What if religious people really lived the virtues of their faith? How might the world change?
What if we listened more to our better selves instead of peer pressure?
What if stories can narrow the gap between virtues we profess and how we live?
What if South Africa has lessons to teach the world about social change?
More often than we probably like to admit, it can be challenging to transport religion-based virtues into our everyday lives.
Similar to how an elevated dining experience at a high-end restaurant can be exhilarating but doesn’t lend itself to easy duplication at home, there’s often a gap between the virtues we profess in our places of worship and the actions we may take – or not take– in our families, among friends, at work and in our communities.
“As humans, we’re influenced by context. What we say is virtuous on Sundays in church, for example, may not seem as good an idea when others around us are advocating or practicing other behaviors,” says Garth Japhet, M.D., founder and CEO of Heartlines, based in South Africa.
As a result of this say-to-do gap, the fabric of our societies unravels and shows signs of distress: neglect, injustices, intolerance, inequality, polarization, exploitation, and hate.
Past injustices, such as apartheid in South Africa and slavery in the Americas, as well as current global issues such as climate change accountability, vaccine distribution inequity, world hunger, immigration, refugee crises, gender-based violence — essentially every social ill in the world traces back to the gap between virtues and behaviors, Japhet maintains.
“All the world’s religions are based on positive virtues such as honesty, integrity, empathy, self-control — these are things that we ascribe to, and yet life gets in the way,” he says.
“The organized church has realized that it needs to find ways of actively reengaging with society by guiding its members as they ask, ‘How then shall we live?’” Japhet says. And they’re looking for impactful and credible programs to help.
Based in South Africa, Heartlines was founded to inspire people to listen to their better angels and live up to their virtues. To accomplish such a mighty goal, it relies on a comparable power – storytelling – to shift and lift people’s understanding and behaviors.
Since 2002, Heartlines has produced award-winning films and multimedia support materials used extensively by South African churches and other faith-based organizations. For example:
The intent of these and other Heartlines films is to nurture what Japhet terms “social dividends” – the greater understanding, empathy and involvement with others that results in more positive personal relationships. When social dividends are achieved, the impacts can be profound: stronger communities and societies over time and, ultimately, across generations.
“Stories have the power to move us, change us, heal us and inspire us. We believe that films are an amazing way to reach people with memorable stories that can impact our hearts and minds, while entertaining us at the same time,” the Heartlines website proclaims.
“Stories are the magic pill for change,” Japhet says.
In many parts of the world today, social unraveling is occurring in ways that often seem unsolvable. At the same time, digital streaming, podcasts and other forms of online learning and enrichment are providing new opportunities to distribute content at a larger scale, at less cost and to a more receptive audience than ever before.
With a support from Templeton Religion Trust, plus funding support from the South African Council of Churches and the Evangelical Alliance, Heartlines is now enhancing its programs and migrating them online, aiming to reach many more people and institutions.
“While our programs have proved to be both needed and effective, our reach has been limited by our ability to reach people with the physical resources and in-person training required,” Japhet explains. Putting Heartline resources online and providing online training for leaders dilutes the boundaries of geography.
Whether its programs are accessed online or in real-time venues, Heartlines is continuing to focus on churches as a vital channel. According to Japhet, churches are the biggest network within many communities, and they have a rich diversity of professions and socioeconomic levels. New understandings that begin there can ripple outward in many directions.
“If you want to affect a society, we believe that you begin with a supportive environment and early adopters. Then you equip them with methodologies that are culturally relevant and can actually impact them and their societies,” he explains.
The new funding supports four revised programs for online or in-person participation. Each program addresses significant societal issues that can be affected by a virtues-based approach:
South Africa may well have something unique to teach the world about bridging gaps, Japhet believes. “We’re certainly not a poster child,” he acknowledges. “But I lived through the period of our history when we were expecting a civil war. I don’t think anyone expected anything different. It was the influence of people of faith primarily that averted that – a miracle of reconciliation by leaders saying we can hate, or we can turn away from hate. And saying that our future has to be – if we want a future – to forgive and move on.
“I think we can teach the world that it’s not a one-off process,” he maintains. “It’s something that has to be ingrained over generations. We’ve realized that we need to enable ordinary people – those early adopters who want to bridge gaps – to become inspired and continue to do so. We can’t wait for governments or political leadership to do it for us. This has to be a ground-up movement, things that ordinary people can do in their everyday life.”