The Powerful Reality of a System

A decision has been made to visit your immediate family.

Whether you live a few hours from your siblings and/or parents or whether they are simply minutes from your doorstep, the plans are in place . . . and so is the customary little speech.

You know . . . that little talk your spouse gives you prior to visiting family. Or maybe it is the little lecture you give yourself. No matter if it is your spouse or you talking to yourself, the contents of such an admonishment have a similar ring:

  • Do not react when your sibling says . . .
  • Do not be pulled into the fray when your father says . . .
  • Do not become defensive when Mom chides you for . . .

And every time, you wholeheartedly agree that this time it will be different. This time you will be kind. This time you will not become emotional. But . . . after each visit a different lecture ensues, “I thought you said you wouldn’t react!” and once again, the little pep talk has fallen on deaf ears. Once again, it only took a day (if you’re lucky) or maybe an hour (and for some of us, minutes) of being with family before you find yourself reacting as if you were . . . well . . . twelve, or maybe much older like . . . fifteen. If you were honest, it really puzzles you as to why it is that every time you are with family, it is the same reaction.

May I simply say . . . I feel your pain . . .  or  . . . been there done that . . . too many times to count.

Herein lies the power of a system, and in this case, it is the family system.

In the West we have the tendency to underscore the individual, or the self, overlooking the power of a system. This is interesting, considering systems exist all around us, and we live in systems as well as having systems living in each of us. There is the solar system. Ecosystem. The governmental system. An automobile has systems, such as the electrical system, the climate-control system, or a computer system. Our body has systems, such as the nervous system, the digestive system, or the respiratory system. At the risk of stating the obvious . . . if one piece malfunctions in the system, if one tiny little part breaks or is injured, it impacts the entirety of the system. Suddenly, we are sweating in the car when the climate-control system breaks down. Or perhaps we ate too many hot peppers, and our digestive system is complaining. The word “system” comes from Latin and Greek words, which mean “to place together.” A system, then, is a corporate entity that is more than the sum of its parts. As such, the system unites and organizes the individual parts into a functioning whole. The system, then, is powerful as it influences every member of the system. If one part changes, it influences the other elements of the system.

The family system is no different.

When we were born, we were dropped into a multi-generational family system that had been operating for years. Patterns existed on how to relate.  Roles were established. Spoken and unspoken rules are obeyed. As a newborn in this family system, we begin to learn these patterns, our role, and the rules because these are the types of things that help the system maintain its balance (homeostasis) and resist change. This balance, which has been formed by several generations, looks different for each family. Maybe one family has an unspoken rule: You shall not express feelings while another family system has a rule that feelings are to be expressed. Both families may implement similar strategies to ease their anxiety when the rule in their family system is broken. If, in the case of the non-expressive family system, a member begins to express feelings, the members of this system become anxious and seek to bring the family back into balance through such strategies as overfuntioning/underfunctioning; distancing from/pursuing the member who broke the rule; or triangulating with another member by talking to one member in the family about the rule breaker in order to ease any anxiety.

Or maybe the oldest child has the role of an overfunctioner, the one who takes responsibility for everyone else. If the oldest child begins to change and no longer overfunctions, the family members become anxious and may attempt to begin acting in ways so that the oldest continues in his/her role as the overfunctioner or maybe some other family member replaces the oldest as the overfunctioner.

This is the power of a system.

The power of the family system stretches to our relationships with those outside of our family of origin.

  • If we are an overfunctioner, we may take responsibility for others’ feelings and/or actions in another system, such as our work system, school system, or our place of worship. That is, we have a strong desire to fix everyone or to ensure the other does not feel badly—that is, the other’s problems become our responsibility. This is a common trait among clergy or those in the other helping professions.
  • Or maybe as the youngest we learned in our family system to be irresponsible, the underfunctioner, and the family clown; thus, we may fulfill this role in a similar manner in other systems, expecting others to care for us by picking up the slack for us.
  • Or maybe a rule in our family system was that anger was to be expressed through silence or loud shouting; thus, as we enter other systems, we find ourselves adhering to this rule, be it among friends, co-workers, or congregants.

This is the power of a system.

 

It behooves us as Christ-followers to pay attention to a system’s power.

My own pentecostal tradition has a reputation for stressing the individual above that of the community.[1] Such individualism appears in the pentecostal approach to Scripture. For instance, when reading Ephesians 6, my tradition underlines the spiritual warfare that individuals face. That is, demon powers and individual spirits are emphasized as beings who wreak havoc on the individual Christ-follower. I want to assure you that the purpose of this blog is not to debate the theology of the existence of demonic powers, but it is to stress a broader view of this passage as presented by such scholars as Walter Wink in which powers refer to spiritual systems of a society that seek to dominate and control, such as a corporate personality or the basic essence of an institution. I am not suggesting that individual evil spirits are nonexistent, but I am inviting us to consider that this is not the only way to view the concept of powers and principalities in Ephesians 6. That is, I am taking a both-and-approach, and in this blog I am stressing cosmic powers, the powers of domination that a system of an institution (local, regional, or national) or of a culture (be it local, regional or national) may hold over us.

Consider with me the broader system of a culture whose values are informed by the media and television/movies. What if I asked you to describe the image of a superhero? Until recently, I suspect that the image Americans held of a superhero seldom deviated from being a Caucasian male. Now, thanks to movies such as Wonder Woman and the Black Panther, the superhero image is beginning to become more diverse. This is the power of a system. It has been in existence for many generations, and it teaches us particular roles and rules, both explicitly and implicitly.

As a Christ-follower, we, too, must become aware how the cultural system or an institution of society or government is influencing us, and in this blog, I seek to underscore this influence in the area of violence.

Contemplate with me the following question: Are we easily embracing the violence of the cultural or the institutional system that upholds domination, or are we striving towards the non-violence upheld by the kingdom of God? Granted, I fully recognize that as fallen humans, we will not do this fully as God instructs, demonstrating our dependence on the reconciliation of Jesus Christ. Yet, in this blog I seek to expose how we may have been abiding more by the violence of the spiritual systems of society rather than the non-violence of God’s reign, particularly in more recent times.

Consider with me the words of Jesus when he speaks of the violence of the kingdom (Mt 11:12). Theologian Thomas Torrance points out that the violence of the kingdom of God refers to Jesus living a life of non-violence, which calls forth the violence of this world. The message of grace and forgiveness, for Torrance, is the non-violent violence of God in that it is more powerful than any other force and can overthrow evil.[2] Practical Theologian Cynthia Crysdale supports this when she uses Wink’s understanding by noting that it is ingrained in us that good people (such as Popeye) fight evil that is outside of themselves (Popeye’s nemesis, Bluto) through the violent use of power and control (Popeye wins a fight with Bluto after swallowing a can of spinach); this promotes and perpetrates a myth that “violence and control” are “redemptive” (Popeye saves Olive Oyl).[3] However, Jesus does not support this view of violence. As Crysdale comments, Jesus Christ, who embodies God’s reign, does not use violence but lives his life according to a different set of values from the religious and political orders of his day, and the logical result is his death. Through his acceptance of death, Jesus reveals both the nature of God and the nature of true humanity in that God does not use violence to destroy violence.[4]

In Matthew, we see how God’s reign is not characterized by the violent systems of humanity. Consider with me the contrast between the systems of this world and the characteristics of God’s kingdom as seen in chapter 5 of this Gospel. In our cultural system mourning (the externalization of grief) is no longer upheld as it once was. No longer is it expected that the immediate family wears black for a year. It also is now a rarity to observe the pulling over of vehicles to honor a funeral procession, and it is even becoming increasingly acceptable to avoid having a funeral or memorial service, a space in which people are free to externalize their grief. Contra to the systems of this world, God’s kingdom welcomes the mourners by blessing them, and not only them but the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those who are poor in spirit as well.

Matthew continues in verses 21-22 by stating how the system of this world embraces the rule “Do not murder”; however, in God’s kingdom one does not insult the other. In verses 27-30, we note that in our human systems, we frown upon adultery, but under God’s reign, one treats each person with dignity, respect, equality, and mutuality by not even lusting after the other.

Such is the contrast of the kingdoms of this world and the kingdom of God.

Unfortunately, I fear, we who proclaim God’s reign with our lips, have succumbed to the influence of the kingdoms of this world. We readily embrace the violence rather than the non-violence as embodied in Jesus Christ. Instead of offering mercy when others label and condemn us, we practice an eye for an eye by labeling and condemning them in turn. Thus, no longer is it only politicians who practice insult for insult, but as Christ-followers, we follow their example with other Christ-followers, be it on Facebook, email, or face to face. In essence, we are living out the rules and roles of the systems of this world. These are spiritual forces. Not simply individual spirits who wreak havoc in individual lives but powerful systems of domination as seen in our institutions, our businesses, and our cultures.

As Christ-followers, specifically as Pentecostals, I fear we may have become blindsided by focusing on individuals fighting individual spirits to our detriment by missing the domination of the violence of the systems of this world. I admit to being heartbroken how we implicitly embrace the patterns of the world’s systems through our violence in which members of God’s kingdom label and insult one another who are also members of God’s kingdom. Hence, we are inadvertently embracing the influence of the powers and principalities of violent domination that the systems of this world have perpetuated among us as members of Christ’s universal church. In the same way that Jesus Christ embodied the violence of God’s kingdom through non-violence, we are called in the power of the Spirit to participate in Christ’s ministry of non-violence. According to Galatians 5, I surmise that the violence of world systems includes hostilities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish rivalries, dissensions, and factions, but the non-violence of God’s reign are: love, joy peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control, against such there is no law. That is, there is no law against exhibiting the fruit of the Spirit; thus, we have the freedom to live them out in abundance in God’s kingdom.

It is the intention of this blog to generate a call to take the higher road, to embody the violence of the kingdom of God through non-violence. It is a reminder, that we are not simply fighting individual demonic powers, but we also are fighting the powers and principalities of the systems of this world. We enter into the fray of the battle when we seek to live out the fruit of the Spirit in the power of the Spirit. That is, we fight the violence by embodying the non-violence of God’s kingdom.

Holy Spirit, open our eyes to see the principalities and powers of the systems of this world, so we may participate in your ministry of non-violence by standing against the tide of violence, thereby being involved in spiritual warfare. On this day, may God’s kingdom come right here on earth as it is in heaven through your people.

 

[1] Such a characteristic is not only apparent in the West but in pentecostalism worldwide, such as  research conducted on the content of pentecostal sermons by Gwyneth McClendon and Rachel Beatty Riedl, “Individualism and Empowerment in Pentecostal Sermons: New Evidence from Nairobi, Kenya.” African Affairs 115, no. 458 (2016) 119–44. doi: 10.1093/afraf/adv056.

[2] Thomas Torrance, Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2008), 149-150.

[3] Cynthia Crysdale, Embracing Travail: Retrieving the Cross Today (New York: Continuum), 43-44.

[4] Ibid., 53-55.

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