Can We Change the World?

Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis

This Week at Plymouth, February 9, 2024

The world is before you and you need not take it or leave it as it was when you came in.

—James Baldwin, “In Search of a Majority”

I remember the first time someone burst my idealistic bubble by scoffing at my idea that I could change the world. It was one of my philosophy professors who, while not trying to dissuade me from working for change, made me see that changing the world was an unrealistic burden to impose upon myself or anyone else. The change I wanted could start on a smaller scale. What change could I make in the school? My neighborhood? My city? My encounter with my professor led me to understand the distinction between the grandiose idea of changing the world, an approach I believe came from being shaped by our national myths of discovery, destiny, and rugged individualism, and the more attainable goal of improving my corner of the world. Consider the perspective often credited to Mother Teresa: “I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.” We all have the power to make change through our acts of justice, service, and compassion.

In the last few years, I have seen more expressions of helplessness to do anything about the myriad of challenges and injustices plaguing us. With our American government too immobilized by toxic partisanship, political theatrics, and an untrusting, dispirited electorate to address the most significant problems, we often despair that there will be constructive solutions to improve things. We want things to change, but change isn’t happening fast enough. However, James Baldwin, who asserted that we do not have to take or leave the world as we have found it, inspires me to see how change is possible. According to Baldwin, within humanity exists a desire to improve, to be better. However, without the guidance of strong leadership and the spark of imagination, we often find ourselves unable or unwilling to embark on the long journey towards becoming a better society. Yet, each of us has the potential to be a catalyst for change, inspiring those around us to act.

In the Gospel stories about Jesus, the geographic footprint of his ministry is small, and his teachings on ethics and discipleship never seemed beyond anybody’s capacity to internalize and follow. And yet, the reach of his teachings and movement abounds in our witness: loving neighbor and enemy, not retaliating against those who wronged us, being reconciled with your siblings, and not judging others. Such faithfulness and discipleship can potentially transform us and our communities. Yes, the world may be too big of an area to change, but we do not have to take or leave our corner of the world as we have found it. It begins with us and ripples out, inspiring and encouraging others to join us to be and do better. Amen.