The Reverend Professor Vernon White, Canon in Residence
From metaphysics and morals, biology and theology, rings out a call for us to change. We are born not just to be, but to become; to change and develop. And in these February sermons on change I began last week by underlining how much Christian faith endorse this: the very being of God incorporates change; Christ demonstrated the grace of change in his own life; so we too, made in the image of God, need to change. Yet last week I did also hint that change might sometimes need challenging. So, this week, more about that!
For right at the centre of the Christian gospel there is also a sense that not everything has to change. The sort of love which lies in the heart of God, we're told, accepts us unconditionally—that is, we are loved as we are, not just for what we might become. And we should love others as they are. So how does this fit with the call to change? Every parent and every partner will know something of this conundrum. We may want a partner or a child to change, and think that it's part of love to want them to change: but in fact a pressure on them to change can be the very thing that compromises real love and damages relationships.
It seems, then, that we need to press a pause button before we too readily endorse the call to change as an absolute. We first need a sharp moral and spiritual scalpel to lay bare the real motive. Is the change really for the benefit of the person under pressure to change? Or is it just for the benefit of the person who wants them to change? Put another way. Is this call to change genuinely a natural outcome of real love—or is it the obverse: is it a condition of love, an obstacle that has to be mounted before love is given? Every child and every lover will instinctively know the difference: if change is wanted in us as a condition of love, we sense that's not really love at all; real love lies instead in the pattern set by Christ himself—who, although calling his disciples to change and become more like him, didn't set this as a prior condition for his love; for he loved us 'while we were still sinners…'
It's only with this sort of real love that the conundrum can be resolved. For, paradoxically, it's often only through an unconditional love which does not require change that willing, worthwhile change can come about. Again, every parent or partner knows this: it's often only the experience of deep unchanging acceptance which empowers someone to change willingly. Even then it's not guaranteed. This love is not coercive, but it does have an extraordinary potential.
This power of acceptance isn't just a truth of personal relationships. It can sometimes be part of social and political reality too. Think back for a moment to the extraordinary change which happened in Europe in the years following the Second World War. Because of the centenary of the First World War, and the seventieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, we've been much reminded recently of the power of evil. But we should also remember this other power we saw dramatically demonstrated after the war: a power to change for good. Remember how a whole nation, Germany, in ruins; its industry and economy shattered; 7.5 million Germans dead, countless others displaced, hungry, homeless, divided from each other by different occupying forces. It lay in moral ruins too; its people having to face not just with the horrors war had inflicted on them, but the dawning realization of even more terrible horrors inflicted on others in their name, so having to cope with a sense of shame, disgrace, failure, as well as physical destruction. Now think of the extraordinary change which happened. The people of Germany did not sink into either paralysing self-loathing, or vengeful bitterness. Instead, they rebuilt their country and economy, and their self-worth. Without evading the truth, they faced it, recovered, and were reborn.
How did this happen? Many reasons, no doubt. Not least the discipline and impressive moral maturity of many German people themselves. But there was also the political and economic aid initiative of America and its allies known as the Marshall Plan—a creative political act of both moral and pragmatic generosity. And, working through those politics there was, I suggest, precisely this hidden dynamic of this gospel truth which was being persistently preached during this time (not least by a German speaking Swiss theologian, Karl Barth, who himself had been expelled from Germany by the Nazis at the outset of the war); the truth that constructive change, real redemption, often needs acceptance and reconciliation to come first.
In other words, for this change to occur Germany first needed help and acceptance in practical and symbolic ways, not grinding down by further punitive conditions before any trust was offered. Not at the expense of truth. After all, individual war criminals were tried, facts were faced, just as the truth and reconciliation commission in post-apartheid South Africa faced facts. But that was still part of an overall positive climate of prior acceptance and reconciliation in which truth could be faced. That was the underlying spiritual truth which was the real power within the realpolitik which helped bring about that extraordinary change. To be sure, historians may well dispute the relative weight of different causes for this particular example. But for the Christian I don't think there can be any dispute of the general principle: there is real power to change and mend bruised people, broken relationships, even broken societies, in this sort of positive, practical, accepting love which lies at the heart of the Gospel.
From metaphysics to morals, biology to theology, there is a call to change ourselves, and our world. But remember: the best change often arises not out of the pressure to change in itself but, paradoxically, out of the sort of authentic, accepting, love which has, first, not required it. It's called grace.