Equipping christians for social transformation



By The Rev. Peter Corney OAM


(Delivered on 25/3/09 at the inauguration of the Center of Education and Youth Studies and the Micha 6:8 Centre for Aid and Development Studies  at Tabor College Victoria Australia. The Centre’s are partnerships between Tabor College, Eastern University and Tear Australia and between Tabor and  the Victorian Council of Christian Education (VCCE). In addition to Youth studies the Center’s will also offer courses focusing on International Aid and Development.)



Thank you for the invitation to deliver the address at the beginning of what I believe is a most significant development in Australia in the field of Christian education and training for Social Transformation. This initiative at Tabor brings together, in an interdenominational context, organizations with successful track records as agents of social justice and transformation. The aim is to equip a new generation as agents of social change shaped by the Gospel. I commend this endeavor to you.


One of my involvements these days is with the West Papuan refugee community in Australia. Recently I attended a meeting in Sydney of mainly faith based organizations concerned about the current situation in West Papua and the difficulties of the indigenous Melanesian people and the West Papuan Church.

They live under a very oppressive military occupation by Indonesia. The abuse of human rights is extensive and persistent. The Special Autonomy promised by Jakarta in 2001 has never been fully or properly implemented, to many West Papuans it is a sham. All the well being indicators for the indigenous people are going down – life expectancy, health, education and now Aids / HIV is getting out of control.


The leadership of the West Papuan community is mainly drawn from the Christian Church. We met with the Moderator and General Secretary of the United Protestant Church (GKI) which represents the vast majority of West Papuan Christians. (At least 80% of the indigenous people are Christian.) We met to listen to their story. It was a rather dispiriting report as they expressed their tiredness and frustration with their struggle. But the Moderator used a phrase that stuck in my mind: “We believe the Gospel liberates us from all chains that seek to bind us.” It was like an echo of Luke 4:18-19.


                                “The spirit of the Lord is on me,

                                because he has anointed me

                                to preach good news to the poor.

                                He has sent me to proclaim freedom

                                for the prisoners

                                and recovery of sight for the blind,

                        to release the oppressed,

                                to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (NIV)


The task of Social Transformation empowered by the Gospel is integral to the mission Jesus has entrusted to us, but it is a complex and challenging task. It involves at least these six elements:

  1. The spiritual and moral transformation of people by the Gospel. (It is interesting that the West Papuan’s refer to the coming of the Gospel as “the coming of the light.”)
  2. The transformation of peoples world view.
  3. The transformation of community and social relations.
  4. The transformation of economic and political structures.
  5. The transformation of education and health.
  6. The transformation of the communities physical and technical resources – capacity building.


All these things are interconnected, one impacts on the other. We also know that the way assistance is given can help or hinder the process and in some cases make the situation worse. In her recent book “Dead Aid” (1) the articulate African writer Dambisa Moyo presents a challenging account of the negative results of aid to Africa, particularly inter government aid. In an insightful review of the book Oxford Professor of economics Paul Collier says “ African societies face problems deeper than dependence on aid….the help they need is not predominantly money. Aid is not a very potent instrument for enhancing either security or accountability. Our obsession with it has detracted from the more important ways in which we can promote development: peacekeeping, security guarantees, trade privileges, and governance.” (2) The title of her book is a deliberate play on Bob Geldoff’s celebrity fundraising efforts and while one may feel the case is overstated nevertheless her critique must be taken seriously.


My point is that equipping people well to take part as constructive initiators and facilitators in the processes of transformation is a very important educational and training task.


I have referred to West Papua and Africa but of course the need for people trained in this way is not just in the developing world. The need remains as critical in the developed world. All societies are in constant need of reformation and transformation by the Gospel and the values of the Kingdom of God. It would not take long to compile a list of areas in Australian society in need of transformation right now!


I sometimes think that if our clergy and pastors were trained in cultural awareness, community development and social transformation skills, as well as theology, we might be making more impact on our society.

So my first point is to say how important and strategic I think this venture is.


My second point is an observation about the church.

After years in pastoral ministry one of the things that has become very clear to me is that unless you keep your foot on the pedal as a leader and teacher there are three things that drift off the local churches agenda. They are:

  1. Evangelism
  2. Social justice
  3. Critical engagement with the culture. (By this I mean whether our discipleship is seduced and modified by the cultures norms or whether our discipleship challenges those norms and we seek to live differently and so influence our culture.)


What happens is that our focus has a tendency to drift inwards, probably because we are so practiced at self interest! Our piety becomes introverted and singular, concerned only with our own relationship with God. Of course in the end this is a false trail for three reasons: first, because the Bible allows no such singular focus. We are to “love God with all our heart soul, mind and strength and our neighbor as ourselves.” And loving my neighbor means I will want to introduce him to Jesus, if he is hungry I will want to feed him and if he is being treated unjustly I will want to see justice flow for him. The second reason this is a false trail is because our anxiety about our relationship subtly leads us away from trust in God’s grace. The third reason this is a false trail is deeply ironic because this singular focus also leads to the erosion of the very thing I have become so preoccupied with – my individual relationship with God. This is because love and obedience are inextricably linked in the NT. The words of 1John2:3-6 make this very clear.

                        ‘We know that we have come to know him

                        if we obey his commands. Those who say,

                         “I know him,” but do not do what he commands

                        are liars, and the truth is not in them.

                        But if anyone obeys his word, love for God is truly

                        made complete in that person. This is how we

            `           know we are in him: whoever claims to live in him

                        must walk as Jesus did.’ (NIV)


The opposite of this introverted spirituality is the trap that those of us with a passion for social justice sometimes fall into – working for justice in God’s world without keeping God’s love alive in our hearts. This pathway leads to spiritual anorexia, cynicism and often such a rancorous spirit that our friends start avoiding us!


My third point is some historical observations about Christianity’s relationship with culture.

I have borrowed and adapted categories first developed by H. Richard Niebuhr as he reflected on this. (3) Six relationships can be observed historically:

1. Christianity under the culture. Eg: Persecution under the Roman Empire in the first three centuries; Byzantine Christianity oppressed by Islam under the Ottomans’; the Church under Communism in Laos or China today.

2. Christianity against the culture. Eg: Where the Church is actively opposed to the dominant culture, as in the Confessing Church in Nazi Germany with Bonheoffer and Niemoller, or The Solidarity movement backed by the Catholic Church and opposed to Communism in Poland in the 1980’s.

3. Christianity over the culture. Eg: Where the Church dominates and controls the culture, exerting power over it as in the Holy Roman Empire from the Middle Ages till the 15th C., or Geneva under Calvin.

4. Christianity withdrawn from the culture. Eg: Where the Church disengages and withdraws into ghettos or closed communities like the Anna Baptists in the 16th C or the Amish in North America or the Exclusive Brethren and some forms of Evangelical pietism today. The motive may be either fear of contamination from the culture or a desire to create the Kingdom on earth in an ideal community.

5. Christianity absorbed by the culture. Eg: Where the Church is seduced by the dominant cultures values and conforms to them, adapting its values and beliefs to fit the culture. The contemporary Western Church reveals many examples of this like prosperity gospel teaching or ordinary Christians adopting the same materialism and consumerism of those around them. Apartheid in South Africa, tribal conflict in East Africa, and the culture of violence and confrontation in Northern Ireland are all tragic examples from the recent past.

6. Christianity transforming the culture. Eg: Where Christianity acts like salt and light in the culture, reshaping its values and affecting public policy like the influence of the 18th and 19th C. English Christian social reformers. We have just recently celebrated the two hundredth anniversary of the work of Wilberforce and the Christian movement for the abolition of the slave trade. But it is not as well understood that Wilberforce and his friends in the Clapham circle created 69 different societies for the reformation of English society and the spread of the Gospel. Western countries like Australia and North America are the inheritors of their far reaching work of social transformation. The scope of their concerns took in education, factory reform, child labor reforms, health, workplace safety, prison reform. They were even involved in the passing of special laws for “the protection of native peoples” in the British colonies. They began The Bible Society, CMS, The Mission to India, the RSPCA, the list goes on. It was a remarkable achievement.


I trust that what we are launching today will help to train and inspire a new generation to embrace this sixth relationship with their culture – transformation.


My final comment is a reflection on our disturbed times. One of our leading papers this week carried an unusual graphic with the lead story in the business section. (4) The story was about the international financial crisis and excessive executive payouts. It showed an engraving of Adam and Eve being expelled from the Garden of Eden and an angel standing guard at the entrance, except that the entrance was to a bank! The title was, “Where to after the fall?”  This leads me to my final reflection.


In Ridley Scott’s iconic film Blade Runner we find ourselves in Los Angeles in the future (2019). The setting is bleak; “ecological disaster, urban overcrowding, a visual and aural landscape saturated with advertising, a polyglot population immersed in a Babel of competing cultures, decadence and squalid homelessness.” (5) But juxtaposed with this social decay is brilliant technological achievement. High above the teeming filthy streets live the wealthy few in luxurious gated skyscrapers.

In one of the early scenes we find ourselves in the head office of a high tech corporation who are the creators of Cyborgs – advanced robots who are almost indistinguishable from humans. But some of the Cyborgs have gone feral and hunting them down is the core of the films plot. A ‘Blade Runner’ is a bounty hunter of rogue Cyborgs.

As we view the interior of the luxurious penthouse office we see an Owl perched on a stand. Then the Owl takes flight, passing in front of the vast plate glass windows behind which a brilliant orange sun is setting.


The symbolism is deliberate. The Owl has always been seen as a symbol of wisdom. In Roman mythology he accompanies the Goddess Minerva, Goddess of wisdom. But it was the German Philosopher Hegel who famously wrote “…the Owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk…,” by which he meant, that philosophy only comes to understand an historical condition as it is passing away. (6)

This image right at the beginning of Blade Runner is telling us that the films bleak vision of the future is what the sunset of our epoch will look like – the twilight of Modernity and Post Modernity (or Hyper Modernity.)

The question for us is ‘As the Owl spreads its wings and the sun sets on Western Culture is our wisdom about the cause of its decay clear and sharp enough to enable us to transform it from it from decay to renewal?  Or, to change the image, has the West fallen so far from the values and world view that delivered us something close to Eden that we can’t get back?


Peter Corney.



(1)    Dambisa Moyo (2009) “Dead Aid- Why aid is not working and how there is another way for Africa.” Penguin Books.

(2)   Paul Collier. Jan 30th 2009  Book review in the “Independent.”

(3)   H. Richard Niebuhr “Christ and Culture”. First published 1951. (Torch Books 1956)

(4)   “The Age”( March 21st 2009) Business Day pp.1.

(5)   Clayton J. (1996) “Concealed Circuits: Frankenstein’s Monster, the Medusa and the Cyborg” in Raritan Quarterly Review No 15 Vol 4 (Spring) pp.53-69.

(6)    G. W. F. Hegel, (1996)  From the preface to the “Philosophy of Right” (1821)

       Prometheus Books, New York.