The will to change

On his way to Calvary, Jesus foretold many events that astonished his followers.  He said he would be arrested, that one of his own disciples would betray him, and that Peter himself would deny that he knew him, not once but three times.  He said he would be crucified, and he would die on the cross.  He would be buried, but he would rise from the dead.  Jesus held these things to be true, and he acted upon them so that God might forgive the sins of men, and thus change the circumstances of their existence. This is the poetry of forgiveness around which the Christian faith revolves.  It is a philosophy of action and hope, and Jesus was its strongest poet.

Many of us hold certain beliefs, but all too often we fail to act upon them.  As such, they serve us no purpose.  They have no meaning, no effect on the way we live our lives.  They are books that remain unread, music that is unheard, faith that is unrealized.  We remain trapped in old untested beliefs, from which we cannot free ourselves because of fear.  We do not develop the courage to experiment, to test our beliefs, to connect them to the practical details of our lives. Consequently, there is a huge gap between the beliefs we profess and the beliefs we actually hold by default, our habits of action.  And indeed there is an even bigger gap between our habits of action as a people and our social goals.

A friend of mine was complaining recently about corruption in a city government office.  He said he needed to secure a hundred and one permits just to remodel an old house.  Every precious signature depended on compliance with a set of requirements that kept growing as he produced the necessary documentation.  After some months of following up papers, his contractor told him that the message being conveyed was loud and clear:  a small amount, the usual S-O-P or “standard operating procedure,” would hasten the release of the needed permits.

I advised my friend to go and report the matter to the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) so an entrapment operation could be set. He was ready to do so but he never got around to it.  His contractor decided to pay, offering to take the added expense out of his earnings. These people work as a syndicate, he said; you get one of them arrested, and the rest of the gang will make life difficult for you.

The contractor’s fear is not unfounded.  Everyone who has dealt with such offices assumes a general order of things to which you can only adjust.  When you are busy earning a living, you cannot afford to take risks fighting the system.  Yet elsewhere in the metropolis, my daughter who is building a house in Cainta was pleasantly surprised to be able to get all the building permits she needed in one day without having to pay anybody or secure special favors from anyone. There are such pockets of institutional integrity in our society, and they are steadily multiplying, quietly supplanting the old discredited ways of doing things with straightforward public service.

It is less difficult to reform systems from within than to expect heroic individuals to expose the evils of systems from outside. Corruption thrives on the proliferation of unnecessary and unreasonable requirements.  It is the stepchild of inefficiency.  A responsible leader in an office usually knows who is on the take. If he is not himself part of the racket, and feels strongly about it, he will find ways of eliminating the opportunity and getting rid of the rotten personnel.  To do this he needs a critical mass of reformers to help him, for the corrupt will do everything to tie his hands, to sabotage his efforts, and to undermine his authority and integrity by capitalizing on his own minor lapses.

It is never easy to initiate change.  The will to change has to be anchored on a will to believe that things can be different.  Such a belief often cannot be grounded on simply the evidence at hand. Yet if one believes and, on this basis, he acts upon the world, his action may change the situation in ways he himself has not anticipated. In the results he may find the affirmation of his belief, or, feeling unjustified in his faith, he may become cynical.  Such are what John Dewey called “the risks of faith.” The point is that we will never know if our beliefs matter until we act on them, or unless we live them.

In his thought-provoking essay, “Christianity and Democracy,” Dewey said: “The one claim that Christianity makes is that God is truth; that as truth He is love and reveals Himself fully to man, keeping back nothing of Himself; that man is so one with the truth thus revealed that it is not so much revealed to him as in him; he is its incarnation.” Dewey is not a theologian but a philosopher. But his understanding of the nature of man in Christianity allows one to appreciate better the portrayal of Jesus in the gospels.

Jesus was being prosecuted for supposedly claiming he was the son of God. Yet in fact he always referred to himself as the son of man. He called God his Father only because he believed that all human beings were God’s children. His disciples were stunned by the revelations he made, and how they all turned out to be true.  But the bigger truth he was teaching them by his own life was the truth that is already in them, waiting to be lived.

People sometimes wonder how a predominantly Christian culture like ours could be the fount of corruption.  There is a simple explanation for that:  faith, for most of us, is separate from everyday life. We do not draw from it ideals or the will to change.

Happy Easter!

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