ON NOT 'CHANGING THE COURSE OF HISTORY'
I am not sure when this began, but faith in Jesus Christ, popularly communicated, seems intimately connected with the moral requirement to "shape the course of history." Whether this two-pronged message is coming from the White House, in what I call "big language" (e.g. "history is calling upon us to rid the world of evil," etc.), or from my familiar evangelical and Catholic circles, a common assumption seems to be that one's fidelity as a disciple is directly related to one's commitment to "changing the world."
Recent experiences in my neighborhood in Camden, N.J., and reading John Yoder have caused me to question this assumption. A lady named Shana has been visiting our house almost daily. She is severely addicted to crack and works as a prostitute. Seeing her addicted day-in and day-out, broken, and dying has been tearing my community members and me apart. It hurts to see somebody nearly dead. She also attempted suicide by overdose. I don't understand all of her story. I've tried to sit down with her over tea and ask about her life. But crack tends to truncate such conversation. A few nights ago, Shana came knocking, as she always does, and urgently said, "I want to go home." Although this gave me hope, I did not think life was going to be clear skies from then on for Shana. My wife and I sensed sincerity in Shana, so we loaded her into our minivan and took her home. Exhausted, Shana fell asleep in the back seat. I don't know what will happen. Maybe she will relapse; maybe she will heal. By taking her home, caring for her through the week, getting her warm clothes, I hope Shana experienced some healing.
Yesterday I was walking to work. It's a rough neighborhood, and considering all of the abandoned houses, we technically have only one bonified neighbor on the block. Her name is Miss Flossy. I love her plump, toothless smile that overtakes her eyes with creases of joy. But her joy is being sucked out by an abusive relationship in her family. Her bills are piling up, she just got over pneumonia, and she said she's going into deep depression. I gave her a hug as mercy welled out of my skin. I listened for a while and was happy to hear from her. But work was beckoning and I was glad to know that Andrea and Elissa were home, eating lunch. I told Miss Flossy that they would be absolutely delighted to see her. She stopped by and Andrea made her an egg sandwich and some other fixings. I told Andrea that the universe was healing because of that act of hospitality.
I cannot talk about big concepts such as "changing the world" or "making a difference" apart from the tiny, mundane and seemingly ineffective actions of helping others heal. In other words, I'm wondering if healing acts can be anything but small, loving, and personal. Leo Tolstoy rings through my head, competing with the cacophony of militarism, globalization, and the calls to somehow stop them altogether, crying out, "everybody wants to change the world, but nobody wants to change themselves."
Recall the Temptation and Fall of Adam and Eve. They were tempted by the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. If they ate from it, they would have "become like God", who ultimately discerned and administrated matters of good and evil. If we place ourselves in the garden story, we might ask why we, being "created in the image of God," shouldn't have such knowledge and power? I suggest that the "knowledge of good and evil" means more than knowing right from wrong. It speaks of the great temptation to be Creator and not creature, of the power to be like God and control the world. Jesus overcomes this temptation. If we look at a 1st-century praise and worship song (Phil. 2), we hear that Jesus did not grasp for "equality with God." We see this resistance of temptation in that he didn't try to make himself great, save his own life, or create a powerful and irresistible movement: he willingly submitted to wrongful execution. "He could have changed the world," one might say, when he was offered authority over all of it.
Why didn't he do it? Why didn't he win the masses and woo the religious establishment? Why didn't he "infiltrate the system" and effect some "real" change? Author John Yoder is helping me hear Jesus through the din of voices calling me to change the world. He argues that John the Revelator's claim that "the slain lamb is worthy to receive glory, honor, and power" speaks not just to some spiritual abstraction, but that it is Christ who is the real mover of history. Such a proclamation intends to shape our imaginations in a way that none of our conventional Christian ethics have done. For if Christ was crucified and raised, we know that God's works supersede natural cause and effect. While it would make sense that it is the big governments that are ruling the world, in Christ we find that God works through the small and humble servant. The kingdom works like a small seed, not like a massive industrial combine. God is with the one who loves his enemies, neglecting the compulsive and often violent urge to "rid the world of evil." The small Mother Teresa, who neglected the reasonable demands to "change the world" and not just help one person at a time, sowed some of the strongest seeds of love.
The incessant ethical demand to "make waves" needs to reconcile with a crucified Jesus. Otherwise, we will corrupt our best intentions trying to meet the world's needs. We will, in the least, arrogantly confuse "making a difference" with becoming "big." Worse, we will forget what "a difference" is. Biblically, a "difference" is showing love where there is hate, forgiveness where there is guilt, and humility where there is arrogance. It is on these basic matters of love and pride that "making a difference" is measured. I offer a correction to popular Christian ethics: think first not about changing the world, but of being a very loving person – that is, participating in the suffering love of Jesus. At least, we might avoid going crazy from the weight of the world on our shoulders; at best, we might come to know God by participating in the humble love of Jesus.
Chris Haw lives with his wife, Cassie, in the Camden House – www.camdenhouse.org – a home of 8 people devoted to Jesus, ecology, and hospitality. This essay appeared in the Winter 2004-2005 issue of THE ENCLAVE, a quarterly journal expressing a diversity of Christian voices. For copies and subscriptions, contact Chris Petersen at email@example.com or tel. 215.222.3322.