Social Transformation Takes Work

Taking meaningful social action is hard for churches. Yet social transformation, which is really what churches are all about, only comes through the hard and persistent work of individuals and groups.

Social transformation — creating more just and compassionate communities — begins by addressing real needs and not imagined ones. There are lots of nice things to do to help people, but whether or not these things are truly needed or even effective should be considered carefully.

Let’s look at homelessness. The way to end homelessness is to house people. It is that simple. If the goal is to end homelessness, then our priority must be housing. Everything else is secondary.

There are many groups and churches who want to do something about homelessness. They want to feel good about doing good. So they gather hygiene products for the homeless. Or they make blankets. Or they gather coats, shoes, and other basic items for the homeless. They go out on holidays and serve food to the homeless. At Christmas, they buy gifts for the homeless.

All of these are wonderful and kind acts. But if we step back, if we look at it from a distance and with honesty, we will see that none of these projects has helped end homelessness. No one has been housed. At best, these groups have helped homeless individuals be a little more comfortable while remaining homeless.

Non-profits are partially to blame for this situation. We are not willing to tell the truth about these warm-hearted programs. We are unwilling to say to churches and donors: Thank you, but those things are not helpful. They will not end homelessness. What we need from you is housing. And since a lot of homeless individuals are employed, that housing just needs to be affordable based on the realistic earning capacity of a family or individual.

Homelessness persists, at least in the U.S., because churches and social groups have not been willing to do the actual hard work of housing those who are houseless. This might involve opening up church buildings to the homeless, or pressuring lawmakers to build realistically affordable housing, or some other approach.

JizoBig social changes involve sacrifice. Homelessness persists because we, as people of faith, do not truly believe that everyone deserves a home. We are willing to accept homelessness — even the homelessness of families and children — because challenging the status quo is uncomfortable.

If we want to create a more compassionate society, then we need to take action to address real needs in an effective way. Start local. Be effective. Charity is good and important, but we also need to work for structural change. By all means feed your hungry neighbor, but then begin challenging the systems that contribute to hunger in your community.

Charity is often easier than social change. There is something immediately satisfying about feeding a hungry person, or giving a coat to someone who is cold. But if you have to do that day-in and day-out for years, it gets old. So challenge broken and oppressive systems. Charity is a Band-aid. Social change is the cure.

Churches and Faith Communities have the resources to maintain the struggle over the long haul. We have Faith and Vision. However, realizing the Pure Land — the community rooted in love and compassion —  requires action. The Pure Land arises when we do the hard and tangible work of reducing poverty, oppression, violence, racism, injustice, and environmental destruction in our neighborhoods and local communities.

Peace, Paul

Photo: Jizo Bodhisattva, a protector — especially of children

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4 Responses to “Social Transformation Takes Work”

  1. melhpine Says:

    Charity is easy and can be done by the individual. For a church to, for example, provide housing for the homeless, that requires community action. And I believe that’s where things fall apart. I think religious institutions need to start by strengthening the loving bonds within in order to do the more fundamental work outside.

    • Peace Paul Says:

      Aloha Mel, Thanks for engaging with this important topic. I think that your agument is essentially the argument that many traditional Buddhist make. Become enlightened first, then go out and help others. And while there is definitely merit in devloping some spiritual maturity, this can also lead us down the “starfish” path. We become so obsessed with perfection, that we don’t do the things that we can to help others — even if that help is imperfect.

      Personally, I think our churches can take meaningful social action and effect social transformation. Further, I think that collective social action will strengthen the bonds of love within a church.

      Peace, Paul

      • melhpine Says:

        Thanks for your response, me friend.

        I don’t mean to say that a church community can’t do deeper work until it becomes enlightened. I’m saying that what stops it from doing deeper work in the wider community is individual members’ fears of starting conflict. The church community may need to do some internal work in which people learn to learn to listen compassionately to each other.

        I’d say the analogy is not to putting an individual’s enlightenment ahead of good works on the outside. I see the analogy more like: An individual is not going to get much done id s/he is deeply conflicted.

        Of the analogy might be more like meditating for 10 minutes before giving a talk.

      • Peace Paul Says:

        Thank you for clarifying.

        I agree. It does seem that many churches are conflict adverse. And certainly if they start challenging the status quo members will be upset.

        However, I am also reminded of Dr. King’s pointed critique in his, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” I am also mindful of how many relgious folks have been and are today quietly complicit in autrocities because they did not want to make a fuss.

        These are hard issues to navigate, as you know all too well.

        Peace, Paul

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