The System, Not Just the Self

The System, Not Just the Self

Scripture passage: Isaiah 11:1-9

Two summers ago, I took my daughters to Sweden and Holland to play in two international soccer tournaments. One of the most memorable moments of cross-cultural friendship was meeting a team of boys from Africa who taught our team of girls from San Diego how to do the intricate steps of their rhythmic and eye-catching warm-up routine. The girls looked silly at first, and laughed a lot, but eventually, they learned to imitate the drill. The boys smiled and applauded their approval.

If was delightful, and also extremely poignant, as we learned (in stumbling conversation via different languages) that all of the African boys were orphans. Not only that, but their situation was not unique. Many of the other African teams at the tournament were also teams of orphans, sponsored by their school or their benefactor to have this special travel experience. Every time I hear the statistics about AIDS in Africa, I remember those young soccer players. They make real for me the fact that 12 million children in Africa have been orphaned due to AIDS, and that the number could easily reach 50 million in just 5 more years.

Depending on the specific country, the percentage of the adult population that is HIV infected ranges from 20% to 40%. Life expectancy rates have dropped significantly in the last 15 years, so that now in several countries a person would be considered lucky to live past age 35 or 40. It is not uncommon for pastors to be performing 15 to 20 funerals a week. Families are plunging into poverty as they strive to cope with the ravages of the disease, the loss of adults able to work, and the cost of burials. Teenage girls and married women pay an especially high price, as they are most vulnerable to infection while being simultaneously dependent on men for survival. One source says, “girls and women have become an endangered species.” Another says, “AIDS is destabilizing nations, ruining economies, and producing millions of children who will grow up vulnerable to extremists.”

The disaster of the AIDS epidemic in Africa demonstrates that sometimes problems are bigger than the self. The crisis has reached its current state not just because of individual behavior, but because of systems: a cultural system in which discussing sexual matters is taboo, even when health is at stake; a social system in which men feel free to have multiple sexual partners and women have no voice and no power; an economic system in which medicine exists but is not made available or affordable to those who need it; in which there is no health care delivery system for vast segments of the population, and in which people are so malnourished that its not clear whether their bodies could tolerate the medicine even if they could get it; a political system which allows those “in charge” to ignore problems, shift blame to others, or even to take advantage of situations for their own gain. Meanwhile, those NOT in charge have been led or come to believe there is nothing they can do; a religious system which fears controversy, and values conformity and acceptance above truth and activism.

Human systems — cultural, social, economic, political, religious — can serve life, or they can serve death. The people of the Bible have always known this, and the prophets of the Bible are not shy about proclaiming that God is interested in the transformation of human systems so that they will serve life.

Isaiah, for example, spoke about a hoped-for ruler who would have the wisdom, power, and reverence to govern a kingdom that would not let the poor be mistreated and would not be based on violence. His understanding was that his country had fallen on very bad times because of its failure to keep its systems focused on God’s provision, God’s concern for justice, and God’s plan for harmonious living. He was clear about the cause of his nation’s ruin AND he offered consolation to his people that their suffering would not last forever. One day a leader would come who could renew and restore their collective ability to live according to God’s vision for the world. “The royal lineage has been chopped down and my look dead,” said Isaiah, “but one day new life will come, bringing new opportunity to live as God would have us live.”

Isaiah 11:1-9

The best one-sentence summary of Isaiah’s prophecies comes from Amy-Jill Levine, professor at Vanderbilt Divinity School, who said, “Isaiah speaks of real rulers, real governments, real communities; his vision is not of a revived self but of a refashioned system.” This is good news because while individual change is an important start, it is not enough to save the world; we need systems to be transformed as well. If God is concerned with refasioning systems, and the power of God is able to transform systems, then we do have hope that the suffering of those being crushed by the current systems will not last forever.

In the Christian tradition, Isaiah’s words are understood to speak of the coming of Jesus. Jesus belongs to the lineage of David (the Jessee family tree, so to speaik). The Spirit of the Lord rests upon Jesus. Jesus can see truly and judge rightly; no one can fool him. He pursues the erradication of wickedness. Furthermore, in his presence, enemies become friends, fear fades away, and no one tries to hurt, harm, or destroy anyone else. The whole system — the whole creation — gets well! The whole system — all of creation becomes peaceful because Jesus’ presence affects every part of it.

As those who worship and would follow Jesus, we accept a commitment not only to reform our own behavoir, but also a willingness to address and engage systems with the same sort of clear-eyed honesty that Jesus did. We know that God wants life for all, and not just for some, and so we are compelled to be concerned about systems that keep people sick, keep people poor, keep people uneducated, or keep people in fear for their very survival. We want to work with Jesus, and be part of his coming kingdom, and so we are obliged not to remain silent or detached regarding concerns that we might identify as going beyond the stricly personal. And actually, since we all belong to the system, if we can help the system (be it cultural, social, economic, political, religious) more fully reflect God’s care for all, then in the end it turns out we are helping ourselves too.

Becoming a disciple of Jesus includes becoming a disciple of his way of relating to systems. Sometimes he participated in systems; sometimes he challenged, confronted, or defied them; sometimes he simply observed and verbalized what he saw. The consistent thing is that wherever he was in relation to the systems of his time and place, he always stood for God: God’s love, God’s justice, God’s mercy, God’s compassion, God’s truth, God’s peace, God’s passion that none would be lost, overlooked, or unvalued. In the end, we know that he paid a price. In the face of Jesus’ powerful life and ministry, the cultural, social, economic, political and religious systems, linking and overlapping as they always are, felt their existence threatened. They killed what they perceived to be the source of the threat, thinking that they could secure the status quo.

Jesus was crucified. But it didn’t work. God’s transforming power actually cannot be killed. It is still at large in the world today, still looking for opportunities to advance that reality where the wolf shall live with the lamb, the lion shall eat straw like the ox, and where hurt and destrution shall be no more.

The hope of this expectant advent season is that we will see where God desires to transform toward the good the systems which we, and the rest of the world, live in. The further hope is that we will respond by stepping forward to participate in God’s work of transformation, beginning, but certainly not ending, with our own lives. Jesus comes not just for us, but so that the whole earth will be full of the knowledge of God, as the waters cover the sea. Today, we renew our fervent prayer that God’s kingdom (God’s just and loving influence on our cultural, social, econimic, political, and religious systems) will soon come, on earth as it already is in heaven.

One way our prayer is expressed is through this song, “Come, thou wisdom from on high and order all thing far and nigh…”

Holy God, we suspect that you do not intend for some to live in comfort while others starve and die of preventable diseases. And so we look to you for hope: hope that there is some way we can work together with you to transform our flawed systems so that everyone has opportunity to eat, everyone has opportunity to learn, everyone has opportunity for shelter, everyone has opportunity for work; everyone has access for health care; everyone is accorded dignity and respect, and no one’s life is seen as anything other than precious in your sight. We know that in many respects our world is a long way from that reality, and we cannot get to that peaceable, spirit-filled future all on our own. We need that little child to lead us. We need Jesus, this year as much as ever. Thank you for coming to us in this form, risking rejection but always extending love. Help us to receive the gift of your presence with us, that you may work in us and through us to accomplish your good purposes. Thank you for bringing out the best in us, and teaching us to pray. Our Father…

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