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35 - Justice in Contemplation - Part1: Systems

Updated: Sep 4, 2023

how does personal transformation interact with and effect a global world?

How does becoming a more healed and whole person help heal the world?

Can the things which are working for me on the micro level to bring healing and health do anything for what’s going on at the macro level of human culture? The answer is "Yes"!

What happens on the micro level effects what happens on the macro level.

This is what we often call “The Butterfly Effect.”

But we can struggle to see those connections.

This is a common tension in our everyday existence. We think we are living life in the mundane and obscure. We can imagine that our lives have little if anything to do with the global movements of history and society at large. We may believe “The Butterfly Effect” in theory, but live in opposition to it in the reality of our everyday lives. We can end up feeling like a small cog in a very big machine; insignificant, miniscule, and unimportant. But as with any machine, the malfunction of even one small part can lead to the malfunction of the whole. When we consider this, we begin to understand the workings of such grand social systems in light of our small part, and understand the part we have to play. We can also better understand how these massive systems work in light of their parts, and not just as a whole.

There is currently a great clamor to call out unhealthy systems. But, calling out unhealthy systems does nothing to get us to healthier ones. It’s one thing to point out the darkness, it’s another to turn on a light. Calling out the darkness is the first step towards things getting better, but it’s not a given that they will. We must understand the necessary steps that must follow.

Seeing the negative, both at the micro and macro levels of human community is a necessary part of transformation. But not understanding the root of what made those systems unhealthy can lead to replacing them with something much the same. To begin to do that we need to look at the micro, to understand the macro.

We can think of systems as rules, laws of governance, or ideas that are forcing us into their orbit of control. This is what we might call the “rule of law.” Laws, we might imagine, are these things acting upon us, either oppressing or liberating us. All ideas are only as true and “alive” as we allow them to be. Stop believing in them, and they cease to exist, at least for us. It is our belief, and subsequent practice in and of these ideas that bring them to life. Get enough people to believe any idea, and it becomes reality. But the idea itself is not anything at all. It lives and dies in us, as we give it life, or deny it. To get from the macro level of institutionalize “group thinking” we have to understand our contribution as a member of the group. We are not helpless participants in a system of truth. We are the very force behind it.

We are the system.

Systems have no life apart from their parts, and we are the parts.

That’s not to say we are unaffected by larger social systems we live in. We are formed by them. This is what we often call “culture,” and it is everywhere, at every level of our social interactions.

There are seven distinct levels of culture – personal, family, peer, city, national, global, and historical – and every one of these has done some kind of work in forming how we see and understand our world. There is a lot to unpack in coming to understand what has formed us, in order to address what is healthy and unhealthy about all those things.

But we can’t just see the process as only figuring out what’s unhealthy in “those systems,” without also understanding what is unhealthy in us. If the systems that formed us are unhealthy, then it follows that we are unhealthy too.

It’s much easier to see the unhealth of a large system, than to see the unhealth in ourselves. But when we understand the interconnectedness of those two things, we'll admit that no system can be unhealthy without making us so.

We are not made of social Teflon. As soon as we point to unhealthy systems, we are also pointing to ourselves. Those seven levels of culture point to a reality that all things are connected. We are an individual, who is also a part of a family, peer group, city, nation, world, and history. The whole and the parts are not separate. Our ability to understand ourselves as a part of the whole has a lot to do with our ability to understand the place and power we have within those systems. To see ourselves as removed, is to remove our ability to change them.

You can never change something from the outside. All change comes from within. Change the micro, and you change the macro as well. When we understand how we’ve been acted upon by these systems, we can begin to reverse that movement and become actors within the system, instead of victims of it. But that revelation comes at a price. In order to regain our power, we have to acknowledge our role as part of that unhealthy system.

In trying to take the high road, and denouncing unhealthy systems as if we aren't apart of them, we lose our ability to speak into those same systems in order to change them. Change comes from inside. If you remove yourself from an evil system in order to change it, you remove your ability to change it.

You cannot speak to the change needed in a system until you’ve dealt with the changes needed in yourself.

When the oppressed rise up, but fail to see how oppressive systems have influenced them, they simply repeat the same kind of oppression. Throughout history the sad story of oppression repeats. The oppressed become the new oppressors when given the chance, because they only dealt with the oppression of outward systems, and not the oppression within themselves.

One example was with the English Puritans who fled to the newly discovered America’s from the oppression of the Anglican Church in England. They had not been in American long, when they began to enact the same kind of religious oppression on the Quakers who also came for the same religious freedom. When the Puritans finally had the upper hand, and were able to practice their religion in freedom, they turned around and began to oppress other Christians the way they had been. And this was within the first generation of Puritans, the very people who could still remember what they had fled from. The Puritans took a severe an approach, threatening to cut off ears, cut out tongues, imprison, punish, and kill Quakers if they would not convert to the Puritans form of Christianity.

How is this possible?

How is it possible for the oppressed to become the oppressor so quickly?

If all we desire is to turn the tables, and act out the same kind of oppression towards our oppressors, then we are doomed to the same unhealthy cycle. We are not changing the system, we are merely changing who the oppressor is. And that will change nothing. Until we change our hearts, no real change can happen. Until we understand that we would willing do the same to our oppressors as they are doing to us, then we have no chance of changing anything at all. We must stop the cycle of oppression.

To change the macro, we must first change the micro.

True change comes from within.

Jesus understood the power of true transformation. It’s what he called repentance. The word “repentance” actually means to change one’s mind, to do a complete 180 degree turn around in what you believe. But the important part is who does the changing. The kind of change repentance brings comes from within. It’s not forced upon us from the outside. Change that is forced from the outside is not true change. That is oppression. The only real, lasting change, is when I see how I have been wrong, and decide to turn around and go in a new direction, to live a different way, to repent.

When we work to change people’s hearts, then we will see true change.

That’s why we must work to change our own hearts first.

I can only show the way for you to change your heart by showing you how I have changed my own. I must lead the way in repentance. I must first admit that I have been wrong. The energy of that action is much different than the kind of forced change in many social movements. The energy of many movements is that of murder.

War, genocide, murder, abuse, torture, all come from the desire to eliminate and irradiate those we see as the proliferators of our oppression. Can we end abuse through abuse? Can we irradiate war through war? That is the energy of reciprocity, not repentance. But the best kind of reciprocity is repentance.

Repentance is when the oppressors admit the evil they have done, accept the blame, submit to the consequences, and desire to do things differently. That’s why Jesus told us to love our enemies, and to bless those who persecute us (Matt. 5:44). It was a radical teaching, and still is. Jesus understood that this was the only thing that could break the cycle of oppression.

Love is the only thing which can overcome hate.

Equality is not wanting to equal out the equation of oppression for those who have mistreated us, but wanting everyone to live without oppression. To break the cycle, we must start down a different path. We must become the change we desire to see in others. We must start with ourselves.

That’s what Contemplation is about.

Contemplation seeks to reveal in us the roots of those wrong desires, so we can first purge them from ourselves in order to show others how to do it. Contemplation is the action of looking inside ourselves for the problem, instead of in the outside world. Contemplation is the practice of getting quiet enough to let God begin to reveal the things inside us that need to change. Pointing to the problems in someone else is really just a distraction, and often our way of avoiding the things we need to change in ourselves. Contemplation flips the script and points the finger back at ourselves.

We will never change evil systems when we don’t understand the true power and energy behind those systems. If we are to address the core issues of any unhealthy system, we must first address the deepest reality of what sustains and proliferates those systems. That reality is the distortion and dysfunction of how one human can come to hate another.

Hate is a human dysfunction.

To hate is to not be human.

To love everyone is the only way to find our way back to being human again.

Any oppressive system is one which makes allowance for our hate. It justifies hate as an exception because it paints certain people as exceptions to the rule of love. It essentially says, “yes, we really should love everyone, but those people doing those things really don’t deserve love because….,” fill in the blank.

The problem is the exception. The problem is the idea that anyone could be exempt from the rule of love. Once you go down that path, you will find it easier to hate anyone, for any reason, simply because you’ve created the paradigm for hate to exist. We must understand the destructive nature of hate, and see that it destroys everyone involved. You may begin by hating another, but you will end up hating even yourself. Hate is destructive on both sides. Hate is a separating energy. It disconnects us from others, and that disconnection hurts us both. It allows for us to treat others less than human, which make us less than human too. That is why we must begin to put a face on our “enemies,” and learn to face our enemies, in order to see that they are really just like us. To do that, we have to push through all the things we think separate us, to see how we are really alike. Unhealthy systems are simply ideologies which enforce our separateness.

Any evil system is one which emphasizes our separateness over our connectedness, and attempts to define our good in contrast to another’s evil.

There are many things which make us distinct, individually. But these need not divide us. Each of us truly is a distinct expression of life, and that is good. But we cannot look to what divides us to bring us back together. Culture, religion, politics, family, and all the things which seem to reinforce our separateness cannot be the source of our unity. We are truly unified when we understand that we are one human family under God.

God knows how to honor the individual and still maintain the whole. We must learn that too. That means that no one need be alike, in order for everyone to be loved.

We are all part of one system. We are all parts of a whole. We are one universal family stretching through time and space, connected by the limitless energy of God. Within any large system, there are always smaller systems. The world at large is made up of many smaller parts. Division comes when we only see the parts, and not the whole. The seven layers of culture illuminate those parts. We can see those seven layers as a unity spectrum, with the individual on one end, and global/historical on the other. The closer we are to the individual side, the more divided. But the closer we are towards the global/historical, the more united. As we move towards the widest view, we do not lose the others parts of culture, we incorporate them. We see how all the parts fit together into the whole. We see how the individual is part of a family, which is part of a community, which is part of a city, which is part of a nation, which is part of the world, which is part of the whole history of the universe.

The further we work towards the widest view of culture, the more inclusive. But the further we fall towards the other end, the more divisive we become. If all you can see of the world is yourself, you are trapped in the smallest lens, the most divided and separate. Then you cannot accept or love anything but yourself. That is a lonely place to be. The goal is to work our way up the cultural spectrum until we can see all the parts, and value all the parts as a whole.

There is truly only one system in the world.

Everything else is just a part.

The degree to which you get stuck in the parts is the degree to which you will experience disunity. Division is the sickness, and hate is the symptom. But that also mean that hate is pointing us to what we need to fix. Whatever you hate, therein lies the work you need to do. And that work is always within you.

All change comes from within.

When I was in high school I had an history teach named Mr. Milburn. He told this story once in class about his failed attempt to join Martin Luther King Jr’s protest movement. He showed up early on a Saturday morning, and took his seat in a classroom full of other eager initiates to be “trained”. The training was one leader moving around the classroom all day constantly insulting, antagonizing, and inciting all the trainees to anger. Mr. Milburn said he lasted about eleven hours, and outlasted the majority of the others. When he finally stormed out of the classroom there were only a handful of people left. It was, in his own words, one of the strangest trainings he ever received. At the time he didn’t understand what it was all about. In retrospect, he understood exactly what the training intended to do.

MLK believed in passive resistance. It was one of the core foundations of his movement. The training that morning was designed for one purpose, to identify individuals who had the strength to resist hate with love.

It’s one thing to identify with a cause. It’s one thing to believe and hold ideas in the safety of your own personal bubble. It’s another to hold those ideas in tension with conflicting ideas, and still love.

We are all in the same kind of training Mr. Milburn went through, and most of us are failing. The classroom is the world, and the training is our life. We are in the midst of a great school which can train us to approach the world in one of two ways, with love or with hate. And I’m afraid that, at the current moment, hate is winning.

How can we get to a different place in our culture, where love is the dominating force? We can only get there as we learn to love. That’s why Jesus said to love our enemies and bless those who persecute us. When we do, we come to see that no one is our enemy. We also allow for the only way to show our oppressors how to be different.

Every day you have a choice.

That choice is to love, or to hate.

You will always find reasons to justify your hate. A world full of hate is a good reason to keep hating. But love shows a better way. Love is a God who gives life to all things, and binds all things together in the largest frame of unity and community.

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