Posted by: Philip Rushton | April 2, 2012

Beyond Political Reform: How Holy Week gets at the heart of the problem

Palm Sunday exposes a problem that we continue to struggle with today. Those first worshipers misinterpreted Jesus’ entry to Jerusalem. They expected Jesus to bring an immediate technical fix to their problem. They expected him to be a political leader that would overthrow the government in Jerusalem. Instead, Jesus took on the deeper problems of evil by offering himself as a sacrifice on the cross. (For a more detailed explanation of what is going on in the Palm Sunday story check out last years post on the topic by clicking here.)

I think Jesus’ actions point us to a profound truth. Jesus reminds us that in order to change the world we cannot simply make technical changes. Our hope for a transformed world must go deeper than the reform of a political system or a reorganization of our institutional structures. We also need a change of heart.

I encountered a great example of this in a book I have been reading by the Dalai Lama. He recounts a story of his visit to Orissa, India, at a time when extreme poverty was leading to growing conflict and insurgency. The Dalai Lama met with the government officials and asked about what types of structures they had in place to battle this growing problem. To his surprise, he discovered that there were all kinds of well funded government projects in place to deal with the problems they were experiencing. The problem was that the people responsible for implementing these programs had become corrupt and selfish. The Dalai Lama concludes with this observation, “Ultimately, any system, any set of laws or procedures, can only be as effective as the individuals responsible for its implementation. If, owing to failures of personal integrity, a good system is misused, it can easily become a source of harm rather than a source of benefit.” (Beyond Religion, xii).

To be sure, I think we do need to work towards transforming our structures and systems. To ignore these practical issues would lead us toward a gnostic worldview, where structures and systems are seen as unimportant or evil. I was convicted of my careless attitude towards systems last week while reading Robert Logan’s book, Natural Church Development. He explains that we need to avoid two extremes in the church. One extreme is the “technocratic attitude,” where we think that we can grow the church by simply making technical fixes. The other extreme, however, is a “spiritualist attitude,” which neglects the importance of good structures and simply says, “lets just pray about it.” Logan reminds us that this second attitude is heading towards gnosticism. It fails to believe that God’s spiritual plan takes root in tangible earthly ways. So I do believe structures and systems are important. However, the Dalai Lama’s story reminds us that behind our structures and systems must be transformed people who have learned the importance of sacrificial love and compassion.

Where I disagree with the Dalai Lama is on how we experience this deeper transformation of character. He proceeds to argue in his book Beyond Religion, that we can root this needed transformation of character in our human nature. I believe that our hope for change is found in the story of Holy Week that we celebrate this week. Jesus’ subversive journey to the cross takes us beyond just an external fix. He addressed the problem of evil at its core and shows us a totally different way to change the world. Jesus, through his sacrifice on the cross, set in motion a new type of reality. His forgiveness and grace opened up a way for us to be set free from the patterns of evil that dominate our lives. As we experience this grace we can then start to live out a new type of life that is marked by the grace and compassion our world so desperately needs.

The Easter Story, then, reminds us that if we want to change the world we must begin by being changed ourselves. It is only as we encounter grace and learn the sacrificial love of Jesus that any structural change will having a lasting impact.

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