If anyone else had said it we would have thought him insane. He was surrounded by a large group of nobodies—Galilean peasants, wannabe-successful fishermen, a few intrigued Pharisees, riffraff, and religious zealots. On a hillside, in a far-flung corner of a little-known backwoods of the Roman Empire, there sat a carpenter encircled by a crowd of insignificant, ignorant followers. And without a trace of irony, or a momentary hesitation, he stated loud and clear the Messianic Principle of World Change:
“You are the light of the world; you are the salt of the earth.”
I imagine a fair few of them, when they first heard that statement, glanced over their shoulders to see if a cohort of senior religious leaders, a jewel-encrusted aristocrat, or a military general or two had at last turned up. Surely he must be addressing someone else, not us, not this group of paltry peasants. Perhaps they even thought he was joking, until they looked carefully into that face and discerned nothing but warm-hearted, genuine belief. Yes, you can change the world.
Unless anyone reading the above think I make this point because I am defending uneducated, unsophisticated, or plain inaccurate understandings of Christian faith, let me summarize my personal biography in two sentences. Sentence one: Private prep school British culture, Cambridge University-educated culminating in PhD in theology, fellow of Jonathan Edwards College at Yale University. Sentence two: I count all as loss for the sake of Christ.
The Messianic Principle of World Change tells us that those who follow him are the light of the world. Whoever follows him. Not just the cultural elite, or (inverse snobbery) the poor or disadvantaged. Anyone and everyone who follows Jesus is part of his program for changing the world. To establish the truth of that principle consider a counterintuitive example, a democratic observation, and a contrarian conclusion.
World history is full of highly educated and sophisticated people who have been used by God to do great things—Augustine, Jonathan Edwards, and John Wesley, to name but three. However, the most successful, most read, most influential book in the English language beside the Bible was not written by learned John Milton or aristocratic William Wilberforce. The author, my counterintuitive example, described himself as “poor as poor might be” without even “a dish or spoon.” His native language skills were so hidden that those who knew him only noticed that he was “the ungodliest fellow for swearing they ever heard.” He, like his father before him, made his living (such as it was) by traveling the roads of England mending broken pots and pans.
This was the same man who wrote the sentence, “I saw a man clothed with rags . . . a book in his hand and a great burden on his back.” He recounted pilgrim travels from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City. The first editor of the famed Pilgrim’s Progress noted that by 1692 there were already 100,000 copies in print. Samuel Taylor Coleridge said it was the “best Summa Theologicae Evangelicae ever produced by a writer not miraculously inspired.” It became the bestselling book ever written in the English language.
All by John Bunyan, a poor “tinker” who made his living hammering out dents in family pots and pans.
We all know that cultural elites—those who have disproportionate control over politics, media, and education—wield enormous power. However, this power not only flows from the top down but also from the bottom up. That is, the power at the top of a large institution, especially when that institution is even broadly democratic, is inevitably shaped by the will, opinions, and general tastes of the majority. Someone in elected office will either reflect the view of those who elect or not be successful as a politician.
Our political leaders can (and should) lead, not only making decisions based upon opinion polls. But such leadership is shaped within the context of democratic realities. Only a dictator can completely ignore the wishes of his people, and even then only for a time—eventually even dictators, if they are resolutely unpopular, will fall. African warlords, Middle Eastern colonels, and South American dictators can only survive if they harness at least a portion of popular support.
The early church, then, did not achieve its famed takeover of the Roman Empire (for better or for worse) by first converting all the elite. Numerous studies have shown that Christianity was a mass popular movement that eventually even the Roman elite had to acknowledge. Constantine saw that he could conquer by the sign of the cross because by that time large swathes of the Roman Empire were Christians.
Cultural elites who ignore the wishes of the people, especially but not only within democracies, will fail. Just look at the French aristocracy during the French Revolution: the Bastille was stormed and the world was changed.
I take it that Jesus was right: you can change the world. “You are the light of the world. You are the salt of the earth.”
I take it that Paul was right: God has chosen the foolish things to shame the wise so that before God no one can boast. Paul did not mean that education or learning or well-crafted sentences were unimportant. His writing evidences a man of great learning and significant rhetorical ability. But the power is from God, not from us. This was the key part of the vision that Paul received: My power, God said to Paul, is made perfect in weakness. My grace is sufficient.
I ask God for more Augustines, more Jonathan Edwardses, more John Calvins.
I ask God for more John Bunyans.
The power to change the world comes from Christ. It is exercised through his people, regardless of their human strengths and weaknesses.
That world-changing power could start in Chicago, New York, or London.
It could start in the cornfields of Illinois, or in shanty town on the outskirts of Delhi.
It might even start in a stable.