“There can be only one permanent revolution — a moral one; the regeneration of the inner man. How is this revolution to take place? Nobody knows how it will take place in humanity, but every man feels it clearly in himself. And yet in our world everybody thinks of changing humanity, and nobody thinks of changing himself” Leo Tolstoy
It is a self evident fact that the world needs changing. That fact presupposes that there is a problem with the world in its current state. An illness of sorts infecting the body that everyone can see but no one can quite agree on how to treat it. How you diagnose the problem is highly significant because that will determine what prescription you will give. How you frame the problem determines the possibilities open to solving the problem. Most people ofcourse want to contribute to making the world a bit better however we are often at a loss on how to go about doing it. I was listening to Jordan B. Peterson’s podcast on How to Change the World And it got me thinking about two fundamentally different ways in which we can frame the problem of How to change the world. The way of Jesus and the way of Karl Marx. What follows is a rough sketch and work in progress on what I think are two basic ways on how to go about changing the world.
The way of Jesus
Much more can be said about Jesus’ message and mission than what I will say here. However I think it will still capture the basic essential difference and approach that Jesus had in mind in what the problem with the world is and how to change it.
The first difference concerns the location of the problem and level of analysis. According to Jesus, the problem with the world is located in each and every single individual. The term that Jesus and his followers use to describe this is the sinful nature. Again much can be said about the meaning and implications of this term but my discussion is rather limited to its very broad and general features.
- The sinful nature (call it the inherent capacity for evil) is the source and root of what is wrong with the world. All evil and vice is traced back to it. To put it another way it means that what is wrong with the world is ultimately not merely external, socioeconomic conditions but rather the inner world of the human heart.
- Most importantly it is universal and it lies within each and every single individual. Every individual has the capacity for great evil and harm.
- It is not all doom and gloom. We are not only creatures composed of a sinful nature. We are made in what biblical writers called the image of God meaning we have the capacity for self-knowledge and a moral conscience (we can know what is good and evil). Our nature is to pursue and do what is good – to be virtuous.
When you combine these three premises, changing the world then must necessarily begin with changing the self through redemption and it is an inside-out approach.
Let’s unpack this idea a bit.
A zero-sum game approach will not work. It means you cannot simply wipe out and annihilate the problem as if it were a war between two opposing armies. If you take that approach you would have to wipe out yourself and the whole world because the sinful nature is distributed amongst every individual. Assuming that no one wants to expunge themselves and the entire world a different approach is required then.
Changing the world must then begin with changing yourself first. Firstly because what’s wrong with the world partly lies within you – you have to first struggle with your own sinful nature and overcome that. The first rule would then be – do no harm and constrain your own vices. This means struggling and fighting to become virtuous and less sinful. Struggling against our own impatience, selfishness, greed, pride, hatred, deceitfulness, hypocrisy, envy which are inclinations always seeking an opportunity to manifest themselves in the numerous and daily activities of life.
The second rule is that you fight evil with good. Living in a broken world naturally we will encounter its effects daily. We will encounter it from loved ones, friends, colleagues, and all the way outwards to the more obvious and not so subtle evils in the form of terrorism and criminals. Fighting evil with good means refusing to let the external sinful nature of the world overcome you and turn you into precisely that. Because if you overcome evil with evil – evil still wins even if your evil can be rationalised. This can mean for example not letting the betrayal by a spouse turn you into a hateful and bitter person.
The fight is always against the sinful nature which we have in common but manifests itself in different and particular ways – murder, theft, slavery, racism, sexism and terrorism for example.
Changing the world is then a process of redemption. Redemption means purchasing back what was once lost. The image I have in mind is that of restoring an old but valuable painting to its original condition after years of deterioration. The task is one of restoration and not annihilation. It necessarily involves then not just loving those that love you but as Jesus said, “loving your enemies”.
Let’s see how this approach has been applied in practice. When civil right and apartheid activists fought against the injustices of apartheid and segregation it was under the assumption that the oppressors still had a moral conscience that we shared that one could appeal to. The dream as Martin Luther King put it was a society restored and united where oppressed and oppressor could dine together at the table of brotherhood as. Redemption of society is only possible if we assume a shared humanity and moral conscience.
The way of Marx
For Marx the problem lies in class struggle. History is this battle between two classes which for Marx originally were the capitalists and the workers. The capitalists oppressed and exploited the worker resulting in their misery. Although Marx’s ideas in economics are largely invalid they have been appropriated in a way that maintains his basic idea of a struggle between the oppressor and the oppressed. Call this conflict theory and it is outside in.
The real problem according to Marx is that there are unjust social conditions and they are the result of the oppressor exerting power over the oppressed. The root cause lies in one specific group, who are motivated by power, self-interest and greed subjugating and controlling the other group – conflict theory.
The implications are that you have an intrinsically divided humanity. One group is intrinsically evil and the other only instrumentally. For example if an individual from the oppressed and marginalized group does some evil then it is because of their social conditions. If an individual from the oppressors group commits the same evil it is because their nature is intrinsically evil.
Needless to say the logic of this idea is the same principle built into the fabric of racism, fascism, nazism, white supremacy. The central idea is that one group of humans are superior rationally and morally, and some other group is inherently inferior. It is what Ludwig Von Mises called polylogism – the idea that the logical and rational structure of humans is not identical – different groups have different types of logical and rational structure and hence different intellectual capacities and moral sentiments which are inherent to the them.
Recall you have one group which is the oppressor, responsible for all the evils of the world. This group is without full moral conscience, reason and humanity. There is conflict between the two groups that can only end in one group dominating and subjugating the other group. Conflict theory leads to a zero sum game. Coexistence and redemption is impossible because the other group cannot change their inherent nature which is to dominate and have power over you.
All totalitarian systems whether fascism, nazism, apartheid, or slavery are the logical outcomes of conflict theory. You first assume there is no shared humanity between your own group and the other – either because of an assumed superior intellect or moral conscience. Secondly the basic structure of society is intrinsic conflict – the other group wants to dominate you so you must dominate or worse annihilate them for you own good.
The way of Jesus is better because it is rooted in a deep humility in how we approach the world when attempting to change it. Before removing the “speck from your brother’s eye” you must “remove the plank from your own eye”. This has two implications. Firstly, we all have the capacity for the evil that we see in others. It could be because of fortuitous, accidental reasons beyond my control that my own capacity for evil has been less harmful and has resulted in less severe consequences . Secondly, the capacity for evil inside of me (which we all tend to judge to be smaller and less harmful relative to other peoples’) – I normally want forgiveness and redemption from. Therefore I should extend the same courtesy to the world.
The way of Marx leads to a radical sense of self-righteousness which dulls our empathy and sympathy. A person who wants to radically change the world blinded and oblivious to their own deep faults is a dangerous person. When you divide the world into two groups conflicting – the one group is an innocent victim the other a tyrannical power hungry group – you obviously lose the ability to sympathize with anyone in the opposing group; you cannot help but see them as an enemy to be wiped out. Secondly you assume you are morally superior and infallible in your ethical sentiments and convictions. Therefore there is no room for dialogue, debate, reason, negotiation in such a world – only revolution resulting in the subjugation of the other.
The actions of students on American campus’s is the result of this principle working itself out in a mild and restrained manner thus far. Conservatives, classical liberal thinkers with opposing and not so politically correct ideas are not be reasoned with or debated but are categorically shut down and prevented from speaking. Black students who claimed that their white professor can never know what their experience is like as well as not being capable of even empathizing with them – a basic universal human trait – can only be the result of the claim that our humanity is not truly universal and shared. The fact that your skin colour prevents you from empathizing and understanding my experiences means of course you are not fundamentally human in the same way I am – our identities are fundamentally different. We are so locked into our group identities that we cannot transcend and relate beyond them. We are like tribes stranded on our own group islands unable to swim beyond our shores to reach other islands.
And so the logic of identity politics says whatever you have to say is irrelevant because it is an idea and opinion not from my group or class. In addition to that the possibility of my perspective being partial, incomplete, mistaken or unaware about certain facts does not exist therefore there is no need for discourse and debate.
Changing the world according to Jesus then is a revolution of the inner man, the condition of the heart, it is a redemptive process and begins with the individual. The individual is not an abstract isolated entity but is always embedded within a concrete culture, society and group. The redemption of the individual transforms how they relate to others within their own group and those outside of it
Changing the world according to Marx is a revolution in the basic structures of society – which really amounts to a changing of which group gets to dominate. At its extreme end it results in the complete elimination or subjugation of the group that oppresses the other. At its best we descend into tribes – unable to cooperate, communicate and understand beyond our own narrow tribal worldviews.