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The Table Video

William Cavanaugh

Don't Change The World

Professor of Catholic Studies, Director of the Center for World Catholicism and Intercultural Theology
July 13, 2017

The common tendency around universities and elsewhere is to think that politics is about changing the world. William Cavanaugh argues that the world has had enough of well-meaning middle class Americans trying to change it. He talks about what goes wrong when we see politics in terms of remaking the world in our image and argues that we should think of politics in terms of allowing people to make a life for themselves. He looks at the Genesis story and God’s patience, changing the world slowly, through one obscure Middle Eastern people. Finally he considers the cross, and God’s patience and humility there.


Universities are wonderful places. You can study just about anything. There are thousands of universities across the United States. You can study any subject. Bible colleges, big public research universities, all kinds of different points of view, anything imaginable. Universities have been called multiversities because they’re really so disparate. The President of the University of California system, Clark Kerr once said that the contemporary university is a series of individual faculty entrepreneurs held together by a common grievance over parking. And I think that’s really true. The one thing, though, that all universities seem to agree on is that you need to take your education and go out and change the world. You hear that kind of rhetoric all the time, from the marketing department of the university, to the things that you learn in your classes, to the commencement speeches. Go out and change the world. It’s very much like Karl Marx’s 11 Theses on Feuerbach that the philosophers have only interpreted the world, the point, however, is to change it. So we’re all revolutionaries now, and we all want to change the world, and this is what we expect of our politicians as well.

So politicians are always promising massive change even though massive change rarely follows their election. And this happens on both sides of the political aisle Just change in itself is good and again it’s a kind of bipartisan sort of thing. So what I want to do in this 20 minutes is unpack this demand for change and register a word of caution about this, because I think there is good reason to suspect that the world has had quite enough of well-meaning Americans trying to change it. There of course are lots of bad things that ought to be changed and we as Christians should be out trying to witness to what God is doing in the world, but there’s this ideology of change that I want to question, and, precisely because it displaces God in some ways. It puts us in God’s position and it assumes that we know enough about what needs changing, that we’re good enough to promote positive change, and that we’re powerful enough to make it happen. And so I want to ask what difference would humility make under these circumstances. The ambition to change the world, first of all, is a confidence that we know what is wrong and what to do about it. And universities are very good at instilling this confidence.

We, our universities, which means that we form universal subjects. You go from your small town in Iowa and we will make you a universal subject who can look down on any part of the world and know what’s going on. To see the world from a kind of God’s eye view, and our technology kind of tends to heighten this pretension to omniscience. We have the world at our hands and I’m complicit in this, of course, because I teach a course in world Christianity and we learn about the exotic customs of Christians all over the world, and I’m really struck by the way my students so easily assume that they can empathize and enter into the situation of anybody anywhere in the world. And so, and kind of assimilate that to custom, to things like diversity and things like that. So we read the autobiography of a Guatemalan peasant women, and people automatically assume that they can identify with her. So even though they might be reading the book in the comfort of the air-conditioned library, they assume that they can relate to the woman who is kind of trudging up the hill with water on her head. And the truth of the story is that most of us who are reading this are much closer, economically and historically and culturally, to the oppressors in the story and not to the peasant women. It’s good to try to bridge this gap with empathy, but I’m afraid that we too often confuse this act of, basically, the consumption of another person’s experience with actual sort of empathy.

And so, I’m asking that we might need to begin with the humility to recognize that we don’t have the slightest idea what it is to be a peasant woman in Guatemala and step back from the notion that we are these universal selves who can swoop down on anyone in the world and understand their problems and fix their problems. But this is what we expect of our politicians. We expect empathy in the first place, right? I feel your pain. This kind of universal empathy, and we expect omniscience as well. What should we do about Syria? Well, we expect people to have a roadmap to peace in Syria. One of the recent, one of the presidential candidates was recently asked about Aleppo, and his response was what is Aleppo, right? And this was widely mocked, as it should be, right? It’s like wanting to be Ambassador to Spain and never having heard of Madrid or something like that. But the really interesting thing about this is that he went on, then, to lay out this plan. Or to at least claim with complete confidence that he knew all about Syria and knew just what to do to fix it. I’m gonna vote for the first candidate who says, I don’t have the slightest idea how to fix Syria because that’s true.

This is what Yale anthropologist James C. Scott calls seeing like a state. And it’s this view from above where you look down and you try to simplify very complex social realities and make them legible from above. And by making them legible, you also make them changeable. And, in fact, you don’t just read reality from above, but you change it so that it becomes more readable. And this is true both of the way the state works, and, Scott argues, kind of large-scale capitalist projects work this way as well, and these are favored by those in power because they enhance the power of those in power more than talking to the locals does. And they’re often sold on the basis of greater efficiency, but as Scott shows in case after case, and he talks about Soviet collectivization and Ujamaa villages in Tanzania, and these efforts at agribusiness in Ethiopia that’s pushing subsistence farmers off their land, and agribusiness in the U.S. and so on, that the results are often disastrous, both for the people on the ground and for the environment. They’re well meaning because you want to change the world for the better and make it more efficient, but they often fail because they ignore informal practices, they ignore the wisdom of the people on the ground, they ignore the kind of local knowledge that’s necessary to know what to do in a particular situation. Scott doesn’t necessarily think that all large-scale schemes to improve the human condition are bad, and neither do I.

It’s not so much about the scale, it’s more about the kind of mentality, the kind of approach that goes into, the kind of spirituality that goes into these kinds of efforts, and it’s often very destructive. Michael Budde, a Catholic political scientist writes, development is a violent, coercive process, an unrelenting war on the ability of peoples to provide for their most basic needs. This 500-year battle continues to push people further into depending for their survival on labor markets they do not control, investment policies they do not control, ideological systems they do not control, all of which presuppose the inferiority of subsistence activities. We assume that subsistence activities, that people providing a life for themselves is not good enough. We need to teach them how to live.

And there are theological implications to this as well. Scott cites Zygmunt Bauman who was talking about the kind of loss of God in the modern world. Secularization, he says, created a vacancy, the office of the supreme legislator-cum-manager, of the designer and administrator of the world order, was now horrifyingly empty. It had to be filled or else. And it’s filled precisely by this pretension of God-likeness that we address to change the world. You find this often, I can give lots and lots of examples of this. A lot of the examples are military. General Tommy Franks said technology gives U.S. military commanders the kind of Olympian perspective that Homer had given his gods. The Pentagon’s Joint Vision 2020 talks about full spectrum dominance, which means not just tactical but the domination of the information systems, everything that’s involved in a particular area. This confidence is expressed in Pentagon code names like Infinite Justice and Infinite Reach for recent military operations. So this ambition to change the world requires confidence, not only in our knowledge but also in our goodness. And there’s a kind of strain of American exceptionalism that is a prominent example of this. This idea that the United States is a city on a hill, that derives from the Puritan days.

By the 19th Century, Herman Melville could write, long enough have we been skeptics with regard to ourselves, and doubted whether, indeed, the political Messiah had come, but he has come in us, if we would but give utterance to his promptings. And let us always remember that with ourselves, almost for the first time in the history of earth, national selfishness is unbounded philanthropy, for we cannot do a good to America, but we give alms to the world. Now, President Obama was chastised for kind of downplaying American exceptionalism in 2009. Presidential candidate Mike Huckabee said, to deny American exceptionalism is in essence to deny the heart and soul of this nation. So Obama learned his lesson, and he cited American exceptionalism in a speech on Syria, of all places, in 2013. For which he was reminded, in the pages of the New York Times that, quote, God created all nations equal. And, I don’t know if you remember the famous theologian who reminded you of this, it was Vladimir Putin. [laughing] So this confidence that we have in our goodness rarely holds up under scrutiny. There are of course our national sins, like slavery, and racism, genocide of Indians, torture, and so on, but I’m primarily talking about the sins of each and every one of us, because I’m just not convinced that we’re good enough to use violence well. Dorothy Day talked about the response to violence is penance.

And there’s this kind of shared guilt in the body of Christ. Paul says that we share the joys and the sorrows all together in the body of Christ, but I think we also share the guilt together. The social structures, the marginalization and exclusion of African Americans, for example. There’s this shared guilt in the body of Christ, and our righteous anger makes us want to smash the enemy of course, but Jesus says, love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you so that you may be children of your Father in heaven, for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. And Jesus is implying here that we prematurely sort out the righteous from the unrighteous and, of course, put ourselves on the righteous side, but we’re not good enough to smite our enemies. That matter is in God’s hands, and we can only ask God for good gifts, and so, as Jesus says later in the Sermon on the Mount, if you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him! You who are evil, that’s us. Now, asking and waiting for God to change the world, though, can be terribly frustrating. We see the sufferings in Syria, and we want to do something now. And doing something requires confidence in our power to change things for the better. Unfortunately, often times, fighting violence with violence makes matters worse. ISIS is largely the fruit of our last attempt to fix the Middle East. We’re always kind of thinking that the next war is going to fix what the last war broke. And we’re sure that we’re going to kill all the right people this time. But deeper than the question, I’m using war and violence as a particular example of this, but it’s a deeper question than that. It’s rather this urge to fix the world. We’re all revolutionaries. We’re all unwilling to wait on God’s revolution, but God is a revolutionary and the urge to fix the world is right. God promises a new heavens and a new earth, and God is not indifferent to the suffering of the world.

God desires the radical alteration of the whole of society, not just our hearts. But as Gerhard Lohfink points out, God is different from other kinds of revolutionaries. Human revolutionaries are short on time. The masses are inert, lifetimes are short. You have to move them by coercion, some kind of Marxist grand overthrow of the oppressors, and then you have to change the peasants so that they become efficient cogs in the machine. Capitalism is equally impatient. Push the peasants off of subsistence farming, and let’s become more efficient. God, however, is not short on time. God wants to change the world without coercion, without taking away human freedom. How does he do that? Lohfink says, it can only be that God begins in a small way, at one single place in the world. There must be a place, visible, tangible, where the salvation of the world can begin. Beginning at that place, the new thing can spread abroad, not through persuasion, indoctrination, violence. Everyone must have the opportunity to come and see. And, if they want to, they can allow themselves to be drawn into the history of salvation that God is creating. What drives them to the new thing cannot be force, pressure, only the fascination of a world that is changed. The fascination of a world that is changed. I’ll come back to that in a minute, but this is the only way, I think, of explaining how God wants to change the world, but he picks a goat herd from Ur to do it with. Not this kind of grand gesture, but this obscure Middle Eastern tribe, this failed Messiah who changes the whole definition of power.

As Paul says, the cross which is foolishness becomes the power of God. God is out to change the world, but, shockingly, God wants to do it through humility because humility is what a changed world looks like. It’s not just a means to a greater good, it is the good. A changed world is one in which self-assertion has given way to the openness to the gifts of others, and it’s one where we abandon the assumption that we know what’s best for others, we’re good enough, we’re powerful enough to make our good intentions reality. So, in other words, a changed world requires that we abandon our ambitions to change the world because God changes the world and not us. Now the objection, of course, that is in all of your minds is, is he trying to say we’re not supposed to do anything? We’re just supposed to sit on our rear-ends and do nothing? No, that’s not what I’m saying. And I’m not saying large-scale projects never are good. It’s not so much a matter of scale, it’s a matter of how we approach the world in this way. And I think we need to keep a couple things in mind. First of all, repent is probably the first thing that we need to do. The sufferings of the world are often the results of our attempts to fix the sufferings of the world. And the Middle East today seems like a pretty good example of that. Perhaps taking in Syrian refugees would be one way of kind of doing penance in this. But that, repentance, only works if it’s accompanied by putting our hope in God and not in our own efforts to change the world.

So if we put our hope in God to change the world, then we’re freed from the choice between trying to do everything, on the one hand, and trying to do nothing, on the other hand. We don’t have to choose between doing everything and doing nothing. The Scriptures don’t call us to save the world, they call us to be faithful. To be witnesses to what God is doing. Psalm 121, unless the Lord builds the house, the laborers labor in vain. And this means living as if God has already changed the world, because God has already changed the world. And that’s how the Christians in the book of Acts lived. Sharing all their goods with those who had need and praising God together with joyful hearts. The only evidence they could give that the Messiah had come was that they were living differently. The only way to change the world is to live as if God has already changed the world. And so this means doing something but, as Stanley Hauerwas has written, by not trying to do everything but to do one thing that applies to ourselves and alters our lives, not altering other people’s lives, we are led further into God’s peaceable kingdom. For that one thing is just enough to remove us from the familiar world of violence so that our imagination might be freed to find yet one other thing that we could do. It’s very much like what James Scott talks about too. He says, favor small steps in collaboration with the powerless. Listen to people on the ground. Favor steps that are reversible, and always be ready for surprise. To be surprised by people, and be surprised by God. And so what I’m calling for is a fundamental reorientation of our approach. We don’t change the world, and God changes the world. And this, in some ways, strikes me as the only way to act as if God exists. We say that we believe that God exists, and we say that we believe that God acts in the world, but we really think nothing will happen unless we do it. So I want to finish with just one quote.

Dorothy Day used to hand these out on cards, it’s actually a quote from William James, but I think it’s pretty good. I’m done with great things and big plans, great institutions and big success. I am for those tiny, invisible, loving, human forces that work from individual to individual, creeping through the crannies of the world like so many rootlets, or like the capillary oozing of water, which, if given time, will rend the hardest monuments of human pride.