Today I was inspired by a blog post from a colleague and friend, Ben Varnum, who reflected on “systems theory” and why he is so committed to viewing the world through that lens. My reflections below are a modification of comments I made on his post in response:
I once spoke candidly with my father about that robust, but too often flattened and simplified, theological notion of Sin. We were discussing the ethics of food and I was attempting to push open the conversation into the wider realm of social features and implications in our food choices. I was trying to show that decisions about food cannot be reduced to personal health or preference.
In our conversation, my dad echoed a common refrain that we (consumers) can’t ever avoid exploiting someone or something (be it foreign workers who large multi-national corporations squeeze, the earth’s resources, or animals that are treated purely instrumentally and so often abused). I responded in a spirit I feel fits the thrust of Ben Varnum’s Rootweaving post and has since lingered with me: yes, Dad, you are right, which is not to say we then ignore those problems or pretend they aren’t problems–instead we lament them for what they truly are (social sins) and confess our inescapable sinful condition, falling on the Grace of God to empower us to respond faithfully in a broken, shadowy world.
It seems to me that no system is free from the flaws of injustice, exploitation, and material degredation; and we are a systems-saturated people, creatures who can’t help but participate (however partially) in a complex of (overlapping yet distinct) systems. We go to schools, eat from markets and restaurants, vote, purchase goods, work for institutions, take in media and entertainment. All these domains of life are systems with sub-systems and systemic forces at play.
If we admit that Sin is bigger than personal decisions, that it infects people and systems alike (yes, even our church systems), then we must also admit that even seemingly perfect people (the kind of people who appear to make upright decisions all the time, loving and caring for others in all they do, even including a conscious diet of healthy, organic, local, animal friendly foods) are nevertheless sinners. Our best intentions are always already mired in the messiness of sinful systems we can never (truly) escape. Systems are unflinchingly, unfailingly uneven. Someone or something is bound to experience the underside.
Realism, in my view, recognizes the deep ambiguity of our joint situation in life. Good and evil co-mingle in a world of limitations.
There seems to be a number of possible responses to this theological assessment of things. We have to be careful not to fall into a paralyzing sense of powerlessness: that somehow our sinful condition as participants in broken systems means we give up, letting the system continue on as is because nothing we do can ever change our status before God or the brokenness of the system. I do think its good to acknowledge and work with that feeling of powerlessness. I know I experience it quite often in conversations with others about the workings of our health care system. But surrendering to it in the wrong way is missing the Spirit of God who remains, despite our sinfulness, at work on us and in our world.
Our powerlessness need not be immobility and the victory of evil. Our powerlessness can be the locus for God’s redeeming grace to direct and energize us. By God’s grace the Spirit can empower us to be (mercy-driven) agents of change in perennially problematic systems. We can confess our sins and, nevertheless, savor the sweet joy of a hope not bound by the brokenness of the systems we inhabit. The very point of grace is that we don’t bring it on ourselves–we simply cannot “fix” the systems as if we might reach a state of social perfection on our own. It is God who is at work on us, through us, and, yes, with us. Our powerlessness mustn’t devolve into inaction; instead it is the very way we receive a triune-shaped transforming power that brings the life of God into the ways of the world.
So, with this humble awareness, we can trod boldly into the broken systems we (usually unknowingly) buttress and live within, and we can faithfully work by God’s Spirit to enhance and adjust them so that the uneven, rocky ridges of our systems are smoothed over by the increasing flow of the waters of God’s justice. Yes, even as the shadows of our systems shift and reconfigure, we can, nevertheless, bear the light of God’s life in the dimmest corners of our world. Thanks be to God!