As I mentioned last week, my students and I have been pondering the different ways Christians across time and space have viewed culture and their place in it. On Monday we tied it up by talking about the "Christ Transforming Culture" framework, in which we see culture as a fallen but redeemable thing, and so we work faithfully in our own vocations to join in God's work of restoring culture—all of it, both in individuals and institutions. Plenty of people fit this framework, but among the examples we came up with were Martin Luther King, Jr. and William Wilberforce.

A few hours after class on Monday, I got an email from a student. I have a question, she said, that I wanted to ask when I was in class, but we ran out of time: What kind of person do you think actually does end up transforming culture? And, furthermore, what do people who make a difference in the world have in common?

I thought about it for a little while. This is the answer I dashed off:

First of all, I think one thing that's common to all of these people is that they are thoroughly persuaded that their cause is just, that it is necessary. They hang on to that belief even when plagued by doubts or criticisms. They recognize that doubt is something everyone experiences, but they persevere through it.
They're also willing to pick their battles. I think sometimes would-be transformers don't know when to work in a less-than-ideal situation (probably with people with whom they don't agree), and so they sometimes pick battles over silly things. Instead they are willing to pursue what a friend of mine calls "proximate justice."

And they are men and women of character and integrity—not perfection, but a serious, sincere, palpable desire to pursue the right, not because it benefits them personally but because they really do—as corny as it sounds—want to make the world a better place.

I think that's the last piece: they are infinitely, infinitely patient. This is probably the most important part. The world-transformer is willing to work their whole life toward a good that they may not actually get to see or fully experience. Of course, sometimes they do. And if MLK had lived, he could have watched what seemed inconceivable in his time: a black man became president. But they are so convinced that what they desire is just and good that they are (at least on their best days) willing to work toward it even if they never get to see it themselves. They take the long view.

So it does make sense that many great cultural transformations have come from the Christian and Jewish traditions, since patience, endurance, and hope for a renewed earth are built right into the fabric of those frameworks. But even those outside those traditions have transformed the world (or, really, small parts of it) through what boils down to, essentially, gritting your teeth, digging in, and not letting go :)

My question, to you: What else do world-changers have in common?