what can I do to change the world?

February 22, 2011

A few blocks from where I live is a church called “to change the world” church (or something in that line). As soon as I finish up at the congregation I’m working at the moment (three weeks from now) I want to visit this church (as well as a few others in the inner-city area where I currently live). But in all honesty I want to visit them because I’m interested in the growing number of black urban prosperity churches in Africa, and I suspect this one to be a prime candidate (you really have to walk past it to understand my suspicion, but the google streetview image point to the space where it is situated, at the time of taking the photo about a year ago it was still “to let”).

I mention this because I have this growing suspicion of the popularity of mission. This is partly what lies behind the obvious attempt at controversy in titling a post “Against Mother Theresa” (I mean, who the hell (pun intended) is against Mother Theresa?), and I hope to unpack this more technically in a coming post. Because it’s not only the fast growing churches in urban Africa that is running with the popular theme that “you can change the world”. Since I’m facing the future of unemployment I’m looking through some church adds at the moment, and as a rule the mainline churches also find it important to remind us that they exist to “make a difference to society”.

This ideal I’ll obviously support, in spite of my growing skepticism concerning whether we actually mean what we say. Two quotes from what I’ve read yesterday point to what I believe we need to focus on if the church do believe that we are called to change the world, to make a difference.

Lester Brown writing in the New Scientist:

The question I get asked most is “What can I do?” People expect me to say change your light bulbs, recycle newspaper, but I say we must restructure the world economy, especially in energy. It’s about becoming politically active. If there’s a coal-fired power station near you, organise to close it down.

And this is the reality which I’m fearing in the church. We all want to do something. But the something should be personal, hands-on. We want to pick up papers. Hand out food. We don’t want to get involved in the messy world of politics where the systemic questions are being addressed.

And then there is South African theologian Klaus Nűrnberger writing in Prosperity, Poverty and Pollution:

Meanwhile, left-wing activism has changed from Marxist macro-economics, which has fallen to pieces, to small scale community development. Ideology has made way for romanticism about the symbolic universe of the marginalised. Others concentrate on isolated environmental issues. This is simply not good enough. While the emphasis on community empowerment at grass roots level is important, and while we do not want elephants and tigers to die out, it is the macro-economic context in which grass roots development and ecological sustainability will either flourish or flounder.

Now we’ve made all kinds of arguments when confronted with the systemic questions. We regularly tell each other that people will change when busying themselves with the random acts of kindness, and then become more inclined to participate in the broad systemic changes. We also divide the solutions, and say that some should busy themselves with “community empowerment at grass roots level” while others address the broad political questions. And while I think both these arguments have some merit, I also believe that both can potentially be just another way of sustaining the status quo, just as the middle-class church which focus on changing the world, but refuse to address the macro-economic questions, is most probably more keeping the status quo in place than changing the world.

So what can I do to change the world? Probably nothing. And this is the reality which our hyper-modern, hyper-individual personalities does not want to face. I cannot change the world (in spite of all the examples we like to hold up as heroes, Mandela, Theresa, Ghandi), to change the world we will have to give it a shot. Because changing the world will require us to organize ourselves, to lobby, protest, analyze, construct alternative solutions, implement alternative solutions, create a new world. We will have to address the macro-economic world in which we live. And we will have to do it, we cannot out-source it to either the Americans or the politicians.


5 Responses to “what can I do to change the world?”

  1. Phil Wood Says:

    Perhaps I wouldn’t be so hard on small scale activity but I do see what you’re driving at. From a UK perspective it’s interesting that the churches aren’t the only institutions in decline. Pubs, trade unions, political parties – even bingo halls – are going the same way. Sheffield University did a very revealing study a while back that highlighting the breakdown in British community cohesiveness. In the main though, I don’t think we ought to adopt an either/or position. Small is still beautiful even if large is lovely!

  2. Phil Wood Says:

    Hi Cobus,

    I blogged about the Sheffield study in one of my earliest ‘radref’ posts: http://radref.blogspot.com/2008/12/response-to-changing-uk.html. There’s a link there to the original study and BBC coverage. Since then I’ve often used the maps Dorling and his team put together focusing on the relative strength of UK communities from 1971 to 2001. The results are alarming and astonishing. According to the criteria that the Sheffield team used the weakest community in 1971 is stronger than the very strongest community today. The media coverage of the study at the time talked about a so-called ‘loneliness index’.

    The implications for all Christian heritage cultures are profound. Britain is the oldest industrialized country in the world. We are ahead of the curve as a Post-Christendom, Post-modern, Post-social secular society. What happened in the UK thirty to fifty years ago (i.e. a steep downward curve in church membership) is now happening across Europe and increasingly in North America. I would be fascinated to hear your insights from a South African context.

    The political question is another dimension of this. The decline of party politics is a Post-modern phenonenon. It’s too early to tell as yet whether we’re fragmenting into individualism and a kind of tribalism or whether there’s a more positive transition going to another another form of association.

  3. Jan Boshoff Says:

    Many years ago during the border war I was a medic and one of my friends who saw a lot of action told me: When a soldier is wounded he shouts: Mother! When he is mortally wounded he shouts: God!

  4. Annemie Says:

    Cobus! Phil! Jan! All these contemplations and thoughts make me numb, make my reasoning(s) coagulate, as if they do not leave any avenue for my thougts to flow freely – make my mind want to cease – and yet I cannot allow that – together with you I have to try and find a way to do what needs to be done. Sometimes I feel : YOU find the way and I will go along with you, support you, take orders… And I too, want to shout, “God!”

  5. Jason Frost Says:

    At first glance, the idea of one average person changing the whole world seems utterly ridiculous. How can one person, one in six billion, possibly have enough personal power to change anything on a global scale?

    Actually, any average person can change the entire world. In most cases, we are lot more powerful than we realize. The problem is that most of us simply do not believe we are capable of doing anything that would impact the world on a grand scale, and even if we did believe it, few of us would actually know what to do.

    The way to create a new and better world is to stop volunteering your time, energy and money in ways that contribute to keeping things in the state they are in now. Simply stop making contributions to people, places and activities that promote the things you don’t agree with. The system continues to exist in its present form because Joe Average supports it. Without the on-going support of billions of people, how long do you think things would continue as they are now? Yet global change can begin with just one person taking a few simple local actions.

    Then get a commitment from just 2 people to do the same, and have them get that commitment from two more people, etc. You can start a chain reaction that looks a lot like a nuclear explosion. The force of an atomic bomb is unleashed by the first split atom

    …Jason Frost

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