Changing the World in Three Easy Steps

In my last post I was arguing that cosmopolitanism should function as a minimal ethical standard for reading the biblical text. However, cosmopolitanism is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for creating a complete Christian ethic. Which got me thinking about the steps we would need to pass through to move beyond cosmopolitanism toward the goal of Christian love. So here they are, my three steps for creating a better world.

Step 1: Cosmopolitanism
As I argued in my last post, we need to recognize that, despite our differences, we all seek the same things in life. We are each citizens of the world. A global village. As JFK said, "For in the final analysis, our most basic common link, is that we all inhabit this small planet, we all breathe the same air, we all cherish our children's futures, and we are all mortal."

Step 2: Kindness
I recently read a quote from the Dali Lama that said, "My religion is kindness." I love that sentiment.

The troubling thing for me is how so few Christians view kindness as being at the heart of their religious practice. I see this as a serious problem. I think this is because the Christian moral vision is often too heroic. Christians say that love--that big and heroic vision--is at the heart of their practice. But as they say this they tip waiters poorly, criticize co-workers too harshly, and smile too infrequently. In my mind, kindness is love with training wheels. We need to work on smiling more. Work on tipping well. Work on complimenting frequently. Work on thoughtfulness.

Christians need to take a year to stop focusing on love and just practice kindness for a season. It could be a revolutionary change for us. Let's try hard for one year to make kindness central to our religion. And then maybe, if we get good at this, we can graduate to love.

Cosmopolitanism without kindness can get kind of cold. Tolerance and acceptance can be stand-offish. But kindness infuses civic life with warmth and humanity.

Along these lines, I've posted before about generalized reciprocity, the "pay it forward" world. (Direct reciprocity is "you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours." Generalized reciprocity is "you scratch my back and I'll scratch someone else's.") As illustrations of the "religion of kindness" I've often pointed to three commercials I'm particularly fond of:

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I love this vision, but a warm cosmopolitanism still doesn't go far enough. So, our final step:

Step 3: Jubilee
In the end, cosmopolitanism and kindness, to be fully Christian, must seek tangible effects in the real world. In Leviticus 25 the Year of Jubilee is described. At its heart, Jubilee is about redistribution. That is, after years of exchange and bartering the rich inevitably get richer while the poor get poorer. Jubilee hits the reset button. A redistribution occurs.

I see Jubilee--redistribution--to be the final step in the Christian journey. This redistribution is both personal and systemic. On the personal scale, I give my life away by redistributing my time, energy, and priorities for the sake of the Other. Systemically, we seek Jubilee in the large-scale economic and sociological factors governing the world. The point is, without Jubilee cosmopolitanism and "pay it forward" would be fairly limp and superficially sweet. However, a Jubilee without a warm cosmopolitanism would be very cold and inhuman (think of unhappy Marxists). We need more than food, clothing and shelter. We need affectionate community as well.

So there it is, my three simple steps to change the world:

1. Cosmopolitanism
2. Kindness
3. Jubilee

What would be your list?

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5 thoughts on “Changing the World in Three Easy Steps”

  1. I want to tell a story that absolutely has to be anonymous.

    My (maternal) grandfather was a stern, proper, "upright" man. But kindness was, at best, difficult for him. My grandmother was a gentle, kind, compassionate woman. They made an amazing study in contrasting temperments. My grandfather's characteristic harsh appraisals of others' flaws--moral and otherwise--made him a lightening rod for collecting angery responses. He had few friends as a result, and my grandmother's long-suffering kept them together through episodes which she would try to counter by pleading, "There's no call for that!"

    At Grandpa's funeral a small gathering of family and friends were seated at the front of the church. But behind the friends and family a generous peppering of solitary men of late middle age or older were spaced behind the family. It was a curious sight.

    Some time later one of those solitary men who knew the family explained. In what was his retirement year my grandfather, an engineer on the railroad, had been in charge of a train that missed a signal light, or so it was thought, and failed to pull to a side track for an oncoming train that had the right of way. A collision caused a derailment that made national news, and my grandfather was faulted.

    Because of his stern moralistic temperment, he never forgave himself--or so it seemed. But what my grandfather's co-worker told us required our family to revise that view. The signal light was not working; it had been reported as not working, but not been fixed; and the man in charge of fixing it pleaded with my grandfather to take the blame, since grandpa was ready to retire and the man who should have fixed the signal still had a family to raise.

    It turns out that a score or more of elderly men went to my grandpa's funeral to pay their respects to an angry old man that they viewed as a hero.

  2. The idea of kindness as love with training wheels is one I greatly enjoy. Often, kindness seems to be weak sauce, something we go to when we have no real compassion to draw on.

    I think it's time I changed that view. I'll still ask myself if I loved with Christ's love today, but I'll have to make sure that I don't lose sight of something as simple as being kind.

  3. Dear anonymous, I whole heartedly love your story. Thank you for your tender retelling. I have dear family in that category as well who, as you say, are sternly upright in their ways and who have been tested with fire. With some, this fire has brought increasing modicums of kindness, even previously unknown gentleness. With others, the fire has seemed to further steel their heart making them harder and certainly more difficult to live with. The hero saves lives. The sincerely kind encourage and enable others to go save lives. With both, we have reason to rejoice.

  4. anonymous,
    I also love the story. Thanks so much for sharing it. It made me wonder how comprehensive my "three steps" were. As your story illustrates, there are holy and heroic choices that don't easily translate into kindness. The world if full of fairly gruff people who would give you the shirt off their backs. The words "moral duty" don't quite capture what I'm after but it gets close to the idea of what I saw a lot in my grandparents.

  5. I would add honesty to this list.

    When I became honest with my heart about who I was, what I was capable of, and what was really important in this world, I was able to start practicing kindness and charity. Honesty opens spiritual doors and helps us deal with that chip on our shoulder. When I was 20, I developed something of an identity crisis. I felt like a fraud almost all of the time, but I also felt I had to prove myself. It's hard to be kind and joyful when you are constantly trying to prove something to others. So get honest with yourself. Be vulnerable to others. It isn't easy. It takes prayer, fasting, and hard thinking. But it can change your life.

    Simplicity is also important.

    Get rid of the stuff you don't need, and some of the stuff you think you do. My spiritual life completely changed when I started minimizing my material possessions. The material world isn't evil, but it is very distracting. Here are 6 Ways Simplicity Led Me to Christ

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