The System Doesn’t Want to Be Fixed

I’m not into arguing. I used to be, back when I was an obnoxious crusader, but I haven’t been one of those for months. Nevertheless, I occasionally find myself in a conversation with a religious person who starts asking probing questions about how I can possibly believe in God and yet refuse to be a part of a religious institution. (Usually, they specifically want to know why I don’t belong to the only authentic religious institution—theirs.)

I’ll attempt to explain to them why institutionalized religion is detrimental to relationships and how it hides God behind a shroud of human performances and programs. I’ll bring up the clergy-laity divide, the artificial hierarchy, the intellectual inbreeding, the elevation of one person over all others, the lifeless routine of ritual worship, and the pathological obsession with a weekly lecture and religious performance.

They almost always eventually concede that I make some good points and that many churches do some of those detrimental things. However, their church is, fortunately, free from the problems such as afflict the apostates. Their pastor really cares about people, everyone is truly in complete agreement with the statement of faith, they all really love the Sunday morning service, and they have a board of elders (or multiple “pastors”) so that one person can’t have complete control.

“But you,” they ask. “What about you? How can you criticize others when you’re not doing anything about the problem? At least we’re trying. At least we’re doing something for God. If you’re not willing to be a part of the institution and make things better, then you don’t have a right to criticize us for not being perfect.”

This common argument is, I think, the hideous progeny of arrogance and delusion, and it is predicated on the assumption that institutionalized religion is the only legitimate form of worship. You apparently can’t serve God if you aren’t a congregant in an institution. Those who employ this argument avoid introspection and responsibility for their their adherence to corrupt institutions by pointing out how you haven’t created a better institution. Of course, this argument becomes immediately null and void as soon as someone else argues that they have created a better institution. That couldn’t possibly be the case, you see, because their statement of faith doesn’t match ours. Plus, their interpretation of the bible is completely wrong; but I digress.

To avoid dealing with the reality that the institution merely offers a ritualized portrayal of a spiritual journey, they imply that the only legitimate way to serve God is to revive a corrupt system through a suitable dose of human ingenuity—applied to the corrupt system.

We often see this line of reasoning applied to secular institutions. You hear it from the Chinese Communist Party. You hear it from both American political parties. You hear it from those involved in the criminal justice system: “You shan’t criticize my institution until you form a better one.” And then comes the self-righteous, veiled accusation: “at least we’re trying to do something about the problem.”

I don’t want this post to be taken as a criticism of people so much as a criticism of an illogical and disingenuous thought process.

What most people don’t understand and many refuse to consider is that The System is the problem. Now if any anarchists are out there cheering and waving, I’m sorry to disappoint you, but simply getting rid of The SystemTM isn’t the answer. And actually, saying that the system is the problem is, in fact, a touch inaccurate and slightly misleading.

Human systems, essentially coercive variations of the social contract, provide organization for human society, and there’s some goodness in that. The problem is that humans have an innate desire to build systems that absolve them from dealing with life. We were given the ability to create, so from the beginning, we created institutions that insulated us from life and its challenges. Religion, for many, takes the place of the relentless pursuit of the Divine. Politics takes the place of taking an active part in dealing with society’s problems.

The system lets us off the hook.

And that’s why we defend it so staunchly from criticism, from challenge, and especially from change. It’s the system that assuages our guilt, for we were not the ones who sent the juvenile drug dealer to prison or released the serial rapist. Other than perhaps during a once-in-a-lifetime summons to jury duty, we never have to wrestle with crime and punishment, justice and mercy. We’re not the ones who have to personally confront the violent criminal. We’re not the ones who have to help the poor. We don’t have to house immigrants, nor do we have to deal with human trafficking. We don’t have to wrestle with God. We don’t have to be the priests we were called to be.

We’re more than happy to put the responsibility for society’s problems on the shoulders of government agencies. That way, we don’t actually have to do anything, and when the problems get worse, we get to point our fingers at the government—particularly if our preferred party is not in power. We’re content to let the pastor, the deacons, and the trustees run church business and serve up a program that keeps us on God’s good side. It’s so much easier than building strong relationships and sharing life (with all its problems) with fellow believers.

In the system, we find redemption. Redemption from struggle, from ownership of society’s problems. The system grants us absolution, for the system in its infinite wisdom releases the individual from culpability and obligation. In fact, all it demands is total allegiance. Pay your tithe, obey the hierarchy, and participate in the rituals, and you shall be with me in paradise. If it were not so, I would have told you.

So when someone tries to tell you not to criticize a system until you’ve perfected one from the inside, consider the absurdity of endeavoring to change a system whose most fundamental premise is that the system shall not be changed.

It’s when we step outside human political and religious systems that we are finally free to follow Christ. 

The system does not want to be fixed. The next time someone says, “well, at least I’m doing something about it,” perceive the reality behind the veneer. They may be sincere, but their devotion to their shackles is not a reason for you to wear them as well.

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