“Can we change the world? Well, who knows? Probably not. But we can perhaps, just perhaps, make it a little better by living godly lives as aliens and strangers in it.”1 says Greg Gilbert as he paraphrases James Hunter’s To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World. As Christians we are called to change ourselves and be apart of the process to help others change as well, are we not? We gravitate to the easy and quantifiable rather that the supernatural and unexplained ; thus missing the importance of what it means to live a transformational life with Christ.
How do we change the world? Hunter’s book does not answer this question as much as it puts us in a position to think clearly about what to do next. Hunter writes, “The question is wrong because, for Christians, it makes the primary subservient to the secondary. By making a certain understanding of the good of society the objective, the source of the good—God himself and the intimacy he offers—becomes nothing more than a tool to be used to achieve that objective. When this happens, righteousness can quickly become cruelty and justice can rapidly turn into injustice.”2 When we see ourselves as the agents of change and the do-ers of God’s will, it is a quick step to then see that all that we do glorifies God. If our ultimate goal is to change our culture, then cultural change is the focus and not God. Weber said, “We have already seen that being made in the very image of God and participating in God’s grand plan of transforming everything gives human inventiveness, creativity and initiative.”3 We have taken that call and often run far ahead of what God intended under the guise of change and hard work for the Lord.
Proclaimers of the truth have gone around the world to teach, train and share the story of God desiring transformation of individuals and the cultures they live in. In their enthusiasm, some have created their own road blocks because time was not given to understanding the culture that they were trying to reach. An American man went to an African country 100 years ago desiring to share Christ with a village. Without really any knowledge of this particular people group, he decided the area that he was going to minister to. One day he walked into the village, and was met by the warriors of the village all holding spears. They chased him out of the village with the clear meaning he should not come back. He went about a mile away and eventually built a house. After a while of trying to talk with the villagers that came and went from the village, he decided to learn their local language and customs. Years went by as he got to know some of the children and some of the workers in the village that came and went. He discovered that the village had a chief elder and a proper custom for asking the chief for an audience. He decided to try using the custom of the village to ask for an audience with the chief. He began to approach the village and perform the required ritual to see the chief; only to be denied. Every month for several years he would ask the chief for an audience. After about 7 years, he was finally granted an audience and was able to begin building relationships with the village he felt God called him to. Of course this is an over simplified version of the events that took place. Some have viewed this story as a test of perseverance, and I believe there was an aspect of that. I also believe that he offended the village elders with his arrogance and determination to do what he thought he should do and needed years of punishment to restore the relationship.
Sometimes our desire for a quick fix, a moment in the spotlight, or wanting a good story interferes with the goals of bringing true change. The one time that I had a chance to travel in Tibet I experienced the unintended side effects of someone making a political statement and getting their 3 minutes of fame. A couple of weeks before I landed, an American climbed to the top of Mt. Everest from the Nepal side and held up for a photo the Tibetan national flag-a flag that represents that Tibet should be free from Chinese rule. This young climber had to have thought he was standing up for the oppressed. The result was a strong reaction from the government shutting down all foreign travel outside government controlled tour buses. All small private vehicles, tour guides, restaurants and locations not associated with the tour agencies lost all of their business for several months. Thousands of people, that relied on summer tourism for the support of their families for the whole year, experienced the rippling affects of this American climber. I have to assume this climber had no idea that his actions would create this kind hardship for many families in the country he was trying to help. Good intentions do not cover up for bad practice and cultural insensitivity. “Christianity is not, first and foremost, about establishing righteousness or creating good values or securing justice or making peace in the world[….]But for Christians, these are all secondary to the primary good of God himself and the primary task of worshiping him and honoring him in all they do”4 I sometimes wish Jesus’ great commission included some warning not to incorporate your biases -cultural, religious, or political-into the work of God.
“Against the present realities of our historical moment, it is impossible to say what can actually be accomplished…Christians, at their best, will neither create a perfect world nor one that is altogether new; but by enacting shalom and seeking it on behalf of all others through the practice of faithful presence,…that they will help to make the world a little bit better.”5 Hunter’s call for the “faithful presence” should be for all Christians to be the shalom of God. His concept that in all circumstances, where ever we are placed, whatever company or institution we are a part of, that we are to “enact shalom” helping to overcome the destructive tendencies of this world is the challenge we have no matter where we live. Greg Forster said, “Christian influence on culture occurs not primarily by human design but by God’s invisible and supernatural use of the suffering perseverance of his people in their positions of public stewardship in all domains of culture.”6 May it be so in each of us.
2Hunter, James Davison. To Change the World : The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010)
3Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. (Los Angeles. Roxbury Pub., 1996) 275
6 https://tgc-documents.s3.amazonaws.com/eBooks/Revisiting%20%27Faithful%20Presence%27.pdf accessed March 15, 2018