, gives us our spouses, calls us to our communities, blesses us with children, and burdens us with labor. We have a choice either to voluntarily submit ourselves to his lordship or be involuntarily submitted to it.

How Do We Submit?

At this point, I hope you are wondering how we are to submit to one another in the fear of Christ. I don’t have all (or even most of) the answers on that, but I have been practicing a few methods that have been greatly edifying to me:

1. Submit to the Counsel of Your True Friends

“Faithful are the wounds of a friend, but deceitful are the kisses of an enemy” (Prov. 27:6). It’s important as a Christian to know who your friends actually are. It’s important because Paul’s directive in Ephesians is not a blanket statement to submit to anyone and everyone unilaterally: “Submit yourselves to one another…” The “one another” here comprises brothers and sisters in Christ. These are your true friends.

And to be clear, your true friends aren’t necessarily the ones who think most highly of you or make you feel the most accepted. Often, it’s quite the opposite. Your true friends see you most clearly and love you, like God. And like God, they want what’s best for you. That requires that you change. How do you find out who these people are?

Two kinds of friends exist: friends to your old man or friends to your new man. Your old man thrives in two internal environments: self-loathing or self-worship. A friend of your old man will contribute to one or the other of these two environments. A friend of the old man might fill you with despair, cursing you, using superlatives like “you always” or “you never.” Or a friend of the old man might fill you with pride, flattering you, sharing in and endorsing your sins. Don’t submit to these people as counselors (though as I’ll discuss later, you still need to submit to them). They are not true friends.

A true friend of the new man fights for one thing in your life: the lordship of Jesus. That’s pretty much it. As John says, you can test the spirits (and we could add “the friends”) to see if they are of God by determining whether or not they confess Jesus:

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God; and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God; this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming, and now it is already in the world. (1 John 1:1–3)

If a person strives to affirm your identity in Christ, that’s a true friend. If a person strives to affirm your identity in the flesh, that’s a false friend.

Once you have a few friends that you believe are true, try to submit to their opinions and wishes in the case of a disagreement concerning your choices. What I mean by this practically is: if any one of your true friends has a very strong and unshakeable opinion that what you are doing is not good (or good for you), ask them what they would recommend instead. Then do it with the full intention of letting that submission change your heart and make you agree with them.

I’m obviously not saying you should do something you think is sin here, but it’s important not to lightly use your “conscience” as an excuse for being stubborn. It’s very hard to submit even to those who love us, but we should be trying (and succeeding at it) daily.

2. Practice Receiving Criticism from Anywhere

Listen to any advice or criticism with an open mind, no matter from whom it comes or whether or not they hate you. Criticism, in hate or love, is one of the most underused and under-rated things you have available to you. That last sentence might be the central theme of Proverbs.

It will always be the case that the most useful criticism (and the most painfully true) comes from people who know and love you—the people you have invited into your inner life. These are those who have proven their love for you in word or deed (your true friends in Christ). Even still, you should never reject criticism merely because of its source. Much of the practice of voluntary submission is learning to receive criticism from anywhere. How do you do it?

First, recognize that criticisms wound us for one of two reasons: Either they convict us of a truth about our failings (thus challenging the way we have viewed ourselves) or they are entirely baseless (thus challenging the way we thought others viewed us). The sting in both cases is in our pride (flesh).

And that sting is a deception. As Proverbs 26:2 says, a causeless curse doesn’t land. Either a criticism has cause, and we should heed it, or a criticism doesn’t have a cause, and we should forgive it.

It takes patience and practice, but don’t let causeless curses get to you. It’s like replying to a troll in a comment thread. That never benefits anyone. Learn to let God rebuke trolls. As Michael the Archangel said to Satan: “The Lord rebuke you” (Jude 1:9), or in other words, “I have more important things to do than make sure everyone is right, or right about me, on the internet.”

Seriously consider if your flesh is deceiving you. There can be vast differences between how you see yourself, how you want to be seen by others, how others actually see you, and who you really are before God. Many times, what we really mean when we reject criticism is, “The way you see me is not the way I desire to be seen.” We’ve got to get over that. We can’t control others. We can control only ourselves. If only we would.

3. Submit to the Benefit of Your Neighbor

So far, I’ve talked about submitting to the will of God, under which heading we submit to the counsel and criticism of our brothers and sisters in Christ. But there is another submission: submitting to the benefit of the neighbors we are called to love in Christ. Notice I didn’t say we should submit to our neighbor’s counsel, as such. Our neighbor might be a wicked man who hates us and wishes us dead. His counsel in that case would be less than salutary. But we should submit to his benefit nonetheless.

Submitting to someone else’s benefit is to consider his benefit more important than your own. Such a radical rejection of self-interest (quite obviously recommended in the second greatest commandment—Matt. 22:39) is almost universally hedged or rejected within the church. We think of charity like oxygen masks on a plane: tend to your own interest first and then you can tend to the interests of others.

Contrary to this, Jesus calls us to seek his kingdom first and let the other things be added to us. He says to the rich young ruler, “Go sell all that you have and give it to the poor” (Luke 18:22). Notice that Jesus doesn’t say, like we would, “Go sell whatever you don’t need then give of your excess for the needs of the poor.” Is this a hard command? Of course. The rich young ruler couldn’t submit himself to it. We usually don’t either.

It’s impossible to abnegate our self-interest like Jesus without divine help. It’s impossible to do this even with those who love us, much less with those who hate us. You think, “But I would be defrauded! People would just take advantage of me.” That’s true. They would. Which is why Jesus asks you to trust him. Do you believe that he will care for you? Do you believe that he has submitted himself to your benefit even while you were his enemy? Then submit to him by submitting to others for your growth and their benefit.

4. Submit Yourself Even When Others Don’t

Most of the time, if you hear about submission from Christians at all, it has to do with someone else’s submission. Sometimes pastors talk about how congregants need to submit to elders or wives need to submit to husbands. Many preachers of submission confuse submitting to a leader’s authority with submitting to a leader’s desires. They also seem to think that it’s the job of leaders to make sure Christ’s sheep are submitting to them properly. It’s not.

A leader’s job is simple, though hard: Jesus requires that leaders in his church be model servants—even slaves—to Christ’s sheep (Matt. 20:25–28). This might come as a shock, but commands from God for other people are for other people to attend to. I’m just another one of God’s bond-servants. I’m not the one who will judge how well some other servant has performed his duties. God does that (Rom. 14:4).

For me, one of the most difficult parts of living joyfully in community (church, family, or otherwise) is having to deal with that fleshly voice in my head that says, “Those so-and-sos are not submitting themselves to what I think is right or bearing my burdens or being good friends to me.” This is the adult equivalent of saying, “So-and-so had his eyes open during the prayer.” We say to Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” He says, “Whose neighbor are you?” We say, “I want a friend like King David.” He says, “Then be a friend like Jonathan.”

As a husband, my flesh is crouching at the door when I read, “Wives, submit to your husbands.” I’m tempted to think about how my wife is not holding up her end. And my wife’s flesh is crouching at the door when she reads, “Husbands love your wives as Christ loved the church.” She’s tempted to think about how often my pitiful love lets her down.

But it’s not my job to make sure she is submitting to me and fulfilling my needs. In other words, it is not my job to submit her involuntarily to my idea of what she should be doing. It’s my job to submit to her in the fear of Christ and fulfill her needs, laying down my life completely for her benefit. That’s all. If she uses that to defraud me by not doing the same for me, that’s really lame on her part and she’s getting her reward in full.

Even still, it doesn’t excuse me from doing my job concerning her. And more often than not, radical submission is automatically reciprocated. When I am doing a humanly decent job of laying down my life for my wife, I don’t even have to ask her to submit to my benefit. She wants to. 

So, in short: Leaders in the church should focus on being slaves to their congregation. Congregants should focus on being blessings to their pastors and servants to each other. Husbands should lay their lives down for their wives. Wives should submit to their husbands. In short, we should all submit ourselves to one another in the fear of Christ, focusing on our own responsibilities. Bear your own burdens as much as you can. And bear everyone else’s too. And be grateful about it, for your reward in heaven is great.

Conclusion

What does the submission I’m talking about look like? Here’s a trivial example:

Your neighbor might want to throw a party at the neighborhood pool on the same day you had already planned to throw your own party. You are punctual and well-organized, unlike your neighbor, so your name is already on the schedule. Been there for months. In spite of that, he calls you (“on the off-chance you might say yes,” he says) and boldly, perhaps rudely, asks if you would be willing to move your party to another day. There is no other day for you to move it to. And the nerve of this guy, right? At this point, it would seem perfectly just for you to maintain your right. Your neighbor expects that even. But if you consider his benefit as more important than your own, you’ll do the surprising thing—you’ll probably give up your pool day voluntarily.

In the grand scheme of things, giving up a pool day is a little thing. But consider what an impact a life lived like that could have. Imagine the kind of impact a church filled with lives lived like that could have. Even such a small thing as giving up your right to the pool day might open up your relationship with your neighbor. Biblical evangelism is constructed out of such little things.

Clearly not everything everyone wants is in their benefit. We’ve already talked about that. If your neighbor wants you to buy him heroin, for instance, I would not recommend doing that to say the least. Because I don’t think that would actually be in his best interest. But if you think something would be for someone else’s true benefit (to shine the glory of Jesus in that person’s life), you should do it or give it even if it hurts.

Again, this is hard to practice. It essentially turns every person’s attempts to take advantage of you into a means of God’s grace and your gratitude. It’s the same radical grace we see in Bishop Myriel from Les Miserablés: “You didn’t steal it. I gave it to you. In fact, you forgot to take these too.” If Christians were practicing this kind of radical submission to the benefit of others generally, we wouldn’t be asking why people are leaving the church in droves. Because they wouldn’t be.

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That feeling when you’re bearing other people’s burdens, but they’re not bearing yours

That feeling when you’re bearing other people’s burdens, but they’re not bearing yours

14 responses

  1. Thank you for your thoughts Michael.

    You mentioned how some people espouse “Submission to God” but are unwilling to submit to others. They want to “Hear from God” yet not His instruments. The contradiction in this position is that God’s common and primary means of communicating to people IS THROUGH OTHER PEOPLE.

    Take a look at the scriptures. Although God communicated directly with a handful of prophets, he indirectly communicated to the masses through them. We say we want to ‘hear’ from God yet we are deaf to the common means of His revelation – other people. After all, what is the Bible but God speaking through other people to us.

    I consider Jesus’ commentary to the Centurion a fitting and provocative insight, “Unless you see a signs and wonders you won’t believe” (John 4:48). We want to hear directly from God through “signs and wonders” and THEN we will listen or submit. But we pay little mind to His common word through other people (at least those who aren’t dead yet).

    We really don’t expect to hear from him … unless it aligns with our thinking.

  2. I really like this (or don’t, which is also a good thing). Especially the part about submitting to other people as one of God’s primary means of getting through to us. You covered it well, including the marriage part.

    I’d like to add to the “accepting criticism” part a little bit from experience. Growing up in prime developmental years under someone who abused our submission to him, that experience has perhaps permanently scarred my ability to both trust others with that kind of criticism into my life (which I’m slowly overcoming by being around healthy people), but also my ability to see myself accurately and trust and discern when someone else’s criticism is accurate. It can create such a wreck of agitation in my spirit wondering if a criticism from someone who I think *should* have my best interests at heart is valid or if it a troll’s opinion from someone leveraging their power to control me. For instance, in the past, pastors on Twitter trying to include me in their flock, but have had nothing to say to me unless it’s disciplinary. I tend to take it to heart as truth immediately, and it can be crushing. So maybe that’s a third category of “being angered by criticism” – I don’t know. Just thought it was worth sharing. But even so, submission to friends who *do* know you and are invested in you is key in deciphering this stuff.

    • That’s tough. It’s one of the reasons that pastors are held to a greater judgment, and why they are called to a greater submission (even “slavery”) to their flock. I think also that receiving criticism needs to be rooted in love, not fear. If you are submitting out of fear to another person, something is wrong there. That’s not really voluntary submission. It’s coerced.

    • Thank you! While I don’t disagree with most of Thabiti’s recommendations in the article, since he is speaking directly on the biblical topic of church member submission, I have a few issues with his approach, especially as evinced by statements like this: “In the final analysis, church members are the people who generally make or break a local church. And making or breaking a church has a lot to do with the membership’s attitudes and actions toward its leaders.”

      That’s simply not true. The Bible says that “leaders” have a greater responsibility as those who must give an account. Certainly members should do most of the things Thabiti recommends, but if they _aren’t_ doing them, it’s most often a failure of leadership (i.e., blind leading the blind).

      I could talk about that for a long time, but I think blaming members for a broken church falls into a subcategory of victim-blaming. And preachers wouldn’t need to preach so much on other people’s submission if they were any good at modeling it themselves.

      Thank you again for the encouraging words.

      • Yes. I was concerned about the blanket statement re: church health being connected to this, and you’ve clarified that aspect really well.

  3. Speaking of failure of leadership… As mentioned, I have a lot to learn as far as conversational ethics go. But how do you respond the charge that “it’s not my place” to confront some doctrinal issue, Scripture out of context, (etc.)?

    (This past Sunday, the sermon’s passage was the parable of the wedding invitation…but I learned more about the gist from reading the parables before & a commentary I’ve read multiple times than from the sermon itself…I don’t think I can honestly say he even addressed the main themes of the parable itself. This happens all the time…but I decided in the end not to confront this one.)

    Anyway, question is…how do you balance submission (there are honest people who fit the bill), & confront issues in a gracious, uncompromising way?

    • That’s a really large question. Most of us aren’t ready or equipped to address other people’s issues (log in your own eye kind of situation). If you have to go to this church, you need to learn to love it. Maybe you won’t love it for doctrine or teaching, but unless the Spirit has entirely abandoned it, there are things there you should love and submit to. Try to focus on those things. People don’t listen to criticism from enemies readily. Maybe they should, but they don’t. Most people are not going to listen to you unless they are convinced by your actions and attitudes that you have their best interest in mind. Try serving your church in the values you share instead of correcting it in the values you don’t. You might be surprised to find that the best way to help and lead others (even in those areas where you strongly disagree with a person/church) is from below and beside, not above.

      • I do help out in the AWANA program, which, in spite of its view of history (Dispy), manages to teach quite a few passages of Scripture/encourage memorization. Prayers for competency needed for the group I help (etc.)

  4. The community is good, the friends are good to great; we also have some talented people. And hey, they get along pretty good with me (so far). All kidding aside, they have been gracious…even though my passion treads on people sometimes.

    To answer your second question; I can think of at least 5 people who especially fit that description…probably more.

    • That’s so good to hear. So, why do you think intellectual consistency in the dill, cumin, jots, and tittles is of such great importance when so many members of your church exhibit faithfulness in the “weightier matters”?

      I catch myself doing the same thing regularly. Mostly because we all tend to give greater weight of importance to our own areas of strength. But God’s strength is perfected in weakness. Submitting yourself to your true friends requires empathy, which includes valuing other peoples’ strengths as more important than your own. I very much appreciate that you are already working to do this. I didn’t even begin this journey until after I was married. I can’t tell you how much damage I had already done in the spirit of pride that I believed was righteous zeal.

  5. I guess not all of them exhibit faithfulness in some weightier matters. Mercy, probably good. My biggest urgent concern: the lack of confrontation of injustice. Especially child sacrifice. The leadership neither compel or equips its member to fight these things.

    This is one reason I’ve been writing songs.

    To their credit, in spite of being somewhat of a loose cannon, people (incl. some in the leadership) have appreciated my concern for injustice.

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