Sometime in the early 1930s Reinhold Niebuhr wrote a prayer, the first verse of which has come to be
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things
I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.”
Although Niebuhr’s prayer is couched in theological terms, the sentiment could easily help us clarify our social justice actions.
When I - a white, older-aged, male, residing in one of the world richest nations – consider what things I can change, these come to mind.
Racism is predominantly a system and a structure of providing white people benefits within society and largely excluding those of dark skin. It has been built on the back of (often) brutal colonisation and a Eurocentric sense of superiority. My ethnic background and heritage place me squarely in the position of being able to do something about that – to change it.
My age (I was born in the 1950s) means that I have grown up in an age of plenty, an age of exploitation of the earth, an age of increasing individualisation and entitlement. When I look around at my cohort today I see little has changed. My peers are still approaching the earth as if it is a big playground. Meanwhile, the future of younger generations is being stolen from them, and the memory of past generations is being forgotten or placed in museums. My age enables me to work to change this.
Sexism and misogyny are the outcome of a system that is patriarchal in nature. Patriarchy is dominated by male thought, by male values, by male attitudes. Those values and attitudes have: seen domestic abuse and violence at high levels, maintained an economic imbalance between the sexes, plundered the earth, given rise to authoritarianism, and even exploited some men (particularly gay men, black men, boys.) As a man I have a responsibility to change this.
Inequality of wealth and income is one of the drivers of so many social ills. Poverty, malnutrition, lack of access to clean water, homelessness, displaced peoples and migrants, various addictions, and poor health, can all be attributed to inequality. In 2019 there were 2,153 billionaires (less than the number needed to fill the average cruise ship), yet these billionaires had more wealth than 4.6 billion people (60% of the world's population.) The 22 richest men in the world own more wealth than all the women in Africa.1 Even I (who have an income that is just a little above the Australian official poverty level) am wealthier than almost 90% of the world’s people. As a resident of a rich nation I can do something to help change this.
There are many things in the world that I have little, or no, ability to change, even though I may find them disturbing, unjustified, or oppressive. However, those I have just outlined I do have the ability to change, because I live within each of those enclaves and am supported by and benefit from them. And that is where Niebuhr calls us to courage.
It is far more courageous to look at the systems I am part of and seek to change from within, than it is to point the finger elsewhere and say “you have to change.”
What if look but don’t see?
I suggest there is one more line to add to Niebuhr’s prayer.
The humility to listen to those in pain and suffering.
1. Statistics from: Oxfam International, Time To Care: Unpaid and underpaid care work in the global inequality crisis, January 2020.