‘As a society, we accept, participate in and perpetuate things that are inherently evil. Things like poverty, racism, social inequality, economic imperialism, all kinds of discrimination, are so entrenched in our way of life that we can scarcely recognize them and their harm,” said a woman I know.
She studies social cultures and humans as members of social groups.
“For example,” she added, “our society has embraced capitalism. We use what we didn’t produce, consume what we don’t need, discard what we don’t want, earn interest even though nothing is produced, pay unjust wages, charge obscene prices. Capitalism determines government policies, national and international, at all levels. It leads to a host of evils and injustices.
“What our society has condoned and accepted is so colossal and so entrenched, that as individuals we are powerless to change them,” she declared. “The changes that you or I make are so small – recycling, composting, using paper instead of plastic, accepting people of colour, trying to fight poverty – our individual efforts make no impact at all.”
On the surface, it sounds so true. Yet history is all about individuals whose efforts made an enormous difference. Abraham. Moses. Lenin. Hitler. Ghandi. Henry VIII. Abraham Lincoln. Newton. Margaret Sanger. Rachel Carson. Karl Marx. Churchill. Shakespeare. Jesus Christ. Kevorkian. Lech Walesa. Mandela. Morgentaler. Borowski.
The fact is, every age has had its great individuals – writers, teachers, scientists, economists, workers for peace, freedom, justice and equality.
We are more than members of a social group. As individuals, we were created, named, redeemed and will be judged. I am convinced that each of us has an individual, personal responsibility to do the best we can in our own time and space to right the wrongs of our age.
The Catholic Catechism urges Christians to take this kind of responsibility for the common good of society. “It is necessary that all participate, each according to his position or role, in promoting the common good.” We are called, it says, to “impregnate culture and human works with a moral value.”
It is because we are also social beings, like the Creator in whose image we were formed, that we have also an obligation to improve social life by bringing “appropriate remedies to institutions and living conditions so they conform to the norms of justice,” says the Catechism. It urges us to “remedy the institutions and conditions of the world” and stresses that “every form of social or cultural discrimination must be cured and eradicated as incompatible with God’s design.”
We may not succeed. A reporter once said to Mother Teresa, “There are more dying people on the streets of Calcutta than you can ever help. You can never succeed.” She answered, “I was not called to succeed. I was called to serve.”
But to carry out this individual responsibility, we need to link up with others, to encourage and strengthen them, to allow them to strengthen us.
Dorothy Day, an extraordinary woman, co-founded the Catholic Worker Movement 70 years ago. She remarked, “People ask what is the sense of our small effort. They cannot see that a pebble cast into a pond causes ripples that spread in all directions. Each one of our thoughts, words, and deeds is like that.”
We have no way of knowing who those ripples affect, whose mind and spirit are illuminated, whose courage increased, whose direction clarified. But, Margaret Mead assures us, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” This little poem says it differently:
One person awake, awakens another.
The second awakes his next door neighbour.
And the three awake can rouse a town,
And turn the whole place upside-down.
And many awake can raise such a fuss
That it finally awakens the rest of us.
And, by the way, how are you doing in your personal efforts to put a wholesome, creative pro-life, pro-chastity spin on family activities this summer? On deciding what issues to fight in the new school year and on developing ideas about effective approaches?
How about “awakening the rest of us” by sharing your ideas with the editor and readers of The Interim?