Personal Reform Heals the World

A famous speech was given in August 1963, in Washington D.C., USA. The speaker was Dr Martin Luther King. Standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial, the black civil rights leader told an assembled crowd of two-hundred thousand people, “I have a dream.”
“I have a dream” he said, “that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed.... I have a dream that one day ... the sons of former slaves and sons of former slave- owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood ... I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character...”
He spoke for about eight minutes and when he finished, the crowd stood in stunned silence before erupting into unrestrained applause. That speech pumped new life into the civil rights movement. In a deeper sense, it expressed the hopes of the human race. People of all nations have always dreamed of a better world without war and strife; a world where people of all colours and creed could live together in peace.

We share that same dream. We are disturbed by the insanity of war. We are exhausted by man’s inhumanity to man. We are tired of crime and violence, greed and injustice. We long for a world of peace and good-will, where people and nations settle their differences through co-operation instead of conflict. Too many of us, however, have stopped believing that such a world is possible. Many are deeply discouraged. Though still believing in a better world, they feel helpless to do anything about it.

The Season of Advent carries a message for this very situation. It proclaims the imminent arrival of the reign of God. The messenger was John the Baptist. This peculiar preacher appeared in the desert of Judea, telling the people: “Reform your lives. The reign of God is at hand.” His sermon was short and simple, but it contained a logical sequence: first, reformed lives; second, the reign of God. First, better people; and then a better world. While we work to build the Kingdom of God on Earth, we dare not overlook the application of Gospel truths to our own personal lives. No collection of bad books will make a great library. The Christian message is both personal and social, and always in that order.

That makes sense, as we say. We get a better world by becoming better people. So the message of the great Advent figure – John the Baptist – is plain and direct: If you want a better world, start with yourself, reform your own life. Until we tackle the challenge of ourselves, we are ill-equipped to tackle the many challenges of society. It is shallow thinking to believe we can change the world unless, first of all, we are willing to change our own lives.

All the moral problems of the world are really just the moral failures of people. We speak of society as if it were some sort of separate living organism – individuals on the one hand and society on the other. This is not the case at all. A society is a group of people living together in some kind of relationship. Whatever is wrong with that society is the accumulated result of whatever is wrong with the people who compose it. If we live in a cruel, greedy and violent world, it is because there are cruel, greedy and violent people.

This is not to deny that many individuals are victims of society. When we speak of what society is doing to people, we are really speaking of what we are doing to each other. If we were ever to hope to change our society for the better, we will have to start with ourselves. It would be comforting to settle back into some sort of fatalism and blame the world for all our problems; but this would be seriously misleading. The world does not pollute its air and water; people do. The world does not fight demoralising wars; people do; the world does not cause poverty nor foster prejudice and hatred; people do. John the Baptist said it centuries ago and it still applies today: a better world will come out of better people – “Reform your lives.”

The stern message of John the Baptist was actually grounded in hope. Belonging to God’s Kingdom has nothing to do with one’s racial background or identity. John calls people to repentance and a radical change of life in anticipation of the coming of the Christ. The burden of the Baptist’s message is that if you don’t reform your ways, then you will lack that attitude of heart and mind that will enable you to recognise Christ when He comes. Every year we prepare to celebrate the feast of Christmas in a worthy manner. The season of Advent fosters an awareness that our lives will not change themselves. Our relationships will not just grow and improve. We will stay in those same old ruts, until and unless we do something about it. The feast of Christmas celebrates the Birth of Jesus Christ who calls us to be the best people we can be. Advent, then, is a time for personal reformation. It can be and will be if we have the courage to take an honest look at ourselves. Then and only then can we make our contribution to make our world a better place. In every age the call of John the Baptist is compelling: “Reform your lives.” “The reign of God is at hand.”