The Problem with Social Progress


If you’re a person who likes to pay attention to the news or current affairs, I’m willing to bet that the question “How does that still happen?” has entered your mind at one point or another. In school, we learn about the atrocities of war, genocide, slavery, and racism. We study certain ideologies and political structures and are thankful that we live in different times. But as we hear about shooting after shooting, rally after rally, protest after protest, I start to wonder why we don’t learn from our mistakes. We like to think our society has progressed and overcome these things, but why do they keep creeping back again and again?

I believe Western society has a real problem with progress. I’m not quite willing to call it an illusion or a myth, but it seems like our progress is misunderstood in some cases. Our society and culture has moved, there’s no doubt about that. All we need to do is compare us to five generations ago. But movement doesn’t always signal progress. And progress doesn’t always signal positive movement.

Let’s take one example that still baffles me - racism. We may like to believe that we have progressed beyond the idea that one person is more or less valuable, gifted, or human, because of the colour of their skin. We are nowhere close to what things were two hundred years ago when it was perfectly acceptable to see some humans as property, when slave owners believed it was their God given right to own people.

But that all changed with the Emancipation Act of 1862, right? It was the law that ended slavery, so of course people would change their minds about race. Well, no. White people could no longer own black people, but most people’s minds and hearts didn’t change. Segregation and Jim Crow laws made sure that white people could keep their “purity.” White people couldn’t own black people, but that didn’t mean they believed they were equal.

But that all changed with the civil rights movement of the 1950s, right? This movement eventually ended segregation and laws that kept black people on the margins of society, so of course people would change their minds about race. Well, no. Even now, almost seven decades later, we still have people who believe that God created races with differing value, and are afraid of others solely based on the colour of their skin.

So what have we learned in our history? Laws don’t change people.

Now don’t misunderstand me. Political pressure, movements, and legislative changes are important. They are often the beginning of positive change. Especially when people’s lives and dignity are at stake, we need laws that protect the marginalized and the vulnerable. When people are being sold, killed, objectified, or oppressed because of the colour of their skin, we need to act. And changing the law is the fastest way to change someone’s behaviour.

Martin Luther King Jr. understood this when he said, “Morality cannot be legislated, but behaviour can be regulated. Judicial decrees may not change the heart, but they can restrain the heartless.” Civil action is beneficial, but changing a law doesn’t change a person’s heart. It doesn’t change their beliefs. It may restrain the heartless, but only until the time when they are given the chance to speak up or permission from a leader to voice their true opinion.

Jesus was the kind of teacher who understood that real change begins in the heart of each person. True change comes when we are transformed from the inside out. 

One day, a rich man approached Jesus to ask Him how to get eternal life (Matthew 19:16-24). Jesus was a master communicator who asked questions pointed directly at the heart. Jesus told him to follow all the laws that he grew up with. This wasn’t the answer the man was looking for. He knew and did all of this, but he was looking for something more. Jesus then told the man to sell all his possessions and give to the poor. What did the man do? He became sad and left. It’s likely the man was sad because he knew he would never do this and therefore would not follow Jesus. Jesus’ answer revealed a heart condition that the law never could. Sure he could follow all the laws. Don’t do this, don’t do that. But the law didn’t expose the man’s true beliefs and priorities. Underneath it all was a heart of greed and Jesus exposed it with His answer. He was rich and didn’t want to care for the poor. Jesus wanted to change the man’s heart, but when he was exposed, the man walked away.

Laws, whether civil or religious, may keep us in line, but they don’t change our core. They weren’t necessarily designed to do so. And if social progress is based on passing laws, it will soon fall apart. Real societal change must come down to the transformation of the heart. 

Whenever we have a societal debate, whether it's race, LGTBQ inclusion, or Indigenous-settler relations, it seems like we have two sides who are willing to fight for what they believe. Eventually, one side will win by having a large and strong enough voice to persuade the government to introduce their laws, be it emancipation, same-sex marriage, or (the yet to be voted on) Bill C-262. The battle is won, the law is changed, but the biggest mistake one could make is to assume that we’ve moved collectively forward, when, in fact, we’ve only gone part way.

For us as a society to truly move forward, we do need activists who fight for truth, justice, freedom, liberation and peace. We need those who won’t take “No” for an answer and are willing to sacrifice themselves for the greater good. We need those who will bring about change for the protection of the vulnerable and marginalized.

But we also need heart-changers - those who enter into relationships with people no matter where they are at. Those who will not exclude or ridicule people because of where they stand at that moment. We need people who are willing to share stories, listen, cry, and even sometimes, be hurt by what is said. We need people who will challenge the hearts of our society, who will walk alongside people with patience as we journey on.

I believe these people are often forgotten. They are not in the fore-ground and they don’t make the headlines. But they show their strength in the commitment they have to changing the heart of society, not only its actions. We need them if we want true social progress.