During the Thanksgiving holiday, I read a novel called My Revolutions by Hari Kunzru, which was on the New York Times notable book list for 2008. Now I'm reading Paul Hawken's nonfiction work, Blessed Unrest. The two books are about changing the world and are instructive to read back to back. How do we change the world?
My Revolutions is based loosely on a group in Britain called the Angry Brigade which, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, worked through bombings and acts of civil disobedienceto bring down the English government and its systems of domination and oppression. The Angry Brigrade wants to lead a political "movement" that will attract the "masses." In the fictionalized account, we see the action through the eyes of Chris Carver, a college student who falls into the radical group partly out of a desire to change the system but largely because he is infatuated with the astringently beautiful Anna, one of the group's leaders. Of course, he has to hide this regressive "bourgeois" desire for individualized, romantic love.
In the book, we watch the group do good things, such as occupying empty housing in London and refurbishing it for the homeless. But we also see the group slide into increased isolation, fanaticism, narcissism and violence. The group looks towards models such as Lenin and the Russian Revolution and Mao and the Chinese Revolution. Like many 20th century radicals, the members are motivated by "isms" such as communism, and by a desire for ideoligical purity. They think big, wanting to lead massive change all at once. In the end, as we know, they fail, and England remains much as it always has, a mixed economy with democratic elections and a titular monarchy. The book becomes an indictment of ideological fanaticism, self-delusion and violence.
In contrast, Blessed Unrest follows a different kind of "movement," which can hardly be called a movement: the organic, unorganized rise of more than a million small groups worldwide that are concerned about environmentalism and social justice. These groups follow a different model from the grand isms of the 20th century: they are pragmatic rather than ideological and they work often, though not always, for small, local changes. They are fluid, grouping and regrouping at will, and operate largely below the radar of the media.
The book's author, Paul Hawken, tends narrowly to identify Christianity, which he puts on the side of transnational systems of domination and oppression, with its worst fundamentalist forms. This secular viewpoint is a weakness and a blind spot in an otherwise splendid book.As I read about groups working in different ways to affirm one principle: the sanctity of life, human life primarily, but also animal life, I saw these groups as manifesting Jesus's message of loving God and loving one's neighbor as the most important values.
I saw Jesus' lessons flowing out of the actions of these small groups in many ways:
1. Pragmistism: Jesus came down on the side of pragmatic gestures. For example, he defends Mary Magdalene for her gesture of spontaneous love in breaking an expensive vial of perfume over him. He understood the ideoligical purity is soul killing while actions from the heart are soul expanding. Also, as just one other example, Jesus' valorized the debt-forgiving "crooked" steward who used common sense to help himself and his neighbors.
2. Working quietly: Jeus talked about being yeast and salt invisibly working its way through the culture to bring around small, incremental changes that add up to big change. Not only did he use these metaphors, he enacted a refusal to fall into the traditional patterns of "big" military "change" by refusing to lead a military uprising at the end of his life.
3. Standing for peace: Jesus' way was not violent. Even the overturning of the money lenders' tables in the Temple, his most aggressive act, didn't take any lives and apparently injured nobody permanently. This is a huge rachteting down of the violence of the ancient world and a contrast to Bibilcal leaders such as Moses, David and Ezekiel, who all killed. It's definitely a contrast to the carnage of the Roman Empire.
4. Valuing the little people: Do I need to say anything? Blessed are the meek, the poor, the broken spirited ...
5. Upside-down kingdom thinking: These groups seem to share a strong sense that the powers that oppress the world value the wrong things: that their wisdom is foolishness and that what they despise are the most precious gifts in the universe.
I wonder how many of the groups Hawkins describes, if not overtly Christian, arise out of Christian roots. Since I became a convert 17 years ago, I have fallen into a network of small groups that I never knew existed in my secular days. Just about everyone I know in the Christian/Quaker world is working for the kind of change Hawkin is talking about in the way he is talking about: small and grassroots. I think of Bill and his Consistent Life work, Peggy and her Abbess work, the raw milk network I've fallen into, the Patapsco Friends Meeting prison ministry, the peace work done by Stillwater meeting, Olney Friends School's commitment ... the list goes on. I'd be interested in hearing about what I've left out.