The creative power of humans is astonishing. I’m not referring to creativity in the artistic sense, but rather in the sense of our ability to create spiritual entities that wield a tremendous amount of influence over human actions. We refer to these entities as Institutions.
Now I’m not suggesting that in creating institutions we create living, spiritual beings. What we create are entities that seem to take on a life of their own and embody a sort of spiritual energy (for lack of a better term) or a spiritual motive force.
I have struggled for many years with the concept of human systems and their tendency toward corruption. The word corruption as I’m using it carries the connotation of death and decay. Think disintegration—a dead body decomposing, or perhaps more appropriately, a limb in which gangrene has set in—it cannot sustain life, and it is inexorably rotting away.
Our systems start out as structures or frameworks that helps us operate in an orderly and efficient manner. They’re not innately evil. But all systems at some point reach an end of their natural usefulness. Some fail to adapt and die a premature death. Some ought to be dissolved or at least changed to fit the changing environment. But all too often, people become comfortable in their institutions. Those who have a vested interest in the system go to great lengths to keep it on artificial life support far beyond its natural lifespan.
Every system, be it corporate, social, governmental, or religious, eventually dies. Humans have an innate tendency to become attached to these systems, and once a system is formed, institutional survival quickly becomes the highest priority. Perhaps the most glaring problem with systems is that they offer exploitive individuals the opportunity and the leverage to take advantage of others. Whether or not systems are exploited, they all become corrupt, even if those who animate them are well-intentioned.
The house is sagging. The wood is rotting, termites are devouring the superstructure, the foundation is crumbling, and the people who live within are afraid that performing maintenance will change it too radically.
Back to my struggle.
There was a time when a much younger and less patient me concluded that some systems become so corrupt that the only reasonable course of action would be to dissolve them—to burn them to the ground. They can’t be salvaged. They can’t be reinvigorated or retooled. They should be scrapped and replaced with a new system. And I think that conclusion was valid.
But then I began to waver. The conclusion seemed unassailable, but ordered society does some good, does it not? How do we reconcile order and corruption?
The wanton destruction wreaked over the last year by those who want to dismantle every vestige of American history made me waver even more. Does a flawed system justify rioting, looting, and an attempt to eradicate its place in history? I began reading Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces and came across this quote from Arnold Toynbee:
Schism in the soul, schism in the body social, will not be resolved by any scheme of return to the good old days… or by programs guaranteed to render an ideal projected future… or even by the most realistic, hardheaded work to weld together again the deteriorating elements. Only birth can conquer death—the birth, not of the old thing again, but of something new. Within the soul, within the body social, there must be—if we are to experience long survival—a continuous “recurrence of birth”… to nullify the unremitting recurrences of death…. Peace then is a snare; war is a snare; change is a snare; permanence a snare. When our day is come for the victory of death, death closes in; there is nothing we can do, except be crucified—and resurrected; dismembered totally, and then reborn.1
Campbell goes on to discuss religious systems and judges them to be, for many people, a suitable substitute for the pursuit of the divine. The ritualism and symbology takes the place of a life of pursuing knowledge, wisdom, and virtue. They take solace in the system, for it provides a comfort that life denies. I find no fault in this assessment.
Those who have read more than a handful of my previous posts should grasp my intense dissatisfaction with institutionalized religion. I must confess, that not so long ago, I’d have been happy to watch religious institutions go up in metaphorical flames. They’re corrupt and divisive. They’re easily exploited by power-hungry individuals, and they form barriers to relationships.
I now think that a more nuanced view of institutionalized religion, systems, and institutionalism in general is perhaps appropriate. Perhaps an attitude of “burn it down and damn the consequences” isn’t the best approach.
While I find many aspects of our current political system troubling, I grieve to watch those who would use the objectionable aspects (real or imagined) to destroy everything remotely associated with the system in order to accrue power for themselves, or in the name of equity, convert the system into a weapon with which to oppress those they scapegoat for all of society’s ills.
Here a brief detour is warranted. Let us acknowledge that there is a difference in fighting against a system, and using said system’s flaws as a pretext for wanton destruction. The latter course of action seems to be what the pseudo-intellectuals and the malcontents have embraced. As in any movement, there are leaders and there are followers. The leaders have an agenda. They’ve created a humanistic religion, complete with its own contrived moral code, clerical class, credo, and forms of penance. It promises paradise, but offers no redemption.
The devoted followers worship at the Twitter feeds of their leaders. The faithful chant their mantras and venerate the only symbol that has any meaning to them: the clenched fist. The leaders never cared about the Confederate flag. The target all along was the American flag, which now seems to perpetually fly at half-mast, while the self-righteous priests of this godless religion “mourn” selected victims, no doubt longing for the day when the national emblem is lowered for the last time, never to be raised again.
Perhaps this is appropriate. Perhaps the stars and stripes should be retired. Perhaps the pinnacle of human governance should be renounced as being too lenient in its granting of personal freedom. Perhaps the symbols of truth, purity, and courage should be expunged for their failure to generate the virtues they represent. In the place of our nation’s current ensign, I propose a red fist, superimposed on a yellow stripe, emblazoned across a field of gray.
The clenched fist, drenched in blood and raised in defiance toward heaven, could symbolize hatred, oppression, and self-deification. The yellow stripe, a banner of cowardice and badge of the fearful, would proudly span a vacuous, morally ambiguous morass. Detour complete.
The unfolding political drama of the last few years has made me engage in some deep introspection, asking myself what the difference is between the woke, post-modern nihilists who want to erase every vestige of American history, culture, and traditional values on the pretext of diversity, inclusion, and equity (“liberty, equality, fraternity!” anyone?), and my own loathing of institutional religion. I’ve criticized religious systems for their divisiveness, their use of guilt to coerce the masses, their stunting of intellectual freedom, and their tendency toward exploitation. And now, the most vocal critics of our political system (of which I’ve been critical as well) brazenly embody the same abhorrent characteristics!
So what do we do about the system? When we see it decaying, how do we fight against it?
I think we must acknowledge that The System, in whatever form it takes, is going to perpetually trend toward oppression and corruption, and will form barriers to relationships. Yet, there are also likely some worthwhile aspects to human tradition and orderliness that may be worth learning from. For all the detrimental effects of institutions, they seem destined to be an ever-present part of the human experience. The System will always be present in some form, whether it takes the latent form of culture or social contract, or whether it manifests itself in an institutionalized system of government, law, religious coercion, or social oppression.
Using political strategy, social coercion, or physical violence to overthrow the world’s system only results in more oppression, violence, and destruction. On the religious front, followers of Christ should not be crusaders attempting to raze religious institutions and sow their land with salt. God calls us to leave this world’s system and pledge allegiance to a higher kingdom. In that light, we should act as ambassadors of the deeper Kingdom that Christ established. Admonishments from Paul and James come to mind: we wrestle not agains flesh and blood, and the wrath of man does not work the righteousness of God.
Those who exist outside The System will certainly be ridiculed and ostracized by the religious and political establishments. Their message will most likely resonate with the disenfranchised, the marginalized, and the neglected; and that’s ok. The King himself recruited prostitutes, drunks, thieves, scoundrels, political turncoats and political zealots (who against all odds became friends), and members of the religious establishment who saw the corruption in the system but were afraid to question it in public.
At least in the Western world, the majority of Christ’s followers have become deeply vested in both the political and religious aspects of the world’s system. They use politics on the right and the left to support whatever facet of the system most closely reflects their own view of morality, and they use every means at their disposal to bludgeon those in the other camp.
Jesus has called us to cease fighting for the world’s system, and also to stop fighting against the world’s system by employing the world’s weapons. You can’t fight corruption with corruption.
So how do we fight against The System? We disengage from it. We refuse to give it power. We build relationships. We live our lives in a way that accomplishes through love what The System could never accomplish through coercion.
A clash of kingdoms has been the backdrop of the human experience from the beginning. Violence and oppression are the weapons of The System. Relationships based on love, forgiveness, and divine life are the weapons of the kingdom of God.
And so we die daily, carrying the cross, and crucifying that which is corrupt. The result is continuous rebirth and resurrection that only comes from the spirit of the One who conquered death. That is how you fight against the system.
1Joseph Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, New World Library, 2008, 3rd ed., pp. 11-12.