Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Symptoms and Systems

I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states... Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.
Martin Luther King, Letter From a Birmingham Jail

As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, ‘If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes...Then he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling things there; and he said, ‘It is written,
“My house shall be a house of prayer”;
but you have made it a den of robbers.’

Luke 19:42-43, 45-46

The temple replaced Herodian rule as the center of the local domination system. A domination system was not new--it had existed under Herod and before. What was new was that the temple was now at the center of local collaboration with Rome. It had the defining features of ancient domination systems: rule by a few, economic exploitation and religious legitimation...
John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg, The Last Week

Throughout the history of Christianity, disciples of Jesus have been divided into two camps: those who view the faith as an individualistic endeavor and those who work to reform society at large. This led to a 20th century conflict within the American Body of Christ between the Fundamentalists, who believed in a future salvation in heaven and a personal piety in the present, and the Social Gospellers, who fought economic exploitation of workers and the degradation of innercities. In light of this week's health care reform and pending legislation over immigration, financial regulation, climate change containment and the horrific nature of American food production, EasyYolk sees the vital need for a movement that transcends both Christian options. We need both passionate personal responsibility and sustained systemic engagement in order to give our society a foretaste of the compassion, justice and peace of the inaugurated reign of God in Christ. This will lead individuals, families, companies, churches and political leaders to experiment with the way of Christ in ways utterly unimaginable to those very first disciples marching fearfully and triumphantly with their King on the road to Jerusalem back in 29AD.

Economists can help Christian disciples. The concept of externalities posits that there are third-party (or "external") costs for the economic decisions of individuals, families and companies. When the factory pollutes, the innocent folks down-river get toxic drinking water. When millions of Americans buy big trucks and SUVs, it drives up the cost of gasoline and dirties our air. When millions of Americans are obese, it drives up the cost of health care. These costs can be positive as well. During the Fall Cross Country season, I used the Mormon church's parking lot to park for free across the street from the regional park where we trained on Saturday mornings. When your dad landscapes his front yard, it enhances the property values of the entire neighborhood. Our individual decisions do not only affect ourselves. We are in this together, or as King proclaimed: We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.

Likewise, American Evangelical Christianity prioritizes the renewed heart that leads to charitable giving, virtuous living and personal responsibility as the ultimate mechanism to influence our world. Individuals, families and churches who bear "the fruit of the Spirit" (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, goodness, self-control) are the model, conscience or servant to our country and the entire globe. Our good deeds and acts of kindness "ripple out" into our neighborhoods and beyond. This concept is very similiar to what the mid-20th century British C.S. Lewis calls "the good infection" and when Cornel West claims rightly that his own African-American Christian community has been a form of "leaven in the larger American loaf" for over four centuries (he points out how truly miraculous it is that we have never had a "black al Qaeda" despite the wicked oppression unleashed on the African-American people). Nothing, absolutely nothing, is done autonomously. Our decisions, for better or for worse, infect or expand the wider culture around us.

However, this inside-out form of witness, or cultural engagement, is limited. It does not tell the whole story of how the "new in Christ" can creatively redeem our world. Redemption also works from the outside in. With a little help from the world of psychotherapy, we are able to see that "the systems" or "networks" that we play a role in--our families, workplaces, educational institutions, various media, as well as political and socio-economic structures--have shaped who we have become. In a multitude of complex ways, we are socially formed. Family systems therapy investigates the rules, roles and patterns of our upbringings and how these continue to play out in our lifestyles into adulthood. Our family systems serve as emotional fields that form patterns of fusion, distance, conflict or differentiation in all our diverse settings (from marriage to the workplace to the church to the marketplace) throughout life.

The systems of society teach us how to cope in a world of anxiety and chaos, but they also enslave us in often unrecognizable ways. In the 1954 Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education Topeka Kansas, the Court decided in favor of elementary school student Linda Brown on the basis of an obvious inferiority complex infused in her as a result of walking past an all-white elementary school everyday of her childhood in order to arrive at her dilapidated all-black school much further from her house: "separate but equal facilities are inherently unequal." As it turns out, children like Brown are "left behind" in far deeper ways than just education. Yet the simple myth of autonomous individuals making their own choices and taking their own responsibility is widely believed in white suburban Evangelical Christian circles. In its harshest forms, it results in an indifference or callousness that shatters the inter-ethnic solidarity that New Testament writers urged during the first decades of discipleship (Gal 3:28; Col 3:11; II Corinthians 8-9; Eph 2; etc).

With this in mind, Christian discipleship, unquestionably, must be also about transforming the various systems of our world in order to bring more freedom, love and grace to the lives of our neighbors far and wide. It is not enough to tithe and form non-profits in order to treat the symptoms of an unjust order. We must strategically attack the system. This will lead various individuals, families, churches and companies to advocate, announce, advertise and adjudicate where the systems hold humanity hostage. This will take wisdom, discernment and sacrifice. It will mean that we, quite simply, have to risk breaking away from the status quo no matter how much the status quo favors our own well-being. Sometimes, it will mean changes in government policies or voting out certain political leaders in order live with sustainability or to ease suffering and bring opportunity for our neighbors living in poor urban neighborhoods & barrios and poor "rural vanilla slices" of America (again, West's vocabulary). For instance, China and Europe have greatly reduced pollution by banning thin plasic bags and cities like Washington DC, San Francisco and LA are following suit. Indeed, sometimes political systems can boost their citizens to live with more kindness, justice and stewardship (a ban or a tax on plastic bags in Orange County might just discipline my wife and I to bring our own bags to the grocery store!).

As Martin Luther King imaginatively exegeted Luke 10 in the conclusion of his famous Beyond Vietnam speech, like the Good Samaritan, we too must work to heal and save the poor man, beaten and robbed by the side of the road, but we simply cannot stop there. We must work tirelessly to make the road to Jericho safer. If we do not have the time and intention to change the system, men and women will continue to be robbed and beaten in our American political and economic system. As King lamented:

True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.

As we approach Palm Sunday, let us recall that Jesus didn't just come to save sinners. He came to save systems. The King, fresh off a triumphal entry into the city of David, wept over Jerusalem because of the error of her militaristic political strategies and his prophetic grief (just like Jeremiah) led him into the Temple, the ultimate site of economic and political corruption. His activism was aimed at the Temple elite who got wealthier and more powerful by confiscating the land of poor farmers and legitimized the whole system through religious worship in the Temple. This system greatly dehumanized and counterfeited God's People. Jesus' action, of course, led directly to his own death sentence at the hands of these very powers. But Jesus has replaced the broken socio-political-economic domination system and calls all and sundry to gather around his platform, working to transform systems of greed, revenge and fear-mongering.

EasyYolk is convinced that King was correct about what he boldly proclaimed 43 years ago next month:

I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a "thing-oriented" society to a "person-oriented" society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.

This radical revolution of values that reflects the life, ministry, teaching and death of both Jesus of Nazareth and Martin Luther King of Atlanta, will be partially ushered forth through disciplined lifestyles of externalities, "third party benefits" that ripple out from creative experiments of compassion, love and forgiveness. But let us not forget that a "thing-oriented society" is also molded by systems that can only become more just and gentle than they are today when a people of conscience are ready to advocate for more "person-oriented" policies. After all, the night before King Jesus was crucified, he marched into the Temple to overturn the unjust system of rule by few-&-economic exploitation that kept poor peasant farmers indebted and subservient and the night before Martin Luther King was assasinated, he marched in the streets of Memphis to overturn an unjust system of rule by few-&-economic exploitation that kept sanitary workers overworked and underpaid.

Let us pray in solidarity...
Gracious God, the comfort of all who sorrow, the strength of all who suffer: Let the cry of those in misery and need come to you, that they may find your mercy present with them in all their afflictions; and give us, we pray, the strength to serve them for the sake of him who suffered for us, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

*Today's featured image (above) is Portrait of You as Good Samaritan from Catholic artist James Janknegt. Check out his other great pieces here

--Theological Autopilot


  1. As disciples, trying to transform systems, how do we view the idea of compromise, unique to a liberal democracy?
    Thanks for talking about economists.

  2. Jon, I love the concept of externalities. Did I oversimplify?

    I think disciples are led by the Spirit in a myriad of ways. Some are activists who would never dare to utter the c-word. Their role is to push and prod and prophetically offer an alternative that the wider culture can observe and mimic. Others are enmeshed in the political system, using wisdom and discernment to make compromises in order to move the system in baby steps towards more compassionate and just outcomes. I think Jesus calls us ALL to live radically and intentionally, but that takes a lot of different forms. God loves variety.

  3. Amen. And I would add that the activists and those working from within both need each other to keep healthy and to keep dialoguing and growing and being challenged about how it looks to live within the tension of a world reborn... both now AND not yet. Love the two people above me fo this very reason. Great question, Jon.

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