Today, I’m feeling a huge weight from so much in the news about our massive problems in the world – problems that seem to be much larger than the sum of their parts. With recent shootings in the news, the question of the reality of systemic issues comes to mind once again.
Depending on which in-group a person claims, they will receive predispositions to this topic which may or may not line up with Scripture or even the reality in which we live in. Those of us in proximity to minority populations today know that there is far more to racism than a few “bad eggs”. But the argument for this concept does not typically go very far. Instead, we might look at other cultural concepts which beg the question – have we manufactured the idea of systemic issues around us (please, be patient and read through to the end)?
Those who might argue against the reality of systemic racism certainly wouldn’t argue against the reality of systemic abortion which goes so far beyond the reach of individuals that it has become a full-fledged movement and platform for one of two major political parties that exist in our nation. We know that this is now systemic because it is not about a few individuals making this decision for themselves, but it is about a system that pushes an agenda on others.
Not only that, but the fatherlessness epidemic and divorce which exist in our nation are also examples of systemic issues. There are other systemic problems that feed into this discussion in particular that we won’t discuss in this blog, but in general, divorce and fatherlessness are not simply about individuals leaving their families behind. They are about a culture which tells young fathers that their interests are more important than their responsibilities and that marriage is no longer a religious institution meant to show the world the greater message of Christ’s love for His Bride, the Church, but it is rather a secular concept about making your dreams come true. Once those dreams are no longer found in your marriage, you can now walk away with full support of even those most invested in seeing you flourish. This is systemic because it’s not about individuals’ decisions. It’s about a culture, including within the Church, which pushes people to find these things acceptable or appealing.
Here recently, you may have heard about the investigation into the Southern Baptist Convention’s shocking abuse of power in which men who cared only for their influence threw out the commands of God to silence abuse. Why is this systemic? Because a system of power was utilized to do what individuals could not on their own. Powerful men took part in criminal activity within a religious structure to vilify those who were harmed under their watch. This abuse is systemic.
But it’s not just about today’s problems. We see systemic issues within the Lutheran Church in Germany during the Nazi reign when two-thirds of the church sided with political power rather than God’s standards and turned their face away from the death of millions of Jews and that same system put immense pressure on folks like Dietrich Bonhoeffer not to stand for what was right in the eyes of God. We see the slave Bible, in which Christian slave masters removed any reference in Scripture to the inherent dignity of humanity so that their “property” would not get up the guts to fight back. We see Martin Luther and others who stood up against the entire corrupted system of the Catholic Church whose nearly unimaginable power was skewing away from the will of God.
These are systemic issues. But we should never build our understanding of the world purely through experience, should we? That allows far too much subjectivity and especially when our hearts are more deceitful than all else (Jeremiah 17:9), we need something more objective. Do we find systemic problems in Scripture?
We absolutely do, not the least of which comes through corporate prayers and lament which is not popular in modern contexts, but remains a part of God’s will for His people. Nehemiah’s prayer of lament (Nehemiah 1:4-11) is an example of an Old Testament leader calling out to God in grief over the sins of others. He stepped into the culpability of Israel, as one cohesive system/entity, and asked for God’s forgiveness for the sins and corruption of all. We see the same systemic issues in Israel throughout the prophets when the whole nation was known for incredibly abusive behavior and some of the prophets even told the people to discontinue their worship if they were to take part in this behavior as a whole (Isaiah 1:13-17). They did not sit-down individuals who were guilty, but spoke to the entire nation and their words were written for the entirety of the Church-system throughout history. God was telling us that issues can become so corporate that the sum of the individuals within a system have gained a power that has incredible reach beyond what they would be capable of as individuals. So much reach, in fact, that the whole of Israel might turn their backs on the sovereignty of God and demand a king and God would actually give it to them (1 Samuel 8). He allowed His will in that moment to be overturned because of the culture of His chosen people which wanted so badly to be like the nations.
When Jesus had conflict with the Pharisees, He was brushing up against a powerful group in His day which could convince Pilate to ultimately put Him to death (Luke 23:21-25). Could the Pharisees kill Jesus in their own power? No, they could not (as individuals or as a whole), but as a powerful system, they told this Roman ruler that he would oppose the Caesar if he allowed this Man who believed Himself to be King to live (John 19:12-13). That system convinced Pilate to do their bidding.
In fact, the Pharisees (who were being occupied by Rome) were calling on the systemic power of Rome to accomplish their task at this moment. Caesar alone could not overtake a nation like Israel, but with his system of corrupt power spanning the known world in that day, he had power that could take the life of God’s Son (Praise God that He had plans to rise victorious!). Other leaders, like Herod, had the power of their corrupt system to order the murder of all baby boys in their jurisdiction (Matthew 2:16-18), necessitating Jesus Christ’s status as a refugee in Egypt (Matthew 2:13-15).
The kings of the Old Testament had such systemic power that their corruption trickled down throughout the nation and the whole system, from king to peasant, were held accountable by God (2 Chronicles 28:19 MSG – “Arrogant King Ahaz, acting as if he could do without God’s help, had unleashed an epidemic of depravity. Judah, brought to its knees by God, was now reduced to begging for a handout”). The exiles were massive proofs of God’s opposition to systemic issues among His people (2 Chronicles 36:15-19).
It seems that there are hot-button topics in our culture and politics today which convinces us not to run to Scripture for our answers. We must systemically (corporately) push against that tendency. When we would so quickly quote our favorite politician or news outlet rather than our Scriptures, we must systemically (corporately) push against that tendency. When there is pain in the world and power that corrupts which inhibits the flourishing of those in our communities, we must systemically (corporately) lament.
When we choose to ignore all of these systemic realities, we must personally repent. In every moment, myself most of all, that we find ourselves lost in venting over groups of people we disagree with or political systems we have a hatred for or cultural systems which may make our lives more difficult than we would like, we must personally repent with the knowledge that systemic issues are, by definition, what we are actually complaining about. When we take part in building systems, within or outside of the Church, that burden others, marginalize people, or inhibit flourishing, we must personally repent.
God has enlightened us, throughout history, throughout the globe, and most importantly throughout our Scriptures, that there are systemic realities we cannot ignore and walk consistently with His will and standards for our communities. I pray we think critically and biblically about this topic and I pray that it breaks our hearts for all of those, ourselves included, who have serious systemic issues to address and may we do so in worship and allegiance only to our King.
Love you all,
Young Adult Minister – Evan McNeff