Some time ago I came across a quotation from Mahatma Gandhi that challenged me more than anything has in many years. It was, “We must be the change we want to see in the world.” Gradually, I have discovered that the true depth of this statement tends to be obscured by its simplicity and that to truly comprehend it requires more than a casual acknowledgement. As I was pondering this concept, I encountered a statement by Martin Luther King who was a devout admirer of Gandhi and modeled his civil rights efforts upon Gandhi’s concept of non-violent civil disobedience. As part of King's acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize which he received in 1964, he said, “I refuse to accept that the isness of man's present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal oughtness that forever confronts him.”
Suddenly I found myself confronted by two outstanding martyrs staring me in the face and lovingly but firmly saying, “Pick up a glove and get in the game. Change is possible, and you need to be part of it.” This is not something I wanted to hear. I like sitting in the bleachers, yelling at the umpires, deriding the players, and commiserating with my fellow cynics about how the game is being played. I don’t want to have to work out and get in shape or play the game in a way that I might be observed and thereby judged by others. Can’t I just sit on the sideline and critique everybody else? Well, the answer to that was a deafening, “NO!”
This sounds like an overwhelming task. The world is so big and there is so much that needs to be changed, and on the grand scheme of things, I am quite insignificant. Yet upon further examination, the call is not to change the world. It is to be the change I want to see in the world. What does that mean? To me, there are three aspects involved. First, I had to ask myself what kind of people would I like to see inhabiting this planet. Second, how would those characteristics influence their behavior? Finally, what changes need to take place in my life in order to manifest those characteristics and behaviors?
So, I began my list. I would like people to be honest, kind, compassionate, loving, generous, hard working, content to live simply with no need for accumulating wealth, tolerant of diverse opinions, having a deep sense of connection with others and a willingness to sacrifice for the common good. These traits would be evident in their daily lives. They would work cooperatively, care for the weak, act lovingly towards one another and find ways to contribute to their communities.
It doesn’t take too long thinking along these lines before these lists start to sound familiar. These are the kind of virtues we find extolled in the scriptures of almost all of the major religions of the world. What I find fascinating is that these prescriptions for harmonious human interaction have been presented as preparation for spiritual objectives and not as a means of improving our existence here on earth.
In fact, much of traditional religious teachings have more to do with avoiding spiritual consequences than effecting change. In Judaism, the focus is on obtaining God’s blessing and avoiding His punishments in this present world. In Hinduism the primary effort is to become enlightened in order to avoid being reincarnated. Similarly, Buddhists seek enlightenment in order to avoid both rebirth and suffering in this present world. Meanwhile, Christians and Muslims are trying to reach heaven and avoid hell.
With all of this focus on getting out of here, it is a wonder that religion has contributed anything to this present world, but it has. Thankfully, in more recent years adherents seem to be increasingly aware of the obvious: if we become more God-like, then the
will become increasingly evident here and now. What if that was the original intention of the inspirations, but the message has been misconstrued over the years? What if Jesus meant exactly what he said when he said, “The kingdom of God is within you”? What if we merely need to begin living it? kingdom of God
Certainly Gautama Buddha and Jesus are two of the primary archetypes for leading the way to selfless service. In their shadow we find people like Anthony Benezet, Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Thich Nhat Hanh and countless others. However, recently a friend shared an account of an event that occurred in a local hospice facility. It reaffirmed my conviction that, although we need inspired leaders to promote positive social change, true change will occur among the masses as we embrace the message on a broad scale and interact one-on-one.
In the local hospice house, a Muslim man was nearing death. There was no Muslim cleric available to minister to him. So, the female Jewish Chaplin took an English translation of Muslim prayers, sat by his bed and began to read them to him. In response, he lifted his hands toward heaven and began repeating the prayers in Arabic. This is truly what it means to become the change we want to see in the world.
I would love to think that I am at the forefront of this approach, but that would be pure fantasy. As I began working on this posting, I googled “be the change,” and to my amazement and delight I discovered that there is an organization called Be The Change, Inc. Its mission is to promote policy development that will bring about significant social changes on a global scale. One of its campaigns has been Service Nation, which is federal legislation that was enacted in April, 2009. Its focus is to promote citizen involvement in problem-solving social issues at the grassroots level. One of its extremely ambitious goals is to make service an integral part of American culture. It is hard for me to place a great deal of confidence in anything that the government initiates; however, this certainly seems to be headed in a positive direction.
I find theology, philosophy and science fascinating, but I would hate to discover one day that while I was pondering the eternal and speculating on theories of cosmic origin, others were busy nurturing an environment that would promote our progression towards the omega point. I have identified what I need to become. I just need to seek ways to manifest it in my life. Being the change instead of waiting for the change to occur is how the present isness of my nature will become the eternal oughtness that ever confronts me.