All of us will have stories of teachers who have – for better or for worse – shaped how we see ourselves, who we have become, and – by extension – the children we raise and the communities we participate in. Many of us will have unwittingly adopted attitudes, paradigms, habits that were engendered in the classrooms of our formative years. Teachers have power that few of them realise they possess. That, I think, is because society at large has not fully appreciated just how influential they are in shaping society. If we did, we would be far more vigilant about who could take up that mantle. We are by nature mimetic creatures, and the people who spend the most time with our teachers are our children.
I went into education for the same reason many of us do: I wanted to change the world. I have never really lost that dream (I have come close, I admit), although I know many who have. Our schools are filled with these teachers: weary-eyed and worn out, who resign themselves to each day’s rituals, sometimes bitter and cynical, sometimes simply veiled in an impenetrable melancholy. “Making a difference” is a dream that dies hard, but when it does, the consequences can ravage more than just the life of the dreamer. As they mourn the loss of the world that could have been, their devastation touches countless lives. We really ought to devote more time to ensuring that teachers feel psychologically whole: there are few things that carry as great a capacity for destruction as a disillusioned idealist. One of those is on the opposite end of the spectrum to the disillusioned idealist: the unswervingly zealous idealist, who is perhaps even more dangerous. These have a single-minded vision for how the world should be and will not let anything stand between them and bringing about that “perfect” world, least of all people who do not share the vision.
What connects both of these groups, and all who lie in between, is the prioritising of the ideal over people. To paraphrase the argument of French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy, we think of community as the subject rather than community as the communion between subjects. And when we do that – when the utopia we strive for becomes more important than the people who inhabit it, we close the door on love, compassion, unity. That is why our attempts to construct the perfect world invariably fail and become monstrous: whether they manifest socio-economically (Marxism, capitalism), politically (party loyalty), religiously (Heaven and Hell, for example), or through any of the myriad social justice causes we take up, we tend to forget that our version of Paradise can only ever be sustainable if all the people who live in the world are committed to it. You cannot change the world through violent conquest, whatever form that conquest – and, for that matter, the violence – might take. Our strategies for “changing the world” need serious revision.
I want to share a few insights with all of you who ache to make a difference, who look around at the injustice and chaos that is life and say: this is not good enough, there must be more to it than this. Take it from an unrepentant idealist: I have learnt a thing or two about changing the world, and I would hate to see you join the ranks of the walking dead. Or worse, the zealously living.
My first insight is this: the world does not change through one-off events; it is not shaped by the actions and words of individuals. While individuals may catalyse change, true reform is only ever effected by groups. New world orders are not born in a fiery blaze – or very rarely, anyway; they are almost never caused by one monumental individual whose impact is like a meteor-strike that suddenly and irreversibly alters the social landscape. In the normal course of events, change comes as a rising tide. You do not notice that it is happening until you find yourself waist deep and wondering how you got there. It starts with a voice raised in protest, often unheard and seemingly in vain, like a drop of water onto the parched earth. The drop is soaked up and forgotten. But soon other voices join it and as the earth becomes saturated, the water begins to rise, and as it swells, as millions and billions of drops come together, it becomes impossible to resist; it sweeps up all before it until finally, when the waters settle, the land is transformed.
The point is that you will never change the world by trying to be a meteor. I loved Nelson Mandela as much as anybody. I respect what he stood for and everything he endured. I have lived through astounding times and felt the impact of his generosity of spirit in a land that somehow managed to recognise – as a collective – what so many of its individuals still cannot: that justice and retribution are not the same thing; that retribution is incompatible with the pursuit of peace, and that justice is predicated upon reconciliation. Madiba, who embodied this vision, was a towering figure, a giant of a leader, but he was not a meteor. He did not shape South Africa alone. He showed us what is possible through forgiveness and reconciliation and many followed suit, forgoing the right to justice in the pursuit of peace. If my people are to find a path to peace, it will be because of the tide that arose around his voice, not because of his actions alone.
I think Jesus, too, understood this. It is why he stressed the importance of discipleship in the Great Commission. Jesus never asked anyone to make converts: he asked them to make disciples. There is a massive distinction: the Kingdom of God comes because people become like Jesus, that is, they renounce violence and commit to a way of self-giving love, forgiveness and peace, even towards their enemies (what good is it if you only act that way towards those you like, Jesus argues? Look where that got us…). That is why the early church emphasised discipleship, mimicry, mentorship. Nobody, not even Jesus, changes the world by being a meteor; you can only change it by adding to the tide.
Here is my second insight: the landscape will always resist the rising tide. The fact that we notice that the tide has risen at all means that the earth has been dry for a very long time. Conditions have been such that earth has adapted to the absence of water, and what thrives in its absence will not welcome its presence. Had the world been filled with water anyway, the tide would go largely unnoticed. But the parched landscape will recognise its coming and attempt to stem it, realising that its coming must inevitably and irrevocably change things. The price of the new is the devastation of the old: the new wine bursts the old wineskin, the man sells all he has to buy the field with the pearl, the prodigal swallows his pride and leaves the pigsty behind him. Put in practical terms, changing the world in a way that builds God’s Kingdom, which values love and peace, means resistance from those who thrive in a world that equates retribution with justice. The world, as Jesus predicted, will hate you. It will push back. Hard. It will assert its power in the only way it knows how to: violently. And sometimes that violence will come from those who believe they are doing God’s will by silencing you, who sincerely maintain that they are serving the common good. Changing the world hurts, there is no avoiding that.
Here is my third insight: because changing the world hurts, joining the tide is a risk. People only join when they are committed at a very deep level to where the tide is carrying them. Joining a tide means a deep commitment to its cause, a valuing of its ideals that makes the risk of hurt a small price to pay for the raising of one’s voice. One cannot compel people to join, nor can one legislate people into obedience. I have been in teaching long enough to see that punishment may change behaviour and produce compliance, but I have never seen it produce commitment. To do that requires love. The take-away for those who want to change the world is this: you can never effect the kind of change you envisage by legislating it, nor by compelling it. Political and economic systems cannot solve the world’s problems; laws cannot effect lasting change (because invariably people value compliance to the letter of the law over the principles the laws were designed to protect); dismantling one set of exclusionary power relations and replacing them with another will, in time, lead us full circle to where we are now. The tide only grows when people’s hearts change.
Now if the rising of the tide is dependent on hearts changing, the question for those who want to change the world is this: how do you change hearts? The answer is absurdly simple: you don’t. This recognition is the beginning of contentment and of learning how to relate in love. You simply do not have the power to change another’s heart. Only they can do that. But you can make it easier for them to do that, you can make other ways of being in the world seem more attractive to them. You can begin by understanding that if they were not conditioned by their experiences, their pain, their cultures, their educations, the myriad forces that have been acting on them since birth, they would choose differently, not reactively behaving in ways that hurt other people. You cannot change others’ hearts, but you can give them the space to change their hearts themselves.
Changing the world is a two-step process: first, forgive people. All people. For everything. Seek peace instead of retribution, reconciliation instead of revenge. Why? Because evil (and for me violence, in all its various forms, is the engine of evil) is not an action, it is not an event; those are merely the manifestations of evil. Evil is relational in nature. If there were no relationships there could be no evil. So if you want to put an end to evil in the world, stop being complicit in violent relationships. When you choose to forgive, you are choosing to say that the violence stops with you. You are acknowledging that by retaliating, by fighting fire with fire, you would simply be contributing to the problem, becoming one more reason that the person who has hurt you will continue to hurt others. By forgiving others when they hurt you, on the other hand, you remove from the host of fears and insecurities that motivate them the added threat of retributive violence from you. And by loving them, you open up other possibilities of who they could become instead of locking them into who they are.
For mimetic creatures living in cultures where justice and retributive violence are the same thing, that seems like foolishness. But it is the only way to break the cycle of evil (which, I remind you, is a relational concept) and live the way God would have us live. That is why, immediately after teaching his disciples to pray for God’s Kingdom to come, Jesus tells them to pray: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” If evil and sin only find meaning in relationships, then God’s Kingdom – where, as Evangelicals and Protestants are so fond of reminding us, evil and sin do not exist – is birthed though relationships purged of evil through forgiveness and love.
At this point I need to remind us that the primary beneficiary of our corporate prayers is not God, but the body of worshipers. Corporate prayer, as it has always been, is a mechanism for cementing sound theology in the minds of believers. The function of corporate prayer is not the airing of personal struggles, of celebrating private triumphs; the function of corporate prayer is to unify believers by defining the parameters of faith. We would do well to remember that the Lord’s Prayer is a corporate prayer. There is only an “us” in The Lord’s Prayer, not a “me”.
Consequently, I think we need to resist the urge to infer from this teaching that God is only going to forgive us if we forgive others, which – on the surface of things – is what Jesus seems to be saying. I don’t think that is the point Jesus is making, though. Jesus seldom made his point using a straightforward declaration. Instead, he tended to teach by subverting commonly understood truths. And the phrasing here is entirely consistent with that: he does not say, in effect: God has forgiven you, so forgive others (which would seem logical): we ought to mimic God. Instead, Jesus invites us to imagine what the world would look like if God mimicked us. And once we can see what a frightening place that would be, once we understand that if God’s justice looked anything like ours, we would all be in very deep poo, we would possibly begin to fathom that the only way out of the black hole of retributive violence is forgiveness, and we would see God in a new light.
To be honest, I still labour under the illusion that I can change the world. Only now, I go about it a little differently. I don’t presume to take that burden upon myself. I have no desire to be anybody’s saviour (quite aside form how presumptuous and arrogant that is, saviours tend to get lynched…). I am no meteor. But I have a growing awareness of a rising tide, of a Kingdom that Jesus compared to a little yeast working into the dough. A revolution of love, the promise of renewal. Inexorable, implacable, irresistible. I want to be a part of it. And I now see that I can only be a part of it if you are too.