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.
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.