J. Randall Ory
35 - Justice in Contemplation - Part1: Systems
Updated: Nov 29, 2022
We’ve just spent a long time talking a lot about surrender and stillness, as we’ve discussed the idea of what personal transformation, healing, and health look like on an individual level. We’ve been down a lot of rabbit holes, and followed a lot of rabbit trails on that journey. But perhaps, like Alice, we’ve gotten a bit lost in wonderland, and we need to bring all this back to reality, especially the reality of a broken, oppressive world which doesn’t live in or respect this way of being. I think all this begs the question, how does personal transformation interact and effect a global world. Are the two even related. How does becoming a more healed and whole person help heal the world, and put it back together in a more holistic way. 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? I believe the answer is “yes,” but not always an obvious “yes.” As my spiritual teacher Richard Rohr puts it, how we do anything is how we do everything. 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 tiny 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 tiny part can eventually 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. The workings of any part helps us understand the whole, and not the other way around. If we only see the system at large, we may fail to understand it, or the part we have in creating and sustaining that system for good or ill.
There is a great clamor in our current culture to call out unhealthy systems. I am very hopeful for the benefits of this current process. But, we must take a sobering pause and understand that simply calling out an unhealthy system does nothing to get us to a healthier one. It’s one thing to point out the darkness, it’s another to turn on a light. Calling out the darkness is just the first step towards things getting better, but it’s not a given that this one step will get us anywhere good. If we don’t understand the necessary steps that must follow, it likely won’t. Seeing the negative, both at the micro and macro levels of human community is a good, healthy, and necessary part of transformation. But not understanding the root of what made those systems unhealthy can lead to our failure in replacing them with something better. In the rush to topple evil systems, we must understand the root of their evil, in order to prevent their replacement from being just as evil. To begin to do that we need to look at the micro, to understand the macro. We all need to look at ourselves. We are the system. It’s as simple as it is profound. Systems have no life apart from their parts, and we are the parts. It’s easy to get trapped in an “other” mindset when it comes to how we view the workings of systems. We can actually think of a system as something other than human, as inhuman, as some abstract, ethereal energy floating out there somewhere sucking people into its vortex like a socio/political blackhole. Systems are not abstract institutions absent of human involvement. They are founded, sustained, and proliferated by humans. Humans are the parts. We can think of systems as rules, laws of governance, or inanimate ideas that are forcing us into their orbit of control. As western society we’ve actually been pressed into this mold a lot through our ideas of government and society. This is what we might call the “rule of law.” Laws, we might imagine, are this other thing which is acting upon us, either oppressing or liberating us. But this is not true. 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, carried along by it, unable to resist. We are the very force behind it. When we understand this simple truth, then we can begin to evaluate any system first by looking at ourselves.
That’s not to say we are unaffected by the force of these expansive systems. We are formed by them. There is no denying that. 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 and distinguish 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 following the trail to what is unhealthy in us. If these systems formed us. If they are unhealthy, then it follows naturally that we are unhealthy too. That can be a hard leap to make. It’s much easier to see the unhealth of a large system, much harder to see the unhealth in ourselves. But when we understand the interconnectedness of those two things, we cannot help but go there naturally. 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, they are one in the same. 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 reverse the flow of the action, that changes everything. 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. That can be the hardest part of the process. Even beginning to see it, let alone admit it takes a lot of courage and humility. But it also gives us the power to speak against the system. In trying to take too high a road, in denouncing an unhealthy system, we can actually detach so much that we have no ability to speak into that same system in order to change it. You know what I’m talking about. I don’t know too many Christians listening to what Atheists have to say about the unhealth of Christianity, or Democrats listening to what Republicans have to say about how unhealthy the Democratic party is. Even Republicans who are former Democrats don’t have the street cred. within the party to reform it. Change always comes from inside. If you remove yourself from an evil system in order to change it, you remove your ability to change it. And you’re never really outside those systems anyway. The idea that you are is simply a moral slight-of-hand in order to exonerate yourself from any of the evils you see in that system. None of us are completely free from these systems. We cannot magically float above them and pretend we have not been a part of them. When we own our part of an evil system, we gain the power to address and change it. When we pretend we were never there, we eliminate any voice we may have had to speak against it, and help it change. And, when we try to pretend it is removed from us, we miss the biggest part of what needs changing.
You cannot speak to the change needed in a system until you’ve dealt with the changes needed in yourself. Remember, you are a part of that system. Like it or not, you have been formed and touched by all these cultural systems in one way or another. If anything in these systems is bad, you have to begin to look at yourself, and first address how these bad systems have affected you. Therein lies your power to change them. The power to bring positive change in any system lies in your ability to first enact change within yourself. You must address the need for change in you first, before you have the ability to bring change in the larger system. This is simply a fact of human reality, and the force of positive change. As agents of change, when we fail to address how the system has corrupted us, we simply reproduce much of that unhealthy system in any new one. I can tell you plainly, having studied Western history from the Greco/Roman period through the Middle Ages, and up to today; most of history is full of this failed cycle. 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 of the most stark examples for me 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 right around and began to oppress another Christian sect the same 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 very people who knew what it was like to be robbed by pain and death of their right to believe how they wanted. The Puritans took just as 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. When I read this particular history, I thought, “how is this possible.” But when we step back and take in the larger scope of human history, we see just how possible and prevalent this is. Rarely did those escaping persecuting not turn around and persecute others, when given the chance. This cycle has not changed much, even today. Even today I see the response of the oppressed, even in their attempt to rise up, and the message is still “down with the oppressor.” But do we see how that is simply an alternate expression of oppression. If all we do is simply desire 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 gets oppressed, and who is the oppressor. 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, given the chance, then we have no chance of changing anything at all. The evil of oppression will not change, only the faces it takes from one generation to another. We must stop the cycle of oppression. To do that, we must stop that desire within ourselves. 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. I know that’s a big Christian word that may have some negative association for you. But stay with me. It’s not about calling people “sinners,” and making us feel bad. It’s about true change in the heart. 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 first 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. To put it bluntly, the energy of so many change movements is that of murder. Can we not see that? At the heart of so much change in human history is hate, which only leads to more hate. War, poverty, 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, and that’s what we really want. What we want is for our oppressors to come to a place where they can admit the evil they have done, accept the blame, willingly submit to the consequences, and desire to do things differently. This is the energy of love, as opposed to hate. Hate is the energy of oppression. You can’t end oppression through the same energy that caused it. 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. Dr. King also understood this. 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. If I want you to repent of your desire to oppress me, I must first repent of my desire to oppress you. 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 the Divine begin to reveal the things inside us that need to change. In truth, always 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. It says, “you want to see change; change yourself first.” If we’re honest, that’s the place we often look last for change, or don’t want to look to at all.
We will never change evil systems when we don’t understand the true power and energy behind those systems. The true energy is hate, and the power of that hate is held within the hearts of individuals. Individuals just like you and me. 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. I truly believe that hate is a human dysfunction. It is an aberration, a human cultural illness. It is not how we were made to live, or truly desire to live. We really do not desire to live in opposition to others, or to hurt others. How we get to such a place might be hard to see, but how we get back from such a place is not. We must put a face on our “enemies”, and allow them to see our “face” as well. We must put on our humanity, and learn ourselves how to be human again. To hate is to not be human. So, to love everyone deeply 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. I know it sounds overly simplistic, but the solution is to simply never allow for hate to begin with. 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, on the side of the one hated and the one hating. 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, and reinforce the idea that difference is bad, and should be hated. When it comes to the unhealth of our separateness, individualism plays a big part.
Any evil system is one which emphasizes our separateness over our connectedness, and attempts to define our good in contrast to another’s evil. Perhaps, then, the only true evil in the world is to call another person evil. Any reason we may invent in order to separate is the essence of evil, because it disconnects and divides the human race into smaller, competing groups. Is it not easy to see that this division is itself the real problem? I am against you. You are against me. My group is better than your group, and so on. This idea is the real problem; the idea that we are separated to begin with. This is what Contemplation calls dualistic thinking, and why Contemplation seeks to bring us back to a unified consciousness. We must come to see the world as one living organism, bound together by God. In Contemplation, the impetus for unity is simple and profound. God is the life energy of the universe. God is not merely the origin of life, but the sustenance of life. All things began and continue to be alive because this God energy sustains them. Which also means that if anything is alive, it is alive in God. And if it is alive in the life of God, then it is good. The fact that God continues to cause something to be alive is all the affirmation we need to affirm the value and right of something to be alive. That means that God, not us, gets to decide the playing field. That also means that the gift of life is the ticket to play. If you are alive, then you are good, because you are enlivened by the life energy of God. Then, the only “bad” thing we could do is resist that connecting energy through separation. Separation is the thing which has brought us so far down the path of these unhealthy systems. The work of Contemplation, then, is to identify and work through any disconnecting energy in yourself, with the help of God. How can we unify the world unless we have something big enough to bring us all together? We need something much bigger than all our differences, a belonging which transcends the separateness of all our cultural layers.
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. It is the spiritual which brings us together. That is the only field of unity we have, which is able to give us a broad enough space to see that we truly are one. To think that the key to unity is everyone else believing like me is foolish. No one else will ever occupy the space I do in the world. I am a unique expression of this God-life, formed by unique experiences, by my unique existence in this time and place. No one else will ever be like me. If I hinge unity on any one else being like me, unity will not happen. In fact, any unity we manage to create based on external similarities is done so by suppressing difference, instead of honoring it. Take any group. The more they focus on similarities, the more they must reduce the common ground in order to stay unified. But it is also true that the more they might begin to illuminate their differences, the more they will divide. This kind of community is more about uniformity than unity. Community in God’s view is about unity in diversity. 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 must learn that true love loves for the sake of love, and not for the sake of the lover. If I only love that in you which is like me, then I am really only loving myself. This is the sickness of individualism. It does not know how to love the other. It only knows how to love itself, even in the other. Thus, it always turns the other into itself. When it cannot, it rejects the other altogether. It’s a wonder any group can hold together at all. But we can also see how this kind of group belonging creates our dysfunction, because it requires us to suppress anything about ourselves which does not fit with the group, for the sake of group belonging. It creates fractured people, only living out of a small part of themselves. And, the harder a group leans into the need to be the same, the more unhealthy its members become in order to be what the group says they should, and the more they will move away from simply being themselves. The whole of evil systems, then, can be summed up in this idea of any system which does not allow us to be ourselves. The bad, in these systems, is always the “different,” which has an exponential and infinite amount of definitions. If I can only see unity as being like me, then everything unlike me is bad. If I am white, then black, brown, yellow, and olive is bad. If I am Christian, then Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu, Shinto, Jainist, Pagan, Atheist, and Agnostic is bad. If I am American, then Russian, German, Spanish, Middle Eastern, Slavic, Jewish, Scandinavian is bad. Now, we may view all these things on a spectrum, where some are better or worse than others, but we none-the-less are working in a system where everything is a delineation of me. I am the standard, and everything else is evaluated based on how it compares to me. This is the essence of hyper-individualism, and the opposite of God’s idea of unity. God’s idea works backwards to ours. It values the whole first, and lines everything else up under that. It does not negate the smallest part, which is the individual, but it first established and values the whole. God basically says, “you cannot value the individual without valuing the whole, because they are all part of the same thing.” Now we have come full circle.
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. It’s that simple. To recognize the ways which you have been trained in separateness, in favoring certain parts over others, and excluding certain parts, is the work of Contemplation. 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. As long as we are distracted by division, by trying to rid the world of some undesirable part, we will never see that the underlying problem is our desire to eradicate difference all together. That is an impossible goal. It may seem rather naïve, and too difficult to do, but the solution to the hate of division is to simply learn to love all things. Not to love because, but just to love. That is what real love means. It means we love because we love, not because something was good enough to be loved. Deciding to love all things is to choose to see only one system, and include all the parts, even the one’s we think are “bad.” But it also accepts the grace needed for others to love us as well, because we are as different from others as they are from us. When we can love despite difference, then we can begin to honor our differences, and find space for unity in the midst of diversity. Then, we can also make space for what is truly dysfunctional in any system, and see it healed, which is simply the idea that everything should be exactly like me.
When I was in high school I had an amazing history teach named Mr. Milburn. He was a dynamic and engaging teacher. He told this story once in class, about his failed attempt to join Martin Luther King Junior’s protest movement. I don’t remember exactly when or where this took place. There were calls to train members for the movement, and the young twenty-something Mr. Milburn decided to answer the call. 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. It was meant to see who could be mistreated to an extreme without retaliating. 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 from a distant. 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. If reciprocity is our only reaction, then we are part of the continuing cycle of oppression, and we should expect nothing different than the state of the world we are currently in. We should expect things to get even worse. How can we get to a different place, away from hate, if we are not prepared to do anything other than hate those who hate us? How can we get to a different place, if we are not prepared to do something different than what has been done to us? Every day you have a choice. That choice is to love, or to hate. You will always find reasons to justify your hate, and good reasons too. 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. God loves the Atheist the same as the religious, the one who denies and resists the flow of that connection the same as the one who affirms it. We never stop the flow of love, not really, we just choose to flow with it or resist it. Contemplation seeks to reveal the things within us which are resisting that flow, which are leading us towards hate and isolation, instead of unity and love. There is only one system, one human community, and one sustaining universe which encompasses us all. We cannot eliminate, isolate, or reject any one part without hindering and hurting the whole. The gift of Contemplation is the ability heal our blindness of this whole, to learn that we cannot injure the smallest part of the universe without injuring ourselves, or the whole. I know that’s a really big concept, which needs a lot more fleshing out. We have a lot more to discuss, and we will. But seeing the big picture, and the root of the problem is a good place to start. And the big picture problem is the smallest, and that is you. What is it in you as a part of this system which is preventing you from seeing it as a whole? What has caused you to separate, divide, reject, hurt, and hate any other part of this system? That is the real work you need to do. And that is the work, in the smallest part of this big system, which can bring the whole system back to greater health and healing, as you experience that healing in yourself. Does that make sense? I hope so. More than that, I hope you will begin to step out and do that work. If you want to see the larger system get better, begin by rooting out what is most unhealthy in yourself. Then you will become a natural beacon pointing others down the same path. Your healing as a part will become a healing for the whole. And that is something each of us has in our power to do. That is the kind of change we have complete control to enact. So, let’s keep going, and working towards that, changing our part of the unhealth in this system in order to change the whole.