As I described in my last blog post, I’m involved in efforts to retire my high school alma mater’s Native American mascot. This issue is currently a big source of controversy in my town, with students and alums posting arguments on Facebook and town web sites. Among those who want to retain the Native mascot, one type of response crops up regularly. This type of response takes several forms:
“Stop wasting everyone’s time with such a superficial, minor issue. What we really need to be talking about is [the economy/health care/Connecticut jobs/etc.].”
“What difference will this really make to Native American people? Their problems go way beyond mascots. This is such a small thing and changing it won’t really do anything.”
“If you really cared about Native Americans, you would send money or go work on a reservation, addressing the poverty that’s the REAL problem.”
You could replace the references to Native American mascots in these statements with references to any small-scale effort to address any sociopolitical problem, and you’d have a snapshot of a sadly common argument against progressive causes. The worldview from which these sentiments arise—in which scarce resources must be doled out based on who and what is deemed most worthy, doing good over here means we can’t possibly do good over there, and everything is evaluated in terms of cost rather than possibilities—is dominant in our capitalistic, competitive culture. And it is dead wrong, both practically and theologically.
Small, grassroots efforts, which seem so weak and tiny when set against the massive injustice, suffering, and violence that feed our bloody news cycle, do make a difference. Just as making big changes in our personal lives (getting a better job, improving our health) requires lots of small steps (studying for tomorrow’s test in a professional degree program, heading to the pool on a cold morning when bed is a far more attractive option), moving our culture toward greater equality and justice requires lots of small steps. Martin Luther King, Jr., didn’t begin his world-changing work by leading marches on Washington and meeting with the president. He started by studying theology (talk about something that people dismiss as practically useless!), preaching, and leading local civil rights efforts, like the Montgomery bus boycott. The civil rights movement was built on a foundation of small, potentially inconsequential actions—a woman refuses to move to the back of the bus, students sit at lunch counters, volunteers in Mississippi go door to door registering voters.
From a practical standpoint, we should be suspicious of arguments against doing one small good thing because it’s too small, or because it will distract us and take resources from other good things that also need doing. History reveals that, in the words of Margaret Mead, we should, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
Theologically, the notion that justice must be carefully parceled out based on who needs it most or where our efforts will make the most visible difference is more than just wrong. It’s a heresy, a denial of the God we follow. The God revealed in Jesus Christ is the ultimate source of everything good, of justice, mercy, and love. If our God is infinite and everlasting, then so are those qualities of justice and mercy and love that arise from God’s very being. It is impossible, therefore, for one effort to bring about greater justice over here to take away from another effort to bring about greater justice over there. Justice isn’t like a bucket of water to be doled out to those most deserving, or sprinkled over those places where it will have a greater impact. Rather, justice is like a river being continually fed by our small acts, each small work acting as a spring that, joining the river, only increases its power and mass.
Jesus’s ministry on earth was defined by small acts. He didn’t wave his hand over a town, chanting prayers and waiting to see every sick or injured person rise from their beds; he healed individual people, calling them by name, connecting with them through his hands, his robe, even his spit. Jesus didn’t host banquets to feed all the hungry people in the area; he ate in people’s homes, with them and their families. While Jesus preached to crowds now and then, it wasn’t always by choice; he seemed more naturally inclined to talk to people one on one, as with the woman at the well. And in the mass feedings that started with a few loaves of bread and a few fish, Jesus showed us how even small acts of care are multiplied in God’s economy, so that ultimately all are filled and satisfied—not because the economists and politicians and voters focus on big problems at the expense of little ones, but because every act of mercy, justice, and love is born in the heart of our infinite God and is therefore infinitely powerful, capable of bringing about change far beyond our limited vision of what’s possible and prudent.
Caring about and working for justice can be frustrating, if not downright depressing. The problems are so big, and our efforts feel so small. It can seem foolish of God to entrust us with the works of mercy that help usher in God’s kingdom. But we know that God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom. We know that every small step toward greater justice, mercy, and love is not a waste of time nor a distraction; our tiny acts open cracks in the world’s cynical, calculated, competitive facade, through which God’s immeasurable, infinitely powerful grace can pour. Knowing the God from whom all acts of justice and mercy arise, we can say, as Helen Keller did:
I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do something that I can do.