Systemic Evils Aren’t Your Responsibility, They’re Ours

For more on this subject, listen to our podcast conversation with Michael Rhodes, Is ‘Systemic Injustice’ Biblical?

I remember the first time I heard the word “systemic.” It was exclusively political. I’d heard President Barack Obama describe racial prejudice in America, and all its consequences, with that term. Thirteen year-old me thought he meant “systematic,” as though our country had assembly lines of misfortune ready for its victims. I ignored everything that he said outright over this misunderstanding. And I have a hunch that I wasn’t the only one caught in the confusion of these two words.

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When Americans hear “systematic,” we’re almost guaranteed to think about something done methodically, or en masse. We can thank the Industrial Revolution for that. It’s no shock to find two big spikes in our use of the word: one in the late 1800’s and another in the 1940’s through the 70’s. The former followed the advent of labor-multiplying machines and systems; the latter kept pace with the growing prevalence of the computer. In both cases, humans realized that we can get a lot more done quickly, all thanks to new systems we designed. So they talked about it more and more as the next big thing. And now we use the word like an intensifier, to say something is extreme, methodical, or overwhelming.

But we have another way to talk about systems, especially when addressing problems within them. Hence the alternative term, “systemic.” This word was far less common until fairly recently—how much ink do we really need to spill just on the problems in systems? Not much, as industry and technology progresses. But our use of this word spiked much more dramatically as the latter half of the 20th century saw ever-increasing criticism of governments, institutions, and other systems that organize human affairs.

So what is it about this second word that heats up—or shuts down—discourse so severely? Is it destined to be no more than political jargon? Before it was ever used in social commentary, it had been a technical term for biologists addressing bodily systems and the diseases that affect them. It almost never appeared as a descriptor for something cold and manmade, but rather for something alive and interconnected.

This can make all the difference in how we hear and use it today. If we think that “systemic problems” are always inseparable from the systems they affect, we’re more likely to hear criticism of the problem as condemnation of the entire system. Some systems, uniquely designed for evil, are wholly deserving of this approach. But many others—especially the ones we argue over, like economies, police, and health care—are too complex to conflate their issues with their identities. To a biologist, this would sound like victim-blaming the animal for its cancer. 

So given our high chance for misunderstanding here, it’s important to consider what we assume a person means when criticizing a system. My belief is that if we choose to hear “systemic problems” as something invasive against the system they affect, we’re more likely to sympathize both with the value of that system and its need to become healthy again.

Admittedly, we can’t magically change how other people use this word. And we won’t do any good berating them for how they choose to use it. Many people do use this word, quickly followed with the sentiment “tear it all down.” But instead of inferring extreme sentiments and responding to strawmen in our heads, we can charitably look for common ground and consider together how to improve (or replace) a system suffering a “systemic” problem. And we can do so following the examples of biblical authors who created, bemoaned, attacked, and corrected systemic problems in their world.

Systems from Sinai to Zion

Until Israel’s deliverance from Egypt, even the most righteous biblical heroes acted within the social, political, and religious structures of their neighbors. Noah lived a righteous life in a merciless world, and has been critiqued by rabbis as being merciless to his contemporaries, who could have been spared their fate by his intercession. Abraham, a nomadic warlord to whom a gift of land would be fitting, still bought Ephron’s land for a tomb to keep honor among his Hittite neighbors. Jacob accepted Leah as his wife—against his own will—in accordance with Laban’s Aramean customs. Joseph saw fatal weaknesses within Egypt’s imperial food and economic systems and fixed them by a strict administration, sparing the lives of many.

These may seem like random examples, but every story from Genesis shows us that biblical heroes do not operate as sole actors. Each is tethered to a group of people, and their decisions are always made with those people in mind. Even down to the minutiae of daily life, they prove to be collectivists in their social order. Contrasted with individualists, which we often find in the West today, collectivists do not find their chief identities in personal traits, abilities, preferences, or beliefs. Their chief identity is in belonging to a group—for better and for worse.

Where a collectivist mindset serves to ensure mutual care and maintain order among people, it also links them to each other’s mistakes. What evils my father did before I was born can rightly bear consequences for me, though I had no part in his sin, because I am, in a sense, an extension of my father socially. Likewise, the massive evils perpetrated by, say, an Egyptian pharaoh, can rightly bear consequences for his citizens—even the death of each family’s firstborn. For this reason, when Israel is called out of Egypt and made into a distinct nation at Sinai, God Himself sets systems in place to bind them to one another and to Him. These systems come with promised blessings and curses, benefits and consequences, “visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children . . . unto the third and fourth generation” (Exod 34:7).

A line like this probably sounds unjust to us today, because we believe that people should only suffer the consequences of their own mistakes. But that’s just not how the world works, hopelessly entangled as it is. Our actions have unfathomable ripple effects in every direction and we just can’t trace them ourselves to mete out perfect justice. So Israel was given the Torah—instructions for mutual flourishing with punishments for chaotic acts—as well as leaders to administer the social and religious systems of the Torah.

But even the Torah would be quickly forgotten in the days of the judges. And the tribes of Israel saw their worst days there. New systems for worship, trade, security, and justice would be built by the judges, priests, and later, kings. But in the era of these kings we find systemic issues in both the Israelite and Judahite kingdoms condemned by their prophets. For the next 1,000 years we find Torah corrupted (Jer 8:8), suppressed (2 Kgs 21), rediscovered (2 Chr 34), rewritten (Neh 8), and administered in wrong ways (Isa 29:13). The systems of sacrifice, priesthood, charity, worship, and much more would all see their share of issues widespread. And though they did not use our terms for it, the righteous people in these generations decried plenty of what we would call “systemic evils” pervading their societies.

Jesus’ Redemption of Systems

Even Jesus lived and operated within a social, political, and religious framework that he did not directly control. And his relation to it was bizarre, to say the least. He took action against the Temple’s corruption by merchants, but endorsed heavy taxes to Caesar. He lambasted the scribes and Pharisees, but respected the High Priest who sought his death. He routinely transgressed social mores, but upheld the Torah to a T—and claimed to be its fulfillment. Most importantly, he warned about the inevitable breaking of old systems (like new wine in old wineskins) without ever trying to eradicate or replace them outright.

His relationship to broken systems was never to call them hopeless, but to teach about their redemption. Even the totality of the covenants, through which Israel maintained its national identity, would be upheld on both ends through His faithfulness in the new covenant of his blood. And yet, problems persisted for his followers. The world remained unjust, Israel remained under Rome, religious corruption remained rampant, and innocent people continued to suffer. What did he really accomplish?

In the context of the biblical story, if Jesus had advocated the total disestablishment of these broken systems and instituted brand new ones, he would have made a great cult leader, but not a good Messiah. His job wasn’t to start from scratch. Jesus honored the integrity of what God instituted through Abraham, Moses, and David, no matter how sickly they had become. After all, even a perfect system is only one generation away from being wholly corrupted again. For this reason, Jesus didn’t supplant corruption with perfection, but began the gradual process of redemption. His followers would go on to exhibit an ever-evolving microcosm of the kind of community Israel was supposed to be. They were far from perfect, but were nonetheless guided and helped by his Spirit to better address systemic problems in their societies (poverty, hunger, sickness, slavery, child abandonment, etc.) and they themselves became more like him in the process.

Treating a System Like a Body

Take the church in Corinth, for example. It seems their problems were widespread—possibly baked into the very structure of their church order and practices—and they posed vital threats to their community. But Paul, their founder, didn’t excommunicate the whole lot of them and start again. He worked with them on their problems and advised them to think of one another as members of the same body. “If one member suffers,” he says, “all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1 Cor 12:26). This mindset is imperative for a compassionate approach to systemic evils. We must believe that somehow, even if we don’t feel it, we each suffer when one member suffers. And we have a collective responsibility to respond to that.

This is especially true for the church, which is interconnected by God’s Spirit. But it is still true for manmade systems too. Governments, societies, economies, coalitions, businesses, neighborhoods—any time humans are ordered together we run the risk of bearing the consequences of each other’s actions. And we likewise bear the responsibility to care for one another both as individuals and as members of these collectives.

Sometimes, caring for one another means the total disestablishment of a wholly corrupt system—like the Nazi death camps, or modern human trafficking rings—which by merit of their evil can’t simply be tweaked into better versions of themselves. They’re ideologically and morally bankrupt; and as a unified entity, their “system” must be torn down. But many of the individual tools, places, methods, and most importantly, people can and should be reclaimed.

As seen in Isaiah’s vision, we can beat our swords into plowshares (Isaiah 2:4). The Mount of Olives—on which stood altars to Moloch in the days of Solomon (1 Kings 11:7)—became a common gathering place for Jesus and his followers (John 18:2) in prayer, teaching, and eventually worship at his ascension (Luke 24:52). The extensive Roman trade network that enabled its oppressive clutch on conquered peoples provided the same routes on which gospels and epistles spread across the empire. And of course, we have no shortage of examples of human redemption in history. So we might say that, in one way, a system can be entirely torn apart; but at the same time, its components can persist as members of a new and better system.

We see this laid out prophetically in Daniel 7:26–27. Speaking of the Fourth Beast, the final evil kingdom of his vision, Daniel says,

26 But the court shall sit in judgment,
    and his dominion shall be taken away,
              to be consumed and destroyed to the end.
27       And the kingdom and the dominion
    and the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven
shall be given to the people of the saints of the Most High;
  His kingdom shall be an everlasting kingdom,
and all dominions shall serve and obey Him.

For today’s problems, each has its own incredibly complex context. And anyone who wants to solve them may come to different conclusions on how to go about it. There is no universal process for this. And two people may be able to agree on the same process, yet still describe it differently: one as “altering it,” and another as “replacing it.” My hope is that if we acknowledge each other’s good will, we can find that we agree on much more than what we disagree on. And through our agreements, we’ll be able to better shape the world for everyone’s benefit.

So if someone rails against a systemic evil and implicates me as a member of that system, I would do well to remember that this needn’t be a personal attack, nor an affront to my character. I might be personally innocent of transgression, but my collective is not. And I can bear the (shared) responsibility of facing the problem without bearing its guilt as my own. The body is suffering, that’s what matters. And the members who choose to commiserate deepest are the same ones who will eventually rejoice the most.

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