This is a reprint from the summer of 2007. Some recent meanderings have brought up yet again the subject of “social progress” as a Christian goal. Our cultural metaphor is deeply indebted to 19th century Liberal Protestant theology (Rauschenbusch, et al). I think the utilitarian approach (we need to be “practical”) can be very alluring – and also a contradiction of the Christian faith. I believe no one has changed the world at all in comparison to Christ. And yet, I think many social historians might argue that Christ had very little impact on the world. It all depends on what you see when you turn on the light. Thus, these musings…
In a recent exchange on one of my postings I was congratulated for my advocacy of attention to small things, and told that thereby we will change the world. I wrote a light-hearted response in which I demurred from such a lofty goal – but have thought much of it since – and have decided to post on the present topic – why changing the world is not the agenda of the Christian life. I will quickly say that I do not mean by such an assertion that we are not to care about justice nor to correct wrongs that are done or any other such thing. But I want to think aloud on the subject – particularly in the light of Scripture.
First it must be noted that Scripture itself never speaks of a charge to the Church to change the world. It is not a Scriptural notion in itself and I hope to show why this is so.
There is certainly a change prophesied for the world:
But, beloved, be not ignorant of this one thing, that one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night; in the which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up. Seeing then that all these things shall be dissolved, what manner of persons ought ye to be in all holy conversation and godliness, Looking for and hasting unto the coming of the day of God, wherein the heavens being on fire shall be dissolved, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat? Nevertheless we, according to his promise, look for new heavens and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness. (2 Peter 3:8-13)
And the seventh angel sounded; and there were great voices in heaven, saying, The kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord, and of his Christ; and he shall reign for ever and ever. Rev. 11:15
A much larger list could be assembled with quite the same effect. The New Testament vision of the world and “its kingdoms,” is not very sanguine. The general tenor of prophecy in the New Testament is not only to recognize the difficulty of the times in which the saints are living at that time, but warns that times will grow much worse before all is done.
It became the fashion in 19th century Protestant thought – and has continued to the present to some degree – to treat such warnings as mistaken notions of the early Church. It was a common assumption by liberal Biblical scholars that Christ had expected to see the Kingdom ushered in quite soon (an idea shared by the disciples) and that things just did not happen that way. Nineteenth Century liberal thought both in Europe and in America began to substitute “progress” for the coming of the Kingdom. Instead of a cataclysmic end to history, mankind would work towards the justice and peace of God’s Kingdom. “Working for the coming of the Kingdom” became a common notion (I can recall having said such things in prayers and the like prior to my conversion to Orthodoxy).
It is easy to mistake material progress for a change in the nature of things. Of course, material progress is change of a sort. Most of us would not vote to rid ourselves of such conveniences as plumbing and electricity, antibiotics, etc. But these conveniences have not apparently changed the world towards the coming of the Kingdom – only made it a bit more comfortable – and not for all.
There are important social changes that have occurred, as well. Human rights have been extended though they remain embattled in many places. And, of course, they seem to be redefined almost at will depending upon who’s in charge of the largest and most numerous guns at any one time.
So what are Christians doing? If we are not changing the world, what is our life about?
First, it’s useful to think of the nature of the Church compared to the nature of the world. The Church, the Body of Christ, transcends the world. It is in the world but not of the world. Receiving communion, we take into ourselves the very Body and Blood of God. The world cannot contain Him and yet we receive Him into ourselves.
Thus to a certain extent, changing the world would be a diminution of the Church’s role. The Church is larger than the world in which it dwells.
Another important consideration is a principle that has been articulated by the theologian Stanley Hauerwas on any number of occasions. He says that so soon as we agree to take responsibility for the outcome of history, we have agreed to do violence. His contention is that the outcome of history has already been determined (and in some sense completed) in the death and resurrection of Christ. Efforts to make things turn in a certain direction inevitably mean that we take up the sword in order to accomplish that goal.
Doubtless there is a role within the world for the kingdoms of this world, and there has always been the need for the voice of the Church to be directed to those kingdoms, calling them to repentance and to do justice.
But we cannot measure the Church and its life by its effect on the Kingdoms of this world. Sometimes we seem to have a great effect, sometimes we get martyred. In all times we are subject to the mercy of Christ and the workings of His salvation within the life of the world.
Some years back I pastored a parish that had entered into a joint agreement with the local school board to provide a location for a daycare program for the children of young mothers at the local high school (which was next door). When the agreement was drawn up, I had insisted that there be mutual veto power for the parties involved. I did not want the school setting the agenda for my parish, nor did they want me setting the agenda for the school.
The board had school administration representatives, parish representatives and members from the community at large. Of great interest to me was how driven some of the board members were to “change” the young women. There was a parenting program included with the daycare that offered opportunities for young women (and young men if we could get them to be involved) to learn better parenting skills. But there were repeated efforts to include rules that would “punish” (usually by expelling them from the program) any young woman who became pregnant while involved. I saw in this simply another incentive for young women to have abortions – and I vetoed it. I stated then a single goal that the board adopted: for young women to graduate high school.
Change, particularly change within a person, requires their assent and their freedom. My own belief in that case was that the problem of teen pregnancy was fairly complex – at least it included a number of factors – not all of them the same for each individual involved. I believed then and now that every young mother who had a high school degree had a gift of greater freedom – more possibilities and choices were available to her than would have been the case as a high-school drop out. I do not know how the program fared after I left that parish. But I do know a number of young women whose possibility for change was improved by the care we gave their children and the support we gave them as parents. I also know that while I was involved, attempts by others to control, reward and punish young women was thwarted. And I think this was a proper Christian action.
Love of others, as commanded by Christ, would bid us do many things on behalf of others. But the nature of our actions has to finally be judged simply by the measure of goodness. Utilitarianism (“the greatest good for the greatest number”) has been a great temptation for Christians in the modern world. In its name, much evil can be justified. On the other hand, doing something good simply because it is good frees us from the delusions of moral calculus. Is it good to help someone finish school? I think so. Is it good to set up rules so that the only easy option for a young pregnant woman is to abort her child? Absolutely not. The Kingdoms of this world have already conspired against such a young woman and her child. The Church and the Christian have no need to add their support to such evil efforts.
In this life we have no measure of success. Faithfulness to Christ, perservance in the faith – these are perhaps the only things that approach such a measure – but only God can judge the truth of these. Judgment is in His hands. There will come a day when everything will be revealed. On that Day, the world will have changed, and no one can delay or hasten its advent.