Systemic Evil

I started writing this post about 5 years ago. I was in Chicago for some chaplain training, which was wonderful but one of the side issues of being at a conference for good or bad is that I am often separated from what is happening in the world. It can be a nice break from reality. It can also lead to some heartbreak when I suddenly learn of horrible events that have taken place. I came home to find out the there had been two police shootings of black men that made national news while I was hidden away in my training. I hurt for my friends. I have written before about how I hope to see the Imago Dei in people and believe that thus seeing people might help.

I wanted to start writing in response to some preachers and spiritual bloggers I saw that were responding that the racism that was probably behind such actions wasn’t a skin issue but a sin issue. They said that all that needed to be done was “introduce people to Jesus” and things would change. Their argument was that fighting for institutional or societal change was the wrong answer because ultimately this was a sin issue and sin issues require personal repentance. I struggled to find the words to blog so I never hit “publish” on the post and it sat as a draft.

Then it happened again.

Once again I read about horrific, hate-filled actions directed at people of color and saw many say and write “it is a sin issue”. Again from some I read the response that preaching the gospel was just about people “coming to Christ” rather than also the blind receiving their sight, the lame walking, the outcasts being brought back into society, and evil being confronted because of the good news of the kingdom of God (Luke 7:22).

When Jesus walked into villages the salvation He brought wasn’t just repentance of personal sin but also the confrontation of evil in all its forms. Where Jesus walked the kingdom of God came and where the kingdom of God arrives captives are set free. Sometimes that captivity is to systemic evil and Christ brings freedom from it. Again I never could find the right words, so I worked on the draft of this post again and then left it as a draft.

Then it happened again.

So I started to write out my feelings on how this world, and our contribution to it, sadly, I worry, my contribution or lack thereof to it, has led to views that certain groups are somehow less than and not as worthy of the same rights and protection as other groups. But I couldn’t put my feelings down in a manner that I wanted to publish on my blog so I merely saved it as a draft knowing that the same incident would happen again.

And it happened again.

And it continues to happen because we have evil that is systemic. It has invaded our institutions. It has seeped into some of our societal values. It is so ingrained that it is easy for us in the majority to miss it, while those in the minority never seem to be able to escape it.

The Fall did not just taint personal humanity but also the humanity of our institutions. My Calvinist sisters and brothers in the faith hold that because of our sin, humanity is totally deprave, incapable of doing the work and will of God without redemption. While I don’t always agree with these fellow believers I do believe that the implications of this are accurate here. It means that not just we as individuals fall short of the glory of God but also our institutions. The organizations, cultures, and societies we are a part of are corrupted by sin.

Scripture says (Ephesians 6:12)

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.

Walter Wink wrote a great series of books discussing how the powers and principalities are often the organizations and institutions of our society. We are part of and surrounded by organizations and institutions that are just as tainted by the Fall as we are personally because they were created by and are made up of individuals who are fallen. Because of their fallen nature, our organizations and institutions also need to be redeemed and transformed. We need to look through Holy Spirit transformed eyes at these organizations and ask for Christ to show us how they are to be transformed and empower us to be a part of transforming them. Institutions, cultural norms, and societies don’t just change because individuals within them change (though that helps). These institutions themselves need to be renewed. Their values need to be questioned. They have to be redeemed or destroyed because of the evil inherent in them. But institutions, societies, and cultural norms aren’t redeemed in the same manner as individuals.

You don’t preach the gospel to institutions and societal evil. Institutions can’t “accept Jesus as their personal Savior.” Transformation through the power of the Kingdom of God has to happen with such institutional/systemic evil. Some would call this “social justice”, a phrase I am completely okay with because scripture defines God as a God of justice.

I feel like this is quite often forgotten by the evangelical community, at least the white evangelical community, because we don’t experience it and we don’t view it as a part of our reality. Our brothers and sisters who are People of Color experience this systemic evil far too often. As messed up as social media can be I am thankful for it at moments like this because it enables me to hear some of the pain, fear, and anger of my friends who go through this, and hopefully, it helps me to see what I have been swimming in without ever noticing.

The theologian James Cone responded in an interview regarding why he thought white theologians weren’t responding as much to racism. He stated:

If theologians perceived their own sons and daughters and parents as being discriminated against, they would not only write passionately against it but would make their rejection of injustice an essential part of their reflection on the Gospel.

I hope and pray that we see God defeating this evil as an essential part of our “reflection on the Gospel.” Jesus’s death and resurrection wasn’t just about defeating personal sin. It was to defeat all sin. Both personal sin and communal sin. Those of us who claim to be His disciples should look for the redemption of all that has fallen.

Racism is a societal evil and societal evils don’t change until they are confronted. The kingdom of God confronts such evil. William Wilberforce knew this and his faith led him to fight against the systemic evil of slavery. Robert Raikes saw the systemic abuse of children in the industrial revolution and started Sunday School as a part of his faith educating children to get them out of poverty. Martin Luther King saw the systemic abuse of his people and led a modern exodus through his faith.

I still don’t have the words I want to write about the evil that my friends who are people of color face. I also know that simply saving this as a draft until it happens again isn’t really an option. Oh it will happen again but I will never have the right words other than calling the stated or very often unstated treatment of people as less than because of the color of their skin as evil. When my friends’ blackness is viewed as a threat and the police are called merely for them being black that is evil. The fact that I can go running without fear while others can’t because of their gender or race is evil. The fact that if I were detained for forgery I would almost certainly receive much better treatment than George Floyd received is evil. The fact that I never have to worry that someone may call the police on me simply for being somewhere is evil.

I doubt I will ever be able to find the right words other than making sure my friends who are people of color know I love them and I want to support, advocate for you, and fight alongside you against this evil.

The kingdom of Christ fights against evil in all its forms. I hope as a follower of Jesus I do too.

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