Why We Must Change How We Change the World

By Stephan Bauman 2-25-2015
Photo courtesy World Relief
Photo courtesy World Relief

It’s hard to be optimistic about changing the world when our news cycle is dominated by terrorism, violence, and disease. When world events shock us, sometimes our best hopes cave in to our worst fears. Even the most radical activist may be tempted to give up.

But there is a different narrative that summons those of us who dare to care. It begins when we confront the things that have kept millions from breaking free from poverty and injustice. It ends when we find the courage to change how we change the world.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, which consistently ranks among the poorest countries in the world and the most dangerous for women, a group of peacemakers are changing the narrative. Last year I met a Congolese woman who told me how her husband was killed in crossfire between warring militias, how she was violently assaulted by the soldiers who were supposed to protect her, and how she fled her village with her eight children under the cover of night. In the wake of her suffering, she joined a group of women to save small amounts of their own money each week. From her savings, she launched a soap-making business. Over time, she employed others and taught her sisters how to do the same. She helps others to forgive their perpetrators and, together, they are determined to stop the violence against women in a land known as the rape capital of the world.

Today thousands of peacemakers like her are changing Congo, and their numbers continue to swell. They are “waging peace” to save Congo one village at a time.

Are these peacemakers victims? While no one should diminish their unspeakable suffering, I call them heroes, not victims.

These Congolese are not alone in there pursuit. In Rwanda, Burundi, Malawi, and Mozambique, twice as many children are alive today because their mothers are implementing solutions to improve nutrition, protect against malaria and dehydration, and avoid mother-to-child transmission of HIV/AIDS. Across Africa kids are defying daunting odds by living beyond their fifth birthday.

While surprising, these changes are not unique. Last year a group of village elders in Cambodia told us our how their “children are healthier, AIDS affected families are cared for, and people are getting along with each other better.” To whom do they attribute this success? They credit members of their community — mothers, fathers, children — all volunteers, many who serve out of their faith.

Why is this narrative so different, so hopeful, even inspiring? Why do these Congolese peacemakers, Mozambican mothers, and Cambodian volunteers think, talk, and act like heroes even though they live on less than $1.25 a day, the World Bank’s demarcation line between who’s poor and who’s not? They act like heroes because they are heroes. Just because someone is vulnerable does not mean they cannot rise above their suffering to change their narrative to the world.

And when we help them succeed, we become heroes too.

Over the last 50 years, the suffering of those afflicted by poverty, war, and injustice has become remarkably accessible. Media has ushered the world’s problems into our living rooms. Some of us remember the Ethiopian famine that we witnessed on the evening news. Most of us remember the tsunami in Asia and, all of us experienced the earthquake in Haiti.

But humanitarian aid has become an industry, one that is prone to producing shocking images and stories that feed expectations for more. You have likely seen photos of children, generally forlorn, some emaciated, with taglines that appeal to your emotions. Child sponsorship, consumer campaigns, and the media’s insatiable thirst for shock transform our brothers and sisters into “objects of consumption” rather than people with enormous potential to make the world better.

We are caught in a vicious cycle, a dangerous dynamic that shapes our views about the people who experience suffering. As a result, those trapped in poverty are dehumanized and poverty is dumbed down while good, well-intended people really believe they are caring, world-conscious, and ethical.

But change is coming. Some are awakening a better way by using humor and satire to change stereotypes. Take, for example, a video that has gone viral depicting a group of Africans providing radiators for “poor, cold Norwegians.” Others take a more conventional approach by presenting people who suffer most with the vibrancy, resilience, perseverance, ingenuity, joy, and courageous faith they deserve. World Relief, the organization I serve, believes the “beneficiary” or “client” is the hero instead and, by implication, considers ourselves as beneficiaries for the privilege of collaborating with our valiant friends.

When those who suffer bring their faith, resilience, and creativity to bear, tens of thousands — indeed millions — are unleashed toward solving the most entrenched problems. With this kind of faith, courage, ingenuity, and scale, the world cannot help but change.

We are on the cusp of a seismic shift in how we understand the world’s most vulnerable and the problems they face. When we personally experience this shift, we radically change too.

We’ve entered a new age of activism. Today’s movements — whether to end hunger, abolish trafficking, or stamp out injustice — are fueled by storytellers, artists, entrepreneurs, students, and bloggers who courageously approach justice differently, better, smarter. They are the bulldogs, truth-tellers, and risk-takers not willing to give up their cause, nor willing to give in to superficial solutions.

After two decades of working to create and sustain positive change, I have never been more hopeful. It’s time to scrap conventional ideas for ones that bring lasting impact instead, making heroes of those who suffer, and releasing us to a higher calling. The world longs for this kind of change. We have the unprecedented opportunity to change how we change the world. Let’s not miss our chance to do what is right.

Stephan Bauman is President and CEO of World Relief, which empowers the worldwide church to overcome global poverty and injustice, chair of The Justice Conference, and author of Possible: A Blueprint For Changing How We Change the World.

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