Making a difference

The news this week is all bad. Headlines, columns, videos, TV coverage, everything we read and see is filled with discouraging news, down right heart breaking news. I can hear it in coffee shops, around church halls, on the bus, at the parks, any and every where people gather, the conversations are pessimistic. And yet…

And yet at least on the matters at hand today; racism and violence, matters are better than they were 50 years ago. They just are. Read or watch any accounts of that period in the world around us and it will fill you with even more dread and despair. True, the nature of the violence has changed, there weren’t automatic weapons in the hands of people who can do harm, there wasn’t the threat of nuclear weapons in the hands of rogue movements, terrorists, etc. But whole races of people were subservient to other races, it was institutionalized and internalized in the culture, and war was worldwide sending young men in alarming numbers to fight wars that killed thousands upon thousands of people. And at a critical moment in the early 60’s the US and USSR came very close to full scale nuclear war. That ought to be sobering to anyone who is filled with nostalgia for the “good old days”.

Reinhold Niebuhr in his 1932 text Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study of Ethics and Politics argues that human beings are inherently touched by the sin of self-interest and limited by their narrow vision leaving the possibility for terrible acts in every generation no matter the accumulated wisdom and knowledge of the times. Niebuhr was on the left, a former socialist, who yearned for social justice, equality of race, economic means, and a peace-filled and free world for all. But Niebuhr also felt that there was no utopia or as Voltaire would argue, “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” If there is no perfect, if human beings are incapable of utopia, whether because of sin or some other inherent limitation isn’t the preferred path one of making a difference, moving the cause forward, working within these limits to make our world more just, more peaceful, more compassionate?

Now at this point I need to assert something very, very important. People who share my scepticism (some might argue pessimism) about the possibility of perfection tend to automatically go to the personal. The big picture, the political work, is too hard, too complex, many stick to the personal; volunteering at a foodbank, helping a refugee family, donating used clothes, working for a charity. I get that. And these efforts do help real people in real time. I applaud these efforts, not only because they do make a tangible difference to real people but also because they make our hearts more open, more gracious and more compassionate.

But these efforts are not enough. Not even close. The reality is systemic change is the most lasting, affects the most people, has the potential to make the largest difference. An example; people wanted to assist refugees and organized privately around churches and community groups to do this. But until government policy changed on the ground these efforts remained purely good intentions or a drop in the bucket. It took a change in policy, a political change, for this matter to be dealt with in a serious way. The same holds true for poverty (although I am not sure those who advocate for such government change understand that money itself will not totally address this challenge). Those who understand that perfection is not likely to ever occur and want to make a “difference” have a moral responsibility to work for collective change as well as personal change, to see how the levers of government can be used to “make the difference” as well as the box of food, the bag of clothes, big smile or the warm hug.