The word “transformation” appears on the website of nearly every Christian organization involved in addressing poverty and social injustice.
Speak to college students about their aspirations, it would not be unusual to hear some of them talk about wanting to change the world.
Images of emaciated children in Yemen. Devastated cities in Syria and Iraq. Streams of refugees. Stories of racism, terrorism, brutal gang warfare, human trafficking and chronic poverty are so corrosive that they destroy any semblance of human dignity. They remind us daily that our world needs changing and transformation.
But, by promising the poor transformation are we making a promise we cannot keep? By encouraging people to change the world, are we setting them up for frustration and disappointment?
How do we as followers of Christ respond to the reality of poverty and evil that confronts us in a globalized world?
A human reaction, whether one is a Christian or not, is a deep sense that this is not the way the world was meant to be.
So, we focus on providing the poor with the basic necessities of life. By focusing on social justice, we hope that the lasting and enduring change can happen.
We are called to make a difference in this world – to be salt and light; salt that prevents further decay, and light that overcomes darkness.
Throughout the New Testament, the exhortation is to “do good,” which, as N.T. Wright reminds us, was a phrase that was in regular use in the Apostle Paul’s world, referring to financial contributions to civic and community life.
The acts of goodness that Paul encouraged were focused on the poor and social problems.
Unfortunately, present discussions on addressing poverty and social injustice often neglect to factor in the reality of human sin.
Sin, evil, arrogance and greed are not only the causes of much of what is wrong with the world, but also prevent lasting change or transformation.
As soon as some degree of social or political change is achieved, evil resurfaces in some form or the other to destroy, diminish or undermine what has been achieved.
By not acknowledging the reality of sin, we promise the poor lasting change to their social circumstances, which we cannot deliver or assure.
We also set ourselves up for disappointment when sustainable change does not happen or what has been achieved is reversed because of the greed of powerful individuals.
If sin and evil are a reality in our world, is social and political transformation possible? Is it a biblical concept – something that we as Christians are called to achieve?
Transformation is a valid biblical concept, but it is God who transforms and invites us into partnership. Nowhere in Scripture are we called to transform the world.
However, God is already in the process of redeeming human beings and creation and will transform all when created time melds into eternity.
On this side of eternity, Christians are urged to “do good to all people” (Galatians 6:10) and be faithful stewards of the world that God has created (Genesis 1:28).
However, among Christian development professionals, the power of God is often functionally not part of their consciousness in planning social change.
The reality is that community development and efforts at transformation are anthropocentric, where human beings see themselves as central and as the main actors of social change.
The focus is on mobilizing the community, on getting the community assessment and project designs right, on implementing properly while ensuring participation, local ownership and sustainability.
The assumption is that if this is done effectively, transformation will occur. If it does not, then the planning or the process was flawed.
What is ignored is that God is the author of history and is involved not only in the rise and fall of nations, but is present in local communities seeking ways to accomplish his will and establish his kingdom.
Our prayers, rather than being “Lord bless the work of our hands which we have planned,” should be, “Lord, where and how are you already working, and how do you want us to be involved? May your kingdom come, may your will be done in this community, just as it is in heaven.”
The centrality of God in any kind of ministry is stated in 1 Corinthians 3:6, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth.”
It is not that human effort is of no value, as Paul and Apollos were both involved, using their gifts within their calling. God requires us to be agents of change, but it is God who transforms.
As co-laborers with God in his mission, Christians work for change and social justice so that human beings can enjoy the blessings of God in this life.
Yet, these need to be done with a deep and constant awareness that evil is real, that human beings are sinful and that sin permeates and warps social, economic and political structures.
Rupen Das is research professor at Tyndale University College and Seminary in Toronto and the national director of the Canadian Bible Society. He is author of several books, including “Compassion and the Mission of God.” A version of this article first appeared on his blog. It is used with permission.
Editor’s note: This is the first in a two-part series. Part two is available here.