On Why I’d Rather Not “Make a Difference”

Yesterday afternoon I attended Canadian Mennonite University’s “In Gratitude” event. Essentially, this event showcases a sample of the graduating class by having grads from different disciplines give short speeches; some music students perform a few pieces. Many of the speeches, though there were certainly exceptions, seemed to centre around a refrain more or less along the lines of, “after my training and preparation I am now ready to take on the world and make a difference.”

Before proceeding further, I want to make it clear that I am not speaking against social action as such. I think that pursuing social justice is a very good thing. I am sure that many of the speakers will do many great things, making good on their efforts to “make a difference.”

Nevertheless, I found something quite troubling with this rhetoric of “saving the world.” Because the world is in so much trouble, the reasoning goes, we need to spring into action, solving problems one step at a time, and thereby bringing about a better world. This conveys a certain sense of urgency that I think is both dangerous and counterproductive to the good work that these people want to do.

Last summer, I served as a pastoral intern in a small church in southern Ontario. One of my tasks in this role was visiting two elderly ladies in the local nursing home. Time moves differently in a nursing home. Without significant tasks to perform or places to go there is absolutely no urgency (and also often no sense of meaning or purpose). Being in such a place caused me to reconsider much of what we take for granted about speed, efficiency, and what it means when we say we want to “change the world.” (I experienced a similar phenomenon when preparing meditations for the retirement home next door. Many “social justice” themed messages would have been inappropriate, so I had to rethink what it is that I am trying to achieve in my preaching.)

It is difficult to say that in visiting these two seniors I was in any way “making a difference.” Instead of springing into action, I settled down into an uncomfortable chair. Instead of solving important problems, I chatted with people who would quite possibly not remember my visit an hour later. Instead of changing the world, I entered a zone without time while “the world” moved on outside. In this case, doing good work was about slowing down. Patience did not mean learning to wait longer in order to make a difference; it meant learning to be okay with not making a difference at all. When I asked myself “what am I doing here?” the answer could not be disconnected from the immediate people I was with and the words I was speaking in the moment.

Of course, I am writing this post because I think that this topic has ramifications far beyond how it is that we live and work with seniors.

Within the “In Gratitude” speeches, connected to this urgent desire to go forth and make a difference, was the idea that our education is primarily a time of preparation where we acquire skill and knowledge in the classroom which we can then go out and apply within “the real world” – though, admittedly, none of the speeches were this lacking in nuance.

I would ask these speakers to re-evaluate their time in the classroom. I have experienced the classroom as a time of heated discussion, flashes of insight, and engaged confusion. In the classroom, barriers have broken down and relationships have been forged strengthened. In other words, I have, at its best, experienced the classroom itself as a site of redemption, not as a place primarily of preparation for making redemption happen somewhere else.

I think that the urgency within a rhetoric of “making a difference” has the potential to degrade our ongoing relational dynamics as sites of redemption. Furthermore, I think that this rhetoric holds a certain potential to take away from the (often tension filled) relational work that is at the heart of building peace and justice. It is not that paying attention to broader social structures and attempting to change systematic injustice is unimportant – indeed, it is terribly important. But we must also be careful in how we go about these tasks if we are to ensure that they do not become separated from dwelling within just and peaceful relationships. Urgency would have us limit diversity, as we decide who can be helped and who cannot, who is in and who is out. Urgency would have us take up coercive means, violating our relationships with some. Urgency cannot sustain peaceful relationships and a rhetoric of urgency has no place in our desire to do good work.

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2 comments on “On Why I’d Rather Not “Make a Difference”

  1. Kampen says:

    How about “making a differance?” Or “making differance?” Just some word play, May or may not be worth thinking about more. Anyway, I don’t think that Christianity is against speed and urgency as such and in every case. It’s more of an emphasis on and realization that God is working in the world, God is always doing more than we perceive. “Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine…” (Eph. 3:20) I think your critique of urgency is correct, but I also think that there is a kind of urgency appropriate for Christian theology, namely that of eschatological anticipation – the urgency of the apocalyptic that nevertheless does not seek to bring about the kingdom. How do we articulate the urgency of the apocalyptic? The patient labour of love and grace? Of course I am thinking of Taubes here.

    • geraldens says:

      I like the word play quite a bit. “Don’t make a difference, make differance” has a nice ring to it and there may be interesting directions to head from there vis-a-vis possibility, impossibility, and deferment…I shall think more on these matters!

      I think you’re right to name the apocalyptic here; exchatological anticipation is crucial to thinking through Christian ethics/theology. I’m still not sold on urgency though. This could just bring us into semantics, but I used the word urgency to connote a sort of overwhelming pressure to reach out and grab hold of events, to seize control such that one leaves what seems unimportant or insignificant behind. I wanted to show that, precisely in its insignificance, the insignificant is significant. If we want to underscore our patient labour of love and grace with the apocalyptic, perhaps we should speak of it as zealous or ardent; to speak of it as urgent seems like somewhat of a contradiction. There is a long history of Christian interpretation of the apocalyptic threads in the Bible that have prescribed an urgent ethic. Picking up on the anti-empire and social justice themes in books like Revelation, they sought to bring God’s kingdom of peace and justice to earth with violence – Thomas Muntzer stands in as a nice example of this. The sword replaces witness culminating in martyrdom as the Christian’s greatest weapon. Along with many, I think this is a rather serious interpretations. What I tried to say in my post is that promises of nonviolence do not yet appease me. We are not nonviolent for nonviolence’s sake. The question, rather, concerns the nature of the Kingdom we say Christ is bringing about.

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