Where Should Christians Begin in Transforming Society?

change ahead

One popular campaign ad initiated by a Philippine television station ABS-CBN called Boto Mo (Your Vote), Ipatrol Mo (Patrol it) Ako ang Simula sa Pagbabago (I am the Beginning of Change) is indeed a noteworthy endeavor to inspire nationalism and to involve the citizenry in a clean and honest election for the renewal of the country.

This campaign assumes an understanding of national change as starting from the self or “Ako”. It presumes that the self is the starting point of societal change: If all individuals would change for the better, then the entire society also become better. This understanding of social change is also prevalent in Christian theology: The self must first be converted before one becomes a worthy agent for social change. One is reminded here of Christ’s admonition in the Sermon of the Mouth: How can say you remove the dirt in your brother’s eye if you have not removed the plank from your own eyes. In short, individual conversion must precede social conversion.

But, is this always the case in transforming modern and contemporary societies? Can this approach to change favor only those in the status quo?


Photo: The opposition senator Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino (courtesy of en.wikipedia.com)

The issue here is this: Which should come first? Individual conversion or structural conversion? Or should both individual and structural change occur simultaneously? If one looks at the life of our Filipino hero Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino, it seems that he did not intend to convert himself first spiritually in order to be a worthy of oppositor of the Martial Law regime of former President Marcos. At the beginning, Ninoy has shown manifest opposition to the declaration of Martial Law by Marcos. And this Martial Law experience—aided by the spiritual influence of his religious wife  the former President Cory Aquino–has led to his spiritual conversion

The unjust system of Martial law which imprisoned Ninoy Aquino in Fort Bonifacio and Lauer had given him a chance to reflect on his own life and to become closer to God in prison. In one of his speeches, Ninoy said that after experiencing extreme deprivation in the military camp of Laur, Nueva Ecija, he had realized the meaning and mission of his life. thereafter he lost appetite for power and the pomp of the Senate. Ninoy was no saint when he first opposed Martial law. But his effort to change the system resulted in personal conversion or change of self in the process. Watch this video:

One can assume that Ninoy did not plan to become spiritual and Marian devotee when he opposed Martial Law. He simply saw and opposed the injustice done by Marcos and led a social movement and the entire nation to oppose the unjust structure. The unintended effect. however, took place. By fighting the injustice, the unjust situation became an occasion of his personal and spiritual conversion.

The conversion of Ninoy has similarity with what happened to the life of the first Filipino saint, San Lorenzo Ruiz. He did not intend to go to Japan and be martyred as a saint to bear witness to the unjust execution of Christians. He allegedly joined the missionaries leaving for Japan because he was falsely accused by the Spanish government of killing somebody in Manila. Not being fully aware of the consequences of his decision, he ended up testifying his faith in front of unforgiving persecutors in Japan. The situation has changed him and, in an unintended way, provided him the occasion—through God’s grace–to witness the Christian faith and to show his unwavering love for Christ. San Lorenzo helped plant the seed of Christianity to grow in Japan. The blood of the early missionaries to Japan like San Lorenzo had changed the unjust structure into something good. The blood of the martyrs legitimized Christianity in the country.

Theories in sociology point to the inseparability of individual action and society, between agency and social structure. Both are said to be mutually influencing each other. The social structure determines personal interaction and agency in society, but personal agency also determines the social structure in society. With the advent of new technologies, the recent sociological theory called Action-Network Theory (ANT) claims that social action is not only performed by humans but also with the indispensable cooperation of material things. Technology now plays a crucial role in determining social change in a postmodernist and cyber era.

Ako simula ng pagbabago

Photo translation: “Patrol your Country: I AM THE BEGINNING (OF CHANGE). Bayan Patrollers, what will you begin for change? (Photo credit: http://lpubatangas.edu.ph/abs-cbns-bayan-mo-i-patrol-mo-goes-to-lpu-b/)

A more realistic view of change must not only focus on individual agency as the starting point of social transformation. One cannot always assume that personal conversion or witnessing could lead to the conversion of other people and would eventually change society, just like the TV campaign “Ako ang Simula ng Pagbabago” (I am the Beginning of Change). It would be simplistic to assume that there would be no real change in society if individuals do not first experience personal conversion to fight injustice.

As mentioned, the sinner can convert himself/herself in the process while s/he starts working for the social transformation of society. The person’s social action should be accompanied by a genuine effort to grow in personal holiness, otherwise, the individual effort for change might only result in personal quest for achievement or power, activism or political adventurism. The point is—the Christian must be open to where the Spirit may lead him/her to begin his/her social action for change.

Photo credit (except those with attribution): Pexels.com free photos and FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

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