Do Reformers Have the Answer?

FRAUDULENT business practices, biased law enforcement, social injustice, poor health care, second-rate schooling, rip-offs in the name of religion, and the plundering of the environment​—these are issues that leave most of us sighing in disappointment. These are also issues that propel reformers into action.

Reformers are found in almost every society, where they encourage change in an orderly, constitutional manner. Generally, they are not anarchists or revolutionaries, since most reformers stay within the law and refrain from violence. A few reformers occupy influential positions in society and take the initiative in introducing change. Others lobby and prod those in power into taking some action.

Reformers try to get society to rethink its approach on issues. They do not just protest; they have ideas about how to improve things. To draw attention to their concerns, reformers may petition the public, demonstrate in the streets, or seek publicity in the media. Among the worst things that can happen to a reformer is for society to ignore him.

Reformers in History

History has been punctuated by reforms. The Bible tells us that some 2,000 years ago, a public speaker commended Felix, the procurator of the Roman province of Judea, with these words: “Reforms are taking place in this nation through your forethought.” (Acts 24:2) About 500 years before Felix, Greek legislator Solon pushed through reforms to  improve conditions for the poor. Solon “put an end to the worst evils of poverty” in ancient Athens, explains The Encyclopædia Britannica.

The history of religion abounds with reformers. For example, Martin Luther tried to reform the Roman Catholic Church, and his initiatives helped pave the way for Protestantism.

The Scope of Reform

Reformers might also try to change the ordinary and the mundane. Some reformers promote a fundamentally different life-style. Such was the case with the Lebensreform (life-style reform) movement in Germany early in the 20th century. With the increasing industrialization of society, many people felt that life had become mechanical and impersonal. The reformers advocated a back-to-nature approach to life. They promoted fitness, outdoor pursuits, natural medicine, and vegetarianism.

Other reformers expose injustice and put pressure on the government to rectify the situation. Since the early 1970’s, groups of environmental activists have protested against abuses and deterioration of the environment. Some of these groups have since grown into global organizations. The activists do more than demonstrate and protest against environmental hazards. They also offer suggestions as to how to remedy the situation. They have helped change legislation on, among other things, the dumping of toxic waste at sea and the hunting of whales.

In the 1960’s, the Second Vatican Council undertook a reform of the Roman Catholic Church. The 1990’s also saw would-be reformers from within the laity of the Catholic Church. They suggested, for instance, a change on the issue of celibacy. Reformers within the Church of England pushed through a change allowing for the ordination of women to the priesthood.

Not Popular With Everyone

Some reforms have achieved immense good. For instance, in the Bible we find numerous examples of national leaders and others who promoted desirable reforms. Such efforts brought about spiritual revival, social renewal, and divine approval. (2 Kings 22:3-20; 2 Chronicles 33:14-17; Nehemiah, chapters 8 and 9) In more recent times, increased emphasis placed on basic liberties, civil rights, and human rights has done a lot to protect and defend underprivileged minorities and persecuted individuals.

However, reforms, once introduced, often bring surprises. John W. Gardner, a 20th-century public official, noted: “It is one of the ironies of history that reformers so often misjudge the consequences of their reforms.” Consider some examples.

Starting in the early 1980’s, agricultural reforms aimed at benefiting grassland and heathland habitats were initiated by the European Community. New agricultural policies freed more than 1,000 square miles [300,000 ha] of arable land in Germany and Italy for conversion to grassland. Despite the good intentions, there were unforeseen risks. “While initially welcomed as an opportunity to increase the ecological values of such areas,” stated the United Nations Environment Programme, “‘set-aside’ measures can also have negative results​—causing people to abandon traditional farming systems and adopt inappropriate forms of forestry or afforestation.”

Regarding efforts to assist the poor, the International Fund for Agricultural Development stated: “All efforts to benefit the poor through institutional reform face a deep problem. Institutions are usually created and run in the interests of the powerful. . . . ‘Big  men’ tend to run local institutions in their own interests.”

Another example is the feminist movement, which changed the lives of women in the Western world by gaining for them such things as voting rights and greater opportunities for higher education and careers. But even some supporters of women’s liberation admit that feminism solved certain problems while exacerbating others. Writer Susan Van Scoyoc asked: “Have we actually improved the lot of women or, in expecting women to be equal in the workplace without compensatory moves in their personal lives, have we condemned women to a living hell?”

Toothless Reforms

Some reformists have been accused of pursuing reform merely for its own sake. Describing what he called toothless reform, Frederick Hess, who has studied school reform, observed: “The problem with the dismal results of extensive reform efforts is with the nature of the reform enterprise itself. Instead of solving problems, these reform efforts have become alluring distractions that have actually aggravated” the problems they were supposed to solve. He continues: “Because each regime tends to initiate new reforms, the entire process starts anew every few years.”

Reforms can also end up promoting a different, sometimes harmful, cause. The Lebensreform movement in Germany helped develop the theory of eugenics, the study of how to improve the human race by selecting parents who will produce stronger offspring. Radicals misused this knowledge, however, to support the National Socialists in their ideological struggle to create a superrace.

Even fervent advocates of reform are occasionally disappointed by the results. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan lamented: “I think the most frustrating part is that we all know what’s wrong and what needs to be done, but we often can’t act upon it. Sometimes a secretariat led by the secretary-general is given a mandate to do something about it, but the resources needed to carry through the decisions are not forthcoming. At times, when incredible things are happening and we want to awaken the conscience of the world, no one wants to move because of bad experiences in the past.”

Reformers cannot hope to win popularity, for in drawing attention to their cause, they  make life uncomfortable for others. “The reformer has always been a thorn in the flesh,” said Jürgen Reulecke, a professor of modern history and a specialist on reformers who was quoted in the newspaper Die Zeit. Moreover, although most reformers keep within the law and refrain from violence, some become impatient if progress is slow. Under such circumstances a reform movement can breed militants who go beyond the law.

Have the widespread reforms of recent years made people in general more satisfied with life? This does not seem to be the case. In Germany, for instance, opinion polls indicate  that over the past 35 years or so, the level of satisfaction with life has remained virtually unchanged. What about religion? Have religious reforms attracted more worshipers? Are worshipers more satisfied with religion? No, as evidenced by the fact that the Western world is becoming more and more secularized and people are becoming less and less attracted to established religion.

Was Jesus Christ a Reformer?

Some might claim that Jesus Christ was a reformer. Is that true? This question is important for anyone who wants to be a true servant of God, since that involves being a close footstep follower of Christ.​—1 Peter 2:21.

There can be no doubt that Jesus had the ability to bring about reform. As a perfect man, he could have blazed a trail with sweeping changes and innovations. Yet, Christ did not initiate a campaign to rid the world of corrupt officials or dishonest businessmen. He did not lead street protests against injustice, although he himself was to become the innocent victim of an outrageous miscarriage of justice. At times, Jesus had “nowhere to lay down his head.” Still, he did not start a pressure group to draw attention to the needs of the homeless. “You always have the poor with you,” he explained when some expressed concern over finances. Jesus kept himself neutral in conflicts of the world.​—Matthew 8:20; 20:28; 26:11; Luke 12:13, 14; John 6:14, 15; 18:36.

Of course, such problems as poverty, corruption, and injustice did not leave Christ unmoved. In fact, the Bible shows that he was deeply upset over the pitiful state of mankind. (Mark 1:40, 41; 6:33, 34; 8:1, 2; Luke 7:13) But what he offered was a unique solution. What Christ had in mind was, not a simple reform, but a complete change in the way mankind’s affairs are governed. This change will be put into effect by the heavenly Kingdom introduced by the Creator of mankind, Jehovah God, and administered by Jesus Christ as King. This will be discussed in the next article.

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“It is one of the ironies of history that reformers so often misjudge the consequences of their reforms.”​—John W. Gardner

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“I think the most frustrating part is that we all know what’s wrong and what needs to be done, but we often can’t act upon it.”​—UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan

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“I Risked My Life to Protect the Environment”

Hans went to sea for 48 years, including more than 35 years as a ship’s captain. Toward the end of his career, he served as the captain of a vessel used by an environmental organization. He explains:

“I have always believed that mankind ought to respect the environment and treat nature with dignity. So when I was offered the chance to captain the ship of an environmental group, I accepted immediately. Our job was to expose threats to the environment. As soon as we planned a campaign at sea, we got the media involved to attract the attention of the public. We went to sea and took action to try to stop the dumping of radioactive waste and toxic substances. In another campaign, we tried to halt the slaughter of seals and seal pups.

“This was no job for the timid. I risked my life to protect the environment. In one protest act, I handcuffed myself to a ship’s anchor and ended up being dragged down to the seabed with it. Another time, I was in a rubber speedboat traveling alongside a larger ship. Someone dropped a heavy metal drum onto our rubber boat, causing it to somersault. I was seriously injured.”

Hans eventually realized that although the intentions of the organization were good, he was risking his life with little chance of making a lasting impact on the environment. (Ecclesiastes 1:9) Shortly after he left the environmental group, he studied the Bible with Jehovah’s Witnesses and became a baptized Witness. Today he is a full-time minister. “The Bible helped me realize that the only realistic hope of taking good care of the environment is through God’s Messianic Kingdom.”

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She Fought for Reform

Sara (not her real name) was born in Asia in the mid-1960’s. She was a teenager when a revolution in her country brought a new regime to power, promising political and social reform. Initially, the citizens of her country were happy with the change, but within a year the new government began to persecute opposers, just as the old government had. Disillusionment was widespread, and Sara got involved in organized opposition to the new government. She explains:

“Our opposition group held meetings, and we protested publicly. I was on the streets of the capital city pasting up posters and passing out handbills when the militia arrested me. In the end they let me go. Others in our group were not so fortunate. Two of my girlfriends were arrested and executed. My life was in danger, so my father urged me to leave the country.”

Once in Europe, Sara studied the Bible and was baptized as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Today she is a full-time minister. Looking back, Sara says:

“What I yearned for was justice and a solution to our social problems. I saw that the new government in our country started out with these same goals but became so extreme that it lost sight of the goals and began oppressing the population. I also realized that the protest group I belonged to did not have the answers to our country’s difficulties. (Psalm 146:3, 4) Now I realize that the solution to all of mankind’s problems is God’s Messianic Kingdom.”

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The Berlin Wall fell in 1989

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Have religious reforms attracted more worshipers?

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Top right: U.S. Information Agency photo

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Kofi Annan: UN/DPI photo by Evan Schneider (Feb97); background: WHO/OXFAM