Working to ‘transform your own heart’ can’t be an excuse to ignore social injustice
The idea that we must deal with evil in our hearts before tackling injustice in society continues to assert itself. “In our world everybody thinks of changing humanity, and nobody thinks of changing himself,” Leo Tolstoy wrote over a hundred years ago, and his quotation has been endlessly memed since then. More recently, the celebrity academic Jordan Peterson famously admonished his followers to “set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world.” And consider how, after every mass shooting, talk about gun regulation is met with the mantra that “we don’t have a gun problem; we have a heart problem.” The argument can leave us feeling like we need to become morally flawless before working for solutions to societal problems.
But if the world is going to wait for all of us to become perfect before we can find solutions to social evils, the world will have to wait for a long time. And “the world” is not simply an abstraction. The world that waits for us to set our houses and hearts in order is a world of real human beings who need justice now—whether I keep being petty or not.
If the world is going to wait for all of us to become perfect before we can find solutions to social evils, the world will have to wait for a long time.
Those in vulnerable and dangerous situations should not have to wait for those in more privileged positions to attain every virtue before they can have the basic goods they need to survive. Children deserve to be safe from violence even if the hearts of the violent remain unconverted. Women are owed protection from assault and harassment even if men cling to sexist and misogynistic ideas. The poor deserve food and shelter even if the rich begrudge them their assistance.
This does not mean that conversion of the heart is not essential to full societal reform. For example, anti-racism work means dismantling the structures that keep racism alive. But it also means that a white person doing anti-racism work has to grapple with their own ingrained bigotry and intolerance.
And conversion of heart can make each of us more just and peaceful, less vain and duplicitous. We would all be better and more joyful. And that resulting joy can have a real impact on the work that needs to be done; it can make our social reform movements more attractive and effective. If you look at that popular Tolstoy quotation in its original context, we find that it is part of a broader theory that slavery would have been abolished, sooner and more easily, if people had reformed their way of living. So, yes, we need both personal and societal change, but these do not evolve in a straight line.
When we see suffering and injustice, we will want to do something about them—something real, material and lasting.
Laboring for societal reform and justice can be hard and even painful; it can be all too easy for those of us who benefit from these systems to use a lack of personal conversion as an excuse for not doing the work for change in the world.
Mantras about transforming our own hearts first, or seeing to our own houses, can serve a sneaky anti-justice agenda. They give us a cover for blocking reform movements that might make us uncomfortable while also providing us with the illusion that we care. And so we talk and pray about ending racism and bigotry, without addressing the material changes that need to happen in our society. But this attitude does not go unnoticed, and it has begun to ring hollow for many. Today many people hear the phrase “thoughts and prayers” not as an expression of heartfelt condolence but rather as code for “I don’t really care, and I’m not going to do anything.”
Yet suppose those prayers for transformation begin to work? When this happens, it will reveal itself in more than just altered attitudes. Our actions will change. When we see suffering and injustice, we will want to do something about them—something real, material and lasting.
Even if our hearts do not change, however, justice still needs to be done. The moral focal point must remain on the needs of the less fortunate, not on the hearts and minds of the well-to-do.
Even if our hearts do not change, however, justice still needs to be done.
Enacting social justice does not have to be the work of the perfect. Even if we are begrudging, and even if we feel less than warmly about those we ally with, the work itself has objective moral value. When a movement for reform in the church, or in society, is made up of ethically flawed humans (as every movement always is), our moral failures do not nullify the real justice and worth of our goals.
We are all called to work for justice in our communities, in whatever way we can, even while our lives are imperfect. As the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. reminds us, “It may be true that the law cannot change the heart but it can restrain the heartless.”
If we have been admonished, over and over, not to try to change the world before we have changed ourselves, we may feel daunted by our own sense of inadequacy. We may feel that we are not good enough or heroic enough to be allowed to work for change. We may even worry that we will mar movements for justice with our moral imperfections. But we should not let our own insufficiencies hold us back. After all, if it is a change of heart that we need, working for a better and happier world might be exactly the moral medicine we need. If we want to deal with the evil in our own hearts, perhaps the best way to go about it is by working against the injustice in society.