Transforming society – or merely making it

a theological discussion with the Bible in one hand and a very particular newspaper in the other

Society for the Study of Theology 1995

What is this paper about?

I have been asked to write a paper about theology and the transformation of society or transformation in society. I can only make this a manageable and worthwhile task by talking of transforming, rather than transformation, in order to concentrate on society as the object and medium of responsible action. If we look over historical time, it is clear that societies change to such an extent that transformation is not an extravagant term. Historical time shows enormous differences between British society in 1900 and 2000, or Northern Europe between 100 BCE and 500 CE and 1800 CE, to take random, parochial examples. But everybody relates to such instances only as spectators. There is no sense in which we can live, plan, take responsibility for such transformations. No one acting responsibly in the situation of 1900 has been continuously active so that they can say they are responsible for achieving the transformations which we can now observe. States and governments are not able to manage the future to the extent required. Five year plans make a pretence of transforming a society over the longterm, but they become a cloak for coercion and for dishonest reporting by factory managers, who achieve targets only on paper, until the whole economy collapses into painful truth. The theological observer of the cosmic, geological and biological transformations that explain how we happen to be here, as we are, in our present condition, is a misleading prophet if he calls us to become the enactors of the next stage of that kind of transformation. The stages are too big for us as responsible agents to contemplate. We have to refuse the sentimental hubris of Neil Armstrong’s lunar identification of one small step for himself with a giant step for mankind. As we can already see, while the whole space industry is providing opportunities for technologically based capitalism, like Rupert Murdoch’s, to embrace the world and to suck its varied cultures dry, it does not mean that human society is transformed into greater responsibility or goodness. The free market changes the world, but it does so by turning it into a legitimated lottery – it is not as though anyone is in control or is achieving changes that consistently add up to a transformation of society of a kind of which they could be both proud and honest. Talk of a new world order is mere manipulative labelling. If capitalism’s power to mobilise people and exploit opportunities to enrich shareholders implies some hope is intrinsic to capitalism, that hope is not for a transformed society. Any hope there is resides in individuals, who hope that they will succeed in, or at least survive, the competitive intensification of untransformed society.

My concern in this paper is thus limited to those changes of society which are plausible as the projects of human beings and organisations, as agents envisaging and carrying them through to the point where they can say they have achieved a transformation of society. I am also only concerned with changes which have a good chance of persuading us that they are good. It is easy to transform society in destructive and evil ways: this century, which includes Hitler and Thatcherism, affords both dreadful and pathetic examples. Because this is a theological not a diabolical paper, the only changes that might count for my discussion are those which are worthy, and might stand the judgement of the God who does not finish his creative work until he sees that it is good. My model for social transformation is essentially derived from the Bible, with its promise of a new heaven and a new earth wherein dwells righteousness.

These are my starting points. The paper will show how I conclude that ‘transforming society’ is not a concept any modest, human theology should use. If transforming society is that for which we must take active responsibility, at whatever point we stand in the world’s space and time, it will turn out to be an unhelpful concept because it will mislead us about what our duty and our possibilities actually are. The idea of transforming society is so infected with the experience of modern political ambitions and projects (which were already foreshadowed in the inhuman dreaming of ancients like Nebuchadnezzar as in Daniel 4.30) that it is impossible to purify it. Nor does Christian truth or calling require us to work in these terms. I will not say more about this now: we must get to the conclusion by smaller steps.

So, by ‘transforming society’ is meant here the deliberate, intended, controlled, extensive if not total changing of society, so that what is unsatisfactory about it, and what causes it to be unsatisfactory, is decisively, indeed irreversibly, removed.

By society, I mean the state, politics, civil society, and the complex of private lives interacting in myriad ways to form both the framework of human living and one of its major outcomes. I want to write a public and indeed political theology. I wish therefore to prevent the argument being siphoned off into talk about the transformation of society in idealist, elitist, or merely verbal ways. Breyten Breytenbach, the dissident Afrikaans poet, was impelled in the 1960s towards political action, with ‘a longing for metamorphosis, for making the world change.’ ‘Writing goes utterly with this, for writing is always rewriting the world. And writing is revolution not politics. Politics is the maintenance of power, the administration of power, even when it’s done by good people.’ (Guardian, 10 Dec 1993, Arts 6/7) Against this approach, I want this discussion to be in terms of politics (even if it so vile), of power, of actuality, rather than about a revolution which turns out to exist in little more than the pretentiousness of writers who imagine that the world is in their words, to be remade by them. Words are indeed not to be despised as useless and empty. The world is there for us through the words we have or can find, but merely changing the words does not change the world. Language and society shape each other ceaselessly, but the one is not the other. Given that theology gains heady notions of transforming society from apocalyptic and eschatological promise and praying, in the Bible and tradition, and given that theology is bound to be so frustrated at its perennial lack of power in society, it is not surprising that theologians often make parallel moves to Breytenbach’s and retreat into words, especially into liturgy, sacrament and churchly signs, where there is invisible transubstantiation – after all, theology is a poetry, isn’t it?

Theology, of course, may properly claim to be talking about its subject, the reality of God, when it refuses to be bound conceptually by the compromising mediocrity of the present world and holds fast in faith to the hope of the city which has foundations, which is not yet (Hebrews 11.1ff) To remake the world, theology does not rely on writing but on God. And if it is believed that God’s will is to transform society, in the end, it would seem proper and well-founded for theology to view society as that which can, must and will be transformed. This I think has been the slick and largely convincing move which theology has made, in the modern period if not in others, to justify its willingness to go along with secular hopes and plans for the transformation of society. While some theology has remained stubbornly unwilling to be hopeful about society, like the miserable elder brother at the returning Prodigal’s feast, much of the most interesting theology in recent centuries has been happily travelling along with the transformative self-interpreting activity of modern social understanding. Between theology and politics, there has been a common perspective oriented on the transformation of society, as both gift and task. Sometimes theology has followed lamely behind the secular drives for transformation, trying to keep up with them, so as not to lose its place in society; sometimes theology has called for ‘elite groups who lead the revolution’, seeing them as the creative minority, the serving ‘little flock’ (J L Segundo, The Liberation of Theology, pp227ff.) and offered itself as a firmer resource for transformative action than merely secular movements (cf Barth’s preferring Blumhardt to Naumann; and Donald Soper Christian Politics (1977) pp 110-112). Sometimes theology has resisted secular projects for transformation, but has not been able to break out of their perspective. That is so even when the promise of social transformation is regarded as a key enemy of the Faith: we are susceptible to being controlled by what we most consciously and fearfully oppose; such susceptibility arises from the tendency to devote more energy, out of necessity, to our enemies than to our friends (cf Gregory Baum Theology and Society (1987) chapter 14).

Theology can be coopted in many different ways, because modern concerns with the transformation of society have many forms. There is no one project and the precise goals, criteria and means of transformation are not agreed (cf H Arendt’s comparison between European and North American social expectations in On Revolution). Liberal trust in progress and natural goodness differs from social Darwinism which again is not to be identified with Marxism. Modern history is characterised in many different societies by a succession of movements which work under the broad conceptual umbrella of the transformation of society. The variety has burgeoned because of felt dissatisfaction with other and preceding attempts, even movements whose language was impeccably transformationist; each new movement finds a niche in which to preach if not try out its nostrums and to mobilise its members for critical social action, some last a day, others for generations.

Hitherto, when one movement, one recipe for transformation, failed, it was replaced by another. The succession of movements, tumbling over each other to seize their chance, bears witness to the depth of inspiration and passion for transformation in modern people and culture. Is that why some transformationists could be so laid back and patient: the overall project of transformation could not ultimately fail, whatever happened to disposable individuals and generations on the way? Is that why some, not least the Marxists, could be such energetic dogmatic sectarians: they were so sure in believing the transformation was inevitable, they could take it for granted and feel they had the secure space to squabble with one another about the final detail, without jeopardising the ultimate success? The question for us in 1995 is whether the reservoir of hope for the transformation of society has run out – whether is has been poisoned by its managers so that no one dare drink of it any more, or perhaps it has been deliberately drained away by those who fear what it might do to their interests. Has the idiom of social transformation died away in disappointment and confusion?

Have we now abandoned the possibility of transforming society?

Let us talk about ourselves in Britain today. Britain is not unique: it is however for many of us the vantage point from which we gauge and may respond to a world which now awakes with a groan to find itself everywhere capitalistic.

Today, has disillusion triumphed? The Marxist-communist promise has been finally shattered. (Does Stuart Jeffries review of Eric Hobsbawm Age of Extremes (Guardian 28 October 1994) express merely a newspaper mood, dead as soon as the next day’s edition appears? Given the many ardent and sensitive people who have lived this history, it can hardly be dismissed in that way.) The new world order offers us no hope of transformation: the IMF and World Bank SAP the poor, imposing their Structural Adjustment Programmes; everywhere the widening gap between rich and poor is presented as evidence of dynamic economies not as human scandal, as though some people existed for the economy of inequalities, not the economy of production, development and distribution for all people. Those who now talk of a New Age mostly do it in the form of religiosities which have little capacity or wish to sustain coherent long-term political projects. It is plausible to argue that now more than at any time in the last two hundred years (this is a large claim, given the massive disappointments people have suffered from time to time) the hope of transforming society is empty. If this modern hope has dissolved, a concept and focus which has long buttressed theology has fragmented. Social theology is thus in disarray. Can it be recovered?

In such an hour, we must pray, even if without hope: Lead us not into conservatism. All sorts of conservatism are wicked though in differing ways. Despairing conservatism, where there is no hope of betterment, despite our knowing we are in a rotten situation, succumbs to what is wrong as though there is no alternative. This is to forget that Christ is risen and God gives life to the dead. Complacent conservatism, where we believe nothing is seriously wrong, has no hunger for righteousness, as though there is no need for an alternative. This it to be blind to the judgement and the call of God. Agnostic indecisive, sceptical conservatism thinks that this imperfect world is tolerable so long as we do not make up our mind to call it good or evil. All this is wickedness.

So, a theology which conflates the biblical hope of a totally transformed, new creation with planned changes in society has run out of supportive and persuasive secular partners. But conservatism, the refusal to pray and work for a thoroughly different society, is wicked. What way then can we take?

At the end of Moral Man and Immoral Society, Reinhold Niebuhr leaves his readers hanging over the abyss of his problems. We should not, he says, ‘build our individual ladders to heaven and leave the total human enterprise unredeemed of its excesses and corruptions. In the task of that redemption the most effective agents will be men who have submitted some new illusions for the abandoned ones. The most important of these illusions is that the collective life of mankind can achieve perfect justice. It is a very valuable illusion for the moment: for justice cannot be approximated if the hope of its perfect realisation does not generate a sublime madness in the soul. Nothing but such madness will do battle with malignant power and “spiritual wickedness in high places”. The illusion is dangerous because it encourages terrible fanaticisms. It must therefore be brought under the control of reason. One can only hope that reason will not destroy it before its work is done.’ (p227)

This passage reveals Niebuhr’s will to stride the edge between transformation and conservatism and at the same time, how precarious it is. Transformation is an illusion yet it gives us power to do necessary good; it is incompatible with reason which itself only has a negative braking function on madness. The writing is curiously distanced, as so much in Niebuhr: he is the sage observer, the tamed cynic, noting how those taken in by illusions and those who play out the ruthlessness of reason achieve a balance of power and thereby effect the kind of limited but valuable improvement in society which is the best we can hope for and is a little of what we need. Other people make society, playing their parts madly or coldly, not able to know or admit what they really do; but Niebuhr knows that the visions they hold passionately enough to make them fanatics and mad are illusions. Is it possible to be inspired to their degree of sacrificial social service and creativity and at the same time to know we are living by illusion? Niebuhr clearly sees that this irrational social dynamic cannot survive being known by reason. So his hope, not of social transformation but merely of improvement depends on some essential and dynamic people being unaware of what they are doing. But a society that is driven and moulded by those who, on principle, may not know what they are doing, is far from good.

The concept of transformation is useful, according to Niebuhr, because it helps to realise the best that is possible, which is an improved society, not a transformed one. Niebuhr was not, I believe, misleading in his assessment of the scope of possible social change. He is prepared to be grateful for change which falls short of transformation. I do not complain about that. It is more significant to note that he still speaks in terms which confine us to the choice and the irresolvable polarisation of idealism, utopia and acquiescence. The revolution he does not expect still shapes his thoughts. If his theory of how change may be achieved is sound, it will be hard to escape the sort of conservatism in which fanatics are managed and patronised by the wise and powerful. I do not wish to oscillate between these two poles and so am driven to look for other terms in which to conceive the social task. I hope it is not conservative to take as the basic category for thought not transforming society but making it. ‘Making society’ directs us always to be working at the points where society is not. The task is not defined as moving an existing partly working society towards some kind of perfection, which may be unattainable; it is defined rather as making society, where there is no-society. (Society here implies no higher expectations than the collection of sustainable, forgivable and possibly fruitful relations between people, in and beyond relations which are not sustainable, forgivable or possibly fruitful.) This way of seeing the task not only saves us from the illusions of perfectionism; it also disciplines that revolutionary impatience with imperfect but actual society which is at the source of the self-righteous cruelty and massive murdering, staining the histories of those who have been determined to transform society. (The trouble with the concept of the transformation of society is that it breeds either vagueness – because we cannot show the feasibility of societies where the lion lies down with the lamb, literally – or violence – arising from the conviction that transforming is an absolute moral requirement. Between vagueness and violence, ordinary society will dissolve.)

Not transforming but making society: reconceiving the social task

Talk of making society from non-society is full of difficulty. I am not sure the difficulty can be overcome. But I will try through expounding the idea a little more.

Human societies have limits, boundaries, exclusions, conflicts. At these points society gives way to non-society. To be driven beyond them is to be outlawed, outcast, in a Hobbesian state of nature, or in the hardly happier Aristotelian condition of being either a god or a beast. Non-society occurs within societies: we have to imagine these borders as running through, not just round, society. So people find themselves locked in with their enemies, so that they experience the wolf of non-society in society’s clothing (Matt.7.15). Beware the Greeks bearing gifts: in any society there will be Trojan horses, the perversion and subversion of social behaviours into anti-social powers. (cf K Barth The Christian Life pp213-233, especially 233, on ‘the lordless powers’).

If society is not a simple given, a reality identical with the appearance, a fellowship necessarily present wherever people are huddled together (T S Eliot Choruses from the Rock) but is a possibility, a task, and often an absence and a failure in human contiguities, we need to pay attention to those points where society gives out, where the form of society is not truly there for others, for those in need and for the inconvenient. To work at that point is to work at real issues, with a sobriety disciplined by the incompleteness of politics. Making peace with enemies does not commit us to realising perfectionist visons of a society transformed to be at ease with itself. Just as we have to work with parenting that is ‘good enough’, so generally with society. The task is not to do the impossible of ridding society of crime – or sin – but of not letting the wrongdoers and the anti-social frustrate the basic and perennial project of making society, a society in which they will be properly (i.e. penally and forgivingly) included. At this point, perhaps, it may be possible to see how making society gives us a way of discerning social tasks which is neither utopian, nor conservative, nor easy.

People find that they are returned to, or confirmed in, the task of making society in the place of non-society in the midst of the disillusioning failure of projects intended to transform society. In 1945, many were sufficiently chastened by experience to identify their life’s work in terms of making society. French and German peoples and states had to become friends so that they would never again go to war. Displaced persons in millions had to find their families or a new place in the world where they could live. The terrible non-society between European people and the Jews, which had come to a destructive climax with Hitler, needed to be faced in a penitence and a forgiving worked out through historical investigation and practical reparation. The making of society in Europe after 1945 was, indeed, imperfectly achieved: the Cold War shows that. The more recent collapse of communism, in the course of which Gorbachev presented his vision of the continent as common house for all its peoples, has not transformed the old Communist lands into what Eastern watchers of Western TV were hoping for: a society where everyone lived ‘Dallas’. Post-1989, we still have on our agenda the question whether we can and will live together as a society of nations, considering and caring for each others’ needs and welfare so that we make together a continent of peace and human order. The disappearance of the USSR as the standing enemy has not in itself turned Europe into a genuine society of nations and people; it gives us in the West a chance to be more active in enabling society in the East (where there was mostly not society, but war between governing party, secret police and people) but thereby it also brings home the question whether we are sociable amongst ourselves and have the will, understanding and power to make society. (Cf Will Hutton Guardian 2 Jan 1995). The economic rather than the military is now the arena in which it is made plain that society needs to be made out of non-society.

In Britain, recent government has given us brutal incessant changes under the promise of transformation to a greater Britain while presiding over the widening gap between rich and poor and the decay of consensus about the importance of fellowship (cf W Temple Christianity and the Social Order ch 5 sect 2). Not that making society within Britain, or in Europe is enough:, how will Europe relate to the Third World, to the poor of the world and to the environment? So long as we can deny that we know them and do not have to count them seriously as fellows, we can evade the necessary task of making one society with and for them.

Making society involves changes in the distribution of goods and power; in the apprehension of duties and rights; and in the ways people look at themselves, at others and at human prospects generally. These changes may be great, costly and difficult. The making of society will be slow where there is not fairness or where there is no convincing consideration for those who suffer disproportionately at the hands of others, just as it will be slowed if people lack altogether the capacity to endure suffering. In any society-in-the-making people need to be continually sustained by one another through social means if the making-of-society is not to stall and crash. Societies-in-the-making face the political question whether they can and will do what is necessary to make society. Sometimes they will see that making society involves drastic change. Thus, the language of transformation cannot be wholly silenced in a society-in-the-making, though its inexactness and capacity to mislead will be noted. Changes required in making society will not become autonomous and overriding, with a plausible right (that is, a power ideologically cloaked) to claim people for murderous and suicidal devotion; they will rather be evaluated in terms of the service they render to what will be understood as a perpetual, ever imperfect basic process of making society.

But what about what is going on in South Africa Now?

I have built the argument of this paper around the consideration of the failure of the modern reforming, revolutionary socialist and communist enterprises, especially in Europe. It will be said, I am sure, that Europe is not a sound hermeneutical key for Christian theology; Eurocentrism is a wicked conservatism. And in the Third World, and in the tiger economies (?), we are told, people live with vital transforming hope. Look at what has happened in South Africa, for example. Is that not a transformation society? Did it not strike our faithless hopeless minds as a transformation when the break came in the late eighties, given that at time few people except Bishop Huddleston himself thought a man of his years would be able to rejoice on earth at the end of apartheid? But now we have seen people in their old age queuing for hours to have the experience of voting at least once before they say their Nunc Dimittis.

What is happening in South Africa now is much better understood as the making of society than its transformation. Apartheid was the whites’ embattled refusal to make society; it was the institutionalisation of non-society on one issue, (for people in that place, the major issue) where the making of society was called for. With the end of the apartheid regime, some essential conditions for making society have been achieved. The vision of one society for all South Africans can now be articulated as the public goal. But society has to made; each step in the making of it is a negotiation between different powers, claims and moralities. As Charles Villa-Vicencio has argued, the task is no longer to say ‘No’ to the atrocities of the apartheid regime, but to say ‘Yes’ to the unfolding process of what could culminate in a democratic, just and kinder social order. A theology is required which involves ‘breaking down prejudices of race, class and sexism, and the difficult task of creating an all-inclusive (non-racial and democratic) society built on the vary values denied the majority of people under apartheid’. In the decades ahead, the gap will have to be bridged between ‘the ideals of a people who have in their long exile (without and within the country) dreamed utopian dreams of a new South Africa, and the realities of a land torn apart by generations of race, gender and class division…. Utopian visions created by prophets, preachers and poets are important ingredients in the process of reconstruction. Ultimately, however, these visions need to be translated into social practice and laws operative in the here and now. This practice and these laws will necessarily fall short of the projected vision, but must provide the basis and vision for the long walk to social and economic freedom beyond political liberation.’ (A Theology of Reconstruction, (CUP 1992) PP 7-8).

This passage offers a hope of harmony between utopia and social order reminiscent of, yet different from, Niebuhr’s way of relating them. Dreams do not appear to be dangerous illusions. The utopian categories seem to be dominant: we are on the long walk to a total liberation that goes beyond the political. Yet if it is a long walk, the end is out of sight; and the sustaining joy has to be something that is present in and around the stage of the walk people are in now. If we cannot enjoy and find value in what is admitted to fall short of the projected vision, we shall not keep walking on the good path. Villa-Vicencio is right that there has to be change from the politics of resistance to the politics of reconstruction; he sees that the difference arises from moving from a situation where there must be war, where forcibly living the reality of non-society is the necessary mode of saying ‘No’ to systemic injustice, to one where there is a long walk with heavy rucksacks full of continuing imperfection, such as government ministers who pay themselves too much, people with pasts who obstruct any Truth commission, leaders of Blacks and Whites whose commitment to national unity, institutionalised by membership of the same Cabinet, is not a totally secure dyke against the pressure of passions built up by past sufferings and by anxiety about the future. If that is the present situation, the theoretical or rhetorical relation of utopia to politics may be less illuminating and helpful than the discovery of positive ways of making an admittedly imperfect but actual society as pilgrims together.

At least it may be a good exercise to try, for at least one paper, to do without utopia; to work with a political theology of love rather than of hope. It has the merit as I have suggested of being then a theology of and within the present imperfect reality; which accompanies us in this present society before and after any revolution there may be: we are always working from imperfection. That remains the constant challenge: to make society and to value and sustain it, even though it is imperfect. That making and valuing is essential on the long walk: each step, which may seem to get us nowhere, is an act somehow of making and valuing society. It may be merely the cup of cold water, the ambulance help to someone in distress, or the seemingly unavailing marginal gestures on behalf of humanity that the Red Cross makes in war-situations if it is allowed. Judged in the perspective of the transformation of society as a supra-generational project, these acts are negligible. They do not help History towards its goal. But if there is no goal of history, which we can or should aim at, then these acts may be full of meaning to those who are on the long walk. And if God is the End and Goal of history, then acts which do not achieve the transformation of society as humanly managed project may be meaningfully related to that goal, by virtue of their sharing in the love of God. God makes society with human beings, not so much through visionary longterm social transformers, let alone by philosophers of history, as through those whose lives, though fragmented by the history, are yet a sustained search to make society by loving their neighbour. (Let us not disturb Augustine’s well-deserved Sabbath Rest by calling him as witness at this point.)

In his opening address to the second session of the democratic Parliament in Cape Town, on 17 February 1995, President Mandela, more than once, speaks of ‘transforming our country into a non-racial society’ and ‘the critical matter of the socio-economic transformation’ which involves developing ‘the consensus we need with regard to the critical challenges of reconstruction and development’. He was emphatic ‘that the government has extremely limited resources to address the many urgent and real needs of our people’. ‘We must all absorb this reality into our thinking in a cold and dispassionate manner and not allow ourselves to be seduced into a world of false hopes leading to unrealistic actions based on the wrong assumption that the government can be coerced to meet demands that it cannot meet, however justified and legitimate these demands might be.’ His warning here was ‘blunt’ because he saw anarchy and crime coming if this truth were not accepted. Do we see here merely another politician in a tight spot shoehorning ‘his’ people into an unjust world- and local- economic order? In the present world, we are in such a state of fragile imperfection that our best approaches to political goodness teeter on the edge of being mere instruments of evil manipulation. It is not necessary, however, to see Mandela and the present process in South Africa with that degree of cynicism. Whether we should do so depends partly on our judgment of another predominant emphasis in his speech and political practice: the invitation to come together in reconciliation in one society, which is to be practically facilitated by the action of government. He seeks a ‘constitution that is acceptable to the people as a whole’ by conducting ourselves ‘in a manner that ensures we have as inclusive a process as possible’. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission aims both ‘to obtain the truth and to reinforce the process of reconciliation which our country needs. Nothing we do should lead to the heightening of tensions and the rekindling of the violent political conflicts which we have succeeded so well to bring under reasonable control. This must also be borne in mind that many of us, who suffered quite significantly as a result of apartheid repression, are making no demand which would result in vengeance against or persecution of those who might have harmed us or those close to us.’ The task of making society where there was nothing but institutionalised war – a total war, in that law, administration and economy, education and human relations were the primary armies, operating every day, and the soldiers, armed police and torturers were the occasional extreme agents to ensure that the war by civil means was continually given scope, priority and passion – is the dominant concern within and by which the language of the transformation of society is here understood, disciplined and sustained.

South Africa at present, and Northern Ireland, are situations where there is an opportunity to come out of war, to give up projects of transformation at the cost of society in favour of what people have learnt through bitter experience is the necessary, basic and perennial task: to make society. Does the preference for the concept of making society, rather than transforming it, illuminate the condition of Britain, or England, where we are accustomed to think we have a stable ancient society already and thus do not need to be making one? Our task, it might be said, is rather either to rejuvenate our inherited society or to live its dying: either way, it would seem to be a matter of transformation. So our political rhetoric continues to school us into choices between conserving or transforming: once it was to conserve the old England of supposedly benevolent squirearchy against the transforming radicalism of the Left; now some try to conserve the post-1945 welfare society settlement against the new Right. That rhetoric however does not to get to the heart of our problem which has its root in the assumption that we have a given working society, deeply rooted, healthy, resilient, a healthy heart under many skins of social institution, convention and national romanticism, grown over centuries, crystallised into abiding symbols in our finest hours in World War II. So there is no need for us to bother about making society or feel threatened by non-society. Our confidence is dangerous. I think Will Hutton is one of most insightful of the Guardian school of prophets because he has abandoned such national faith. (see The State We’re In (Jonathan Cape, 1995) He argues that the conservative hegemony has exploited the inadequacy of the British Constitution, so that the executive is now virtually unaccountable and unrestrained in its use of power. It has gone far to achieve a one party state, riding down any opposition and alternative and intermediate locations of power. This hegemony has systemic strength from the social networks which ‘congregate at the informal centre of Conservative England’ – the Court, regiments, the old landed families, City investment houses, Inns of Court, boardroom. These milieux are ‘inhabited by gentleman and gentlewoman whose reflux actions are the same. Educated apart and socially apart, they have no republican sense of civic responsibility. Their world is private. … A studied and amused disinterestedness is their hallmark. …Long before opting out was exalted to the status of a political philosophy, these were the opted out.’ (p44f) On this account England is structurally a non-society; there are powers shaping it which block, because they do not see the need for, making society and are formed so that they cannot be adequately committed to that work. The hinderance becomes concrete and powerful in the City, the centre of world finance which has little effective commitment to supporting British manufacturing investment, and the actual society that depends on it. This is not the only point where we are faced with, nor are these the only people contributing to, non-society in England. The significance of Hutton’s work is that he takes this analysis far beyond a carp of a politics of envy and opens up a new and more promising perspective within which the English/British might see themselves. (‘The tradition of citizenship …is weak, even non-existent.’ ‘If the rich are compelled to live in a drawbridge society, then their lives are gravely diminished.’)

Is the Bible not transformationist?

But does faithfulness to its source and subject matter not commit Christian theology to the project and the language of the transformation of society, even when secular historical supports for it are discredited and dissolved?

When we abandon the historical hopes of recent centuries are we not also departing from the idiom of the Bible? That is a serious question for me, since I think any theology which is not a constant, honest and visible conversation with the Bible is not merely doubtfully Christian but also likely to be dying of malnourishment.

The Bible certainly encourages us to think within the perspective of the history of God with creation, and the history of creation with and in God. The beginning and the end of this history, together with its total meaning, are outside the range of what human beings can manage or experience within their history. ‘All flesh is grass but the Word of the Lord abides for ever.’ The full history of God includes the promise of the transformation of all things, in a new heaven and a new earth. And God by the Spirit directs human beings towards their own transformation which is a participation in the final redemption and liberation of all things. (II Cor 3. 17-18; Phil 3.20-21) These two transformations, cosmic and personal, already can be seen by faith and affect the ways we participate in this world. Neither of them, however, involves the promise or the task of the transforming of society in any political sense.

Isaiah 65.17ff (66.22, Rev.21) pictures Jerusalem within the new earth, as the transformed, secure, prosperous, joyful community, without infant mortality, premature death or other frustrations of life. (Cf Romans 8.20) But this is totally the creation of the One who answers ‘before they call’ (Isa. 65.24). All human planning and action is, in its humble and realistic mode, a calling on God – a venture that looks for God’s ‘answering’ to bring all to fruition. (cf Hosea 2.21-22) The politics of hubris, by contrast, imagines itself responsible for everything, from the conception of a project – it fails to know itself as a call, or prayer, looking for an answer (James 4.13-17).

The book of Revelation climaxes in rejoicing over the fall of the great Babylon, the millennial interlude, the final judgement of all and then the coming of the holy polis, the new Jerusalem. (18.1 – 24; 21.1ff) These texts suppose that God is the decisive, sovereign historical Actor (Yahweh the warrior). Therefore the perfect city ‘comes down’ readymade from heaven. It is not the outcome of a political project. It works not only without a temple but also without politics. Moreover in another significant way, these texts do not provide any biblical incentive to think in terms of the transformation of society. For no transformation of society is presented or explained in this text; its apocalyptic idiom is violent and impatient seeking the replacement of one society by another. There is abolition and new creation, but not transformation.

While this text does not offer us a way or commit us to thinking of the transformation of society, it does help us to see why modern revolutionary transformationist projects have often monstrously failed. The root of failure lies partly in the idiom and the conceptuality. For when we aim at changing society so that it becomes an inclusive and just community in which free and cooperative people may flourish together, it is dangerous to adopt the idiom or the dynamic of the righteous hate. We will then be double-minded: uncertain whether at root we want to transform or destroy existing society. Wherever there is this doublemindedness, there can be interminable politics and theorising about politics – which is partly why ours has been a political and wordy age; we can live for generations believing we are about the business of transforming society while we are merely articulating our indecision, some trying to rouse people to destructive action, others trying to control the extremists. But in all this, we do not transform society though we may be the agents or witnesses of the destruction of such society as we already have or might make together.

Transforming society is not a concept or a project that a careful reader of the Bible would be taken with. Making society in place of and against non-society is a better clue. God chooses a people to be his; he will ‘dwell with them’, they bear his Name through history. He brings them out of nothing, from Abraham and Sarah, too old to hope to be the parents of a people through whom all nations should be blessed. God sets the solitary in families (which I take to mean ‘making society’ not endorsing any particular family system and fitting people into it). God comes or appears where there is non-society to make society: to Moses in the desert, after his failure to make society with and for the Israelites as a prince of violence from Pharoah’s palace; to those who need a prophet like Hosea to identify the problem (‘Call her name, Not pitied… call his name, Not my people, for you are not my people and I am not your God – Hosea 1.6,9) and to promise a reconciliation and restoration (2.23); to those who are excluded by touching the leper and eating with sinners. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is located in the midst of non-society: it consists not merely in the love of the brethren (i.e. reciprocated love or love under the commonly accepted discipline of the duty of reciprocation) but love of the stranger-neighbour and love of enemy (society-making love). This love of enemy is not merely an ethical precept: it is what God does in Christ to save and redeem the world: Christ died for us while we were sinners, or enemies (Romans 5.6, 10). This death involved both suffering and unmasking the reality of non-society, occurring in the being of God or in the temple of his body, where it ought not, like the abomination of desolation (Mark 13.14). It is a disclosure of non-society to those who are still operating within the partial assurance that there is society: the women weeping for Jesus on the Via Dolorosa hold him within their society, and yet do not recognise the imminence of non-society: ‘weep not for me but for your children…if they do this when the wood is green, what will they do when it is dry?’ (Luke 23. 27-31) Here is one who is deserted, mocked, humiliated in his death, drinking the cup of non-society. But in that place, in some Gospel accounts, Jesus is presented as the one who is making society, at least in little particulars: he promises Paradise to the penitent thief; he gives his mother and the beloved disciple each other; he commits himself to the Father. These are not actions transforming society; they are more basic: making society where it is not. Other Gospel presentations go even deeper. The son dies into non-society, derelict. The making of society there depends on and awaits the God who raises the dead.

In both ways of interpreting the Cross, it is making society that illuminates what happens. From this point, within the New Testament there blossomed the vision of the making of one new humanity through the Cross (Ephesians 2.1ff). An apolitical conservative churchly reading of the Gospel is indeed enabled by texts of this sort. What was made of this Gospel in the church turned out to be a fragile, limited religious association, not able to command the history of even the Christian world, or prevent centuries of its participation in wrong and oppression. Yet that history helps and requires us now to read texts of this sort as invitations to the task of making society wherever in the world there is non-society.

Paul understood being in Christ as new creation (II Cor 5.17). It is impossible, in his prose, to disentangle that idea from his being involved in making society, or the ministry of reconciliation, as he calls it. His understanding of the Gospel was enacted in an ambiguous life: the ambiguity not of indecision or trickery (II Cor 1.17-20) but of the reconciler who suffers non-society in order to make society (II Cor. 6.3-13). The power and hope of new creation are present here, not in attempting to perfect an already existing society in radical transformation, but as the capacity to persist in making society where it is not. It is thus a critical ministry of signing what is not yet but should be; but it is only critical as a secondary implication of its own creative sacrificial endeavour. It does not begin with or rest on condemnatory analysis and exposure of the wrong; it achieves critical effect by persisting in the way of fragile love as the reality of new creation.

To conclude

Readers of other newspapers than the one I allow to shape my mind and conscience day by day may see the transformation of society differently. However that may be, I hope our discussion will be more than a confrontation of a various secular interpretations of our present social situation. This may not be the best sort of paper to help theologians concentrate on theological questions but I hope we will find a way to do so. Some theological questions central to this paper are, perhaps,

Is transforming society or making society the better hermeneutical key for our reading of Scripture in Christian theology?

Is transforming society or making society the better bridge between Christian theology and political practice? Which is the more reliable clue for developing Christian political ethic? (By a ‘better bridge’ I do not mean merely a beautiful wonder of technology, like the Humber bridge, but a useful traffic-attracting connector.)

Is transforming society or making society the better modality for Christian spirituality, self-awareness and discipline, in our actual situation?

Does the choice between transforming society and making society illumine both the disarray of, and the possibilities for, Christian social theology today?

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2 responses to “Transforming society – or merely making it”

  1. I like the thrust of this but I wonder how we can update it to the presnt context, nearly 30 years on from the original publication. A new context of environmental chaos, crumbling of globalisation, war in Europe, and dishonest politics in the UK.

    • Thanks for this good question, I don’t think a simple answer off the top of my head will do. I hope to say more, soon

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