Overhauling the Systems – Br. Mark Brown

Is. 7:1-9/Ps. 48/Mat. 11:20-24

It’s hard to know quite what to make of this: the “woes” to Chorazin and Bethsaida, the damning to hell of Capernaum.  I’m tempted to suspect that this anger actually reflects the concerns of a later generation.  Matthew seems to have been written about 50 years after Jesus’ death. Perhaps Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum were Jewish communities that resisted conversion to Christianity, or even persecuted Christian Jews. A lot of this first century strife can be read between the lines of the New Testament.

Whether Jesus ever said these things, we may never know.  But a pattern emerges in the Gospels.  Jesus is most critical of, most impatient with groups of people.  And, generally speaking, very tender with individuals.  He can be downright cranky with the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the scribes, the chief priests, “this faithless generation”, the disciples, whole towns—all groups of people. All groups of people with their social systems. But he shows great tenderness for the individual: the tax collector, the woman caught in adultery, the “sinner”.

Today, with our historical perspective and with insights from modern science, we might find our way to a similar disposition: critical of social systems and institutions and corporate entities, but tender toward the individual.  The actual living human being who is caught up in multiple systems of social organization, multiple spheres of social influence.

An example we might consider from the political realm: The executive branch of our national government might be subject to critique as harsh as anything in the Bible; and the microculture of the president’s inner circle might be met with deep scorn by our Lord; nevertheless, George would be met with great tenderness by Christ. This is not what comes naturally to me!  But, then, Christianity is a radical thing. And only God sees the whole person.

The multiple webs, the multiple interweaving webs of social organization and spheres of influence are played out, of course, at the micro level and the macro. Family systems analysis—a tool developed by the social sciences—can be applied at the family level or at other larger levels of organization. (And the prresident’s family has been analyzed…) The individual human being is always more than the sum of the social systems he or she is imbedded in. You and I are each more than our roles in the various systems we participate in—whether functioning well or “dysfunctioning”.

Systems of social organization are fair game for critique, even condemnation.  But the heart and mind of Christ approaches the individual with tenderness. Jesus was totally unrestrained in his critique of the Pharisees in general.  But he was respectful, perhaps even tender, in his conversation with Nicodemus in John 3. Direct, yes; but no fiery vituperations.

The whole subject of sin, guilt and personal responsibility is a very complex one.  “Whose fault is this”?  Who is guilty, who sinned, who is responsible?  This is not always clear. We all can react in situations in ways we don’t quite control, with pressures bearing down on us both from without and within. We’re all products (and many of us are victims) of our body chemistry, our genes and the family systems that shaped us.

“Destructive behavior”, as it happens, is often a product of biological and neurological factors (think of addictions) or social systems gone awry (think of suicide bombers).  The suicide bomber isn’t born that way, but is reacting to social pressures which generate this kind of pathological behavior.  It’s terribly wrong, of course.  But where does culpability lie?  With the social and political system that generated the behavior?  With the individual who reacted to these pressures in such a destructive way?  Who “sinned”? The suicide bomber or the social context that spawned his behavior?  What would be the target of Jesus’ wrath?  What would he who was so tender with sinners say?  What is the mind of Christ today?

I think we’re overdue in the Christian community for a complete overhaul of our thinking and language around sin and guilt. In the light of modern scientific knowledge, can we cling to notions of sin and guilt and punishment that are 3000 years old?  What is the mind of Christ today?  It may not be very clear from the scriptural texts alone.

Labeling others as “sinners” or “criminals” or “evil” does more harm than good.  Labels are alienating.  And labels can be an attempt to get out of some hard work: the hard work of actually fixing things and healing people. A Christian approach to sin and criminality and evil would certainly acknowledge wrong-doing and the harm done.  But it would set to work to heal, to fix, to repair, insofar as this is possible.  Heal the individual.  Fix the social system. Repair the social fabric. The mind of Christ is, I believe, to fix systems and heal people, not punish.  The threat of punishment may be a deterrent to wrongful behavior, but ultimately I suspect the whole concept of punishment is destined for the trash can of history. The mind of Christ is, I believe, not to punish, but to heal.

The amazing thing is that we actually can fix things.  We can see when a system isn’t working and fix things.  It can take a long time.  We see this kind of healing process underway today.  People saw we had a very toxic problem with race relations in this country and decided to do something about it.  They decided it was time to fix the system.  For a long time the increments of healing and progress were too small to notice.  But, all of a sudden, it seems, a black man is running for president. There’s been a lot of healing, a lot of fixing the system—and there’s more to come!

With God’s help, we can fix; we can heal.  We human beings can heal bodies and minds.  We can heal dysfunctional systems. We can shape the social systems that shape us. This is amazing! Fixing systems and healing people is, I believe, the mind of Christ.  We were not created for punishment.  We were not created for woe.  We were not created for Hell.  The mind of Christ envisions much more enjoyable things.

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  1. Ruth West on August 9, 2017 at 18:21

    I am in agreement with your intention with this homily. However, in actual realistic life as I know it, I must say that, in many cases, punishment is a way to protect society from those who have no moral compass. I used to get out and walk in my neighborhood, in an effort to control my weight and enjoy nature. Since there have been many drive-by shootings lately, I no longer feel comfortable walking outdoors. These hoodlums (yes, I know that is a label) need to be incarcerated so that the law-abiding citizens can feel safe. I am told there are nine gangs operating in our area.
    There is someone in my family who habitually steals. He has been in prison most of his adult life. He has been given opportunity, one after another, to be free. He gets out for a few weeks, then steals again, and is back in jail. None of us, who are close kin and who love him, want to welcome him in our homes. He has stolen from me and others. I write to him and remember his special days, am kind to his children, who hardly know him. But, sadly so, his mom and others laughed at his little rule-breaking antics instead of punishing him when he was little. I might be a very different person, if my folks had not punished me once in awhile. Actually, I knew when I deserved it. It made me think twice before opting to do the same thing again.
    I am concerned that so many offenders have mental problems, as well as addictions, which accounts for many of the homeless being on the street. We need to have answers for that in state budgets. And “What would Jesus do?”
    Thank you, Br. Mark. I usually agree with your homilies 100%.

  2. (the Rev.) Jane Alexander on August 9, 2017 at 11:20

    Punishment may, indeed, control behavior. But only love can change a heart. And changed hearts is what Jesus is all about.

  3. marta engdahl on August 9, 2017 at 10:23

    I concur with most of the thoughts above/(below). But I am left with the self, me, and what I must do to seek forgiveness — I must forgive. The process of reconciliation is not for the healing of the “other” person, but for the healing of the self. I must begin with myself. And, I believe that it is an ongoing, constant process. When we have been injured, and sometimes it is a cross-generational, family systems harm that repeats generationally, we are left with the need to forgive not only the instigator but the repetitive, constant deeds that continue to be done within the family. So, the family system (or other system) needs healing so that the need is not replicated in future generations. Only then can we look at the other person. . . . . It must begin with the self.

  4. rev. carol carlson on August 9, 2017 at 10:18

    This is a comment from the other side of Br. Mark’s excellent observations on the need to give up blame and think in a context of healing instead. As a priest and pastor, I couldn’t agree more. However, events in the past month have forced me to look at this issue from another perspective – that of the ‘sinner’ who (one might presume) would like ‘more to be pitied than censured’. That’s a quote from a favorite 1890’s song of my sister, the favored child in my family. I grew up with her in a family-system that constantly sought to keep me in line by ‘punishing’ me for being the way I am (i.e., not much like them). To them I’ve always been like Kieran’s cat, unwilling to take the ‘medicine’ they have always prescribed to make me different/ better / more like them (this refusal being additional ‘proof’ of my being wicked and crazy).

    However, I have recently been subjected to a change in tactics. I infer from several indirect indications (I have as little direct contact with this system as I possibly can) that the family mythos has been adjusted. I am now to be pitied rather than blamed for being myself, and they should all treat me as pathetic rather than (merely) wicked and crazy. The horrible old age that they always predicted for me MUST be here now (despite my being happier – and further from them – than I’ve ever been before), so their new job is to pursue me with sad, kindly thoughts, cards, etc. to take the edge off my sorrow and let me know that they are ‘there’ for me. I’m here to report that this is maddening! I’ve spent 70 years getting acclimated to being wicked and crazy – now they pull the rug out from under me with a cloying ‘kindness’ that absolutely gives me the creeps. Knowing that it has as little to do with me as the former anger did is a help, but I can’t help resenting the smug self-satisfaction that it gives the perpetrators.

    I have certainly not lived a blameless life, but I’d take confrontation with the REAL wickedness and craziness of my actual past (and the repentance required) any day over the ‘poor Carol’ theme that has come to afflict me in my (relatively blameless) old age. Those who would follow Polly’s advice to ‘practice love’ in such contexts need careful discernment. Guilt is our friend if it’s genuine anxiety over genuine wrongs; and helping people into a right understanding, of where responsibility (signaled by guilt, as gripping a hot poker is signaled by pain) is required, is a kindness. So is helping people get out from under the phony guilt produced by spurious accusations of wrongdoing (like being themselves) that have been such a feature of my own life. But pity is a sacred thing, as an attribute of God, and offering pity out of one’s own need to FEEL kind, without regard to the hard realities of whatever case we are dealing with, isn’t likely to help either the ‘sinner’ or the minister. God is truth, and whatever we do to approach ‘wrong’ has to be grounded in the truth – often complicated – of any situation. Pity, blame, guilt, repentance can ALL be gifts of grace; but where un-truth holds sway, you can’t be too careful about how you deploy them.

  5. Rhode on August 9, 2017 at 09:22

    What does it take to remove fear of the ‘other’ from our minds? When beliefs are founded on fear we will judge wrongly, stereotype, pass laws, arm ourselves, erect walls and ultimately we will sanction more killing through wars. We then pay money to see our hate and fear re-enacted on screens as entertainment. We enable each other to do bad things. How, then, do I teach my 4 yr old it is not right to hit someone, to lie, to bully or to cheat and steal while trying to illuminate the dark places in my own heart. Good mothering and God asks me to step back and breathe. My little son deserves loving prayer and patience. I confess a quick punitive swat to a padded rear (as my parents did) really would make me feel better… but what does that say to my child? Perhaps God is hoping as we grow up we realize His love and patience through the Holy Spirit is the only true antidote to fear, hate and our bad behaviour. That he gave us Moses, the law and then Jesus reveals a careful, thoughtful, loving God who revels in teaching right thinking and actions, a patient God through centuries of man doing the complete opposite …and then gives us grace. But I stiil believe, we must believe, God wants us to grow up!
    Meanwhile, I gave my son time out for spitting on his friend. Someday he will learn…we will all learn.

  6. David Cranmer on November 23, 2015 at 12:51

    As I read Br Mark’s homily, I was reminded of an understanding of the Old Testament concept of “shalom” that came to me when I was living in Africa. In my village I was puzzled about how the chief decided cases that were brought to him. I learned that his job was to find a decision that would satisfy both parties to the dispute so that there would be no lingering resentment that would fester and disturb the peace of the community. This helped me to understand several situations during the time that the Israelites were wandering in the wilderness and were entering Canaan — where when an individual had transgressed God’s command, the individual along with his family were killed. I always thought that this showed a ruthless side of God. But as I made the connection with what the village chief did, I realized that God was caring for the “shalom” of the community by taking drastic steps to remove wrongdoing. When viewed from this perspective, God’s actions come to be seen as healing rather than punishing only — healing the community. Br Mark has helped me see that Jesus’ rebuke to the groups of people is a continuation of God’s concern for the “shalom” of the community.

  7. MIchael on November 19, 2015 at 16:05

    Your sermon is thought provoking. In our eagerness “to answer the questions” we often pay scant attention to our thinking and blurt out an obvious or too often the easiest solution to whatever is the current issue. Of course change is needed, at all levels and in all organizations, Societies, churches, nations, people and the list is endless, but we must stop and think. Not give mere lip-service to the idea of thinking, but concentrated, sustained thought with varieties of people on a host of issues. We must examine our motives and be willing to move off some of our long held beliefs. Our imaginations were given to us to dream the answers any problems, but our minds are too easily side tracked by the obstacles.

  8. anders on November 19, 2015 at 12:53

    Thank you for stirring me up. There is the old saying „When the student is ready the teacher appears.“ In revamping our moribund notions of sin and guilt, I see Christianity as in major need of humility. We need to become learners, not teachers waiting for the students to appear.

    I for example, as a middle aged white man, sit on the pinnacle of societal privilege and tend to be either stupidly blind to how easy I have it or ignorantly naive to think that I deserve it all due to my outstanding individual merits alone. “What could I possibly have to learn from an obese homely lesbian teenaged woman of color?” I am conditioned to think. My interactions as Mr. Good Christian Guy may unfortunately reflect this, but the attitude neither makes me much of a Christian nor a man.

    Societal systems are a way for groups–including churches–to control people, so I will put such groupthink aside to look closer at how Jesus would respond. He tells Thomas to put his hands on and touch the wounds of the crucifixion to believe. Christ’s own wounds may not be visible to me, but the people all around me who have suffered under oppressive systems are. I have much humility to gain, and instead of uprooting my faith and sense of order such experiences seem to magically strengthen it. Perhaps the hardest part is how to break through the systemic walls built to serve (and control) me. I need to show up where I “don’t belong” and learn it is good. It is all very, very good.

  9. Polly Chatfield on November 19, 2015 at 10:48

    An extremely timely post, Mark, given the events of the last week. The instinctive reaction to hurt and evil is fear. Can love conquer fear? I believe it can, but it takes much time and patience and not minding setbacks and not ever giving up. And above all, it takes individual commitment to practice love every day in every way we can.

  10. poppakc on November 19, 2014 at 15:57

    I like Kieran’s comments. Those who blame “the System” forget that the system is us. Christ talked of sin a lot. Why? Because it is the basis of who we are. Those who deny our sinful nature deny who we are and are confused in their world view. They deny the human condition and why we need Christ’s forgiveness so desperately. But it is up to us, not government programs, to help heal the fallen world because government agencies are made up of sinful people who have a different agenda many times than Christ does. The Church is our helping hand in God’s work. That’s the community we need to straighten.

  11. Kieran on July 14, 2014 at 15:30

    Having tried to give medicine to a cat, I know firsthand (with scars) how easily all creatures, humans included tend to react with fear and anger than accept healing. How much harder is it to OFFER a spirit of healing and compassion in the face of people and circumstances that hurt us. Yet I think of Jesus, day after day offering healing in his every touch to the masses, and even a hand of compassion to his enemies. I read in Revelation, that God’s “leaves of healing… for the nations” continue to be shared even after Christ’s return. Why not begin, in small ways to live this now? The small ways are difficult enough, but as this sermon notes, its those individuals, treated with the tender love of Christ, no exceptions, whose healing can change the world.

  12. Haig McCarrell on July 20, 2013 at 08:09

    Social systems are unduobtedly part of the pathologies of life, but social systems weren’t created ex nihilo, they were created by people. The Bible (uniquely?) expounds and explores commual and individual responsibilities for sin – these are intertwined and togheter they are the path to healing.

    The death of Trayvon Martin is one example of the layers of social and individual culpability – to avoid, deny or wish these away is to consign us to the deep dysfuntionality that will continue to entrap and enthrall us. Judgment and accountability (even punshment) are part of the way forward– for healing, hope and restoration of which God is the author. This is true of God 3000 years ago and today – if we can see God’s purposes amidst the gloss of the pride and limitations of our human comprehension.

  13. kate ransohoff on July 17, 2013 at 10:21

    I would like Br. Mark Brown to know that I am consistently gratified and thankful for his posts, ideas, and interpretations. They may be ‘quirky’ for some, but for me they are
    re-inforcing and bring feelings that lessen my oftentimes sense of ‘quirky’ and ‘isolated’.

    Thank you.love, xxkate

  14. Karen Wires on September 3, 2011 at 10:08

    As the mother of a twenty three year daughter, raised in these complicated times and media overdrive, there needs to be some clarity in which we look at the day’s events and the behavior of others, some objective truth that is accepted not only today, but from milleniums past. My husband is a neuropsychologist, a field that certainly looks at the inner workings of the brain and resulting behavior. I fear for the day in which high paid defense attorneys can explan away a person’s behavior, resulting in the person getting off without punishment. “Labeling. . .does more harm than good.” Not always. This statment is a label in itself, with labels equaling harm. Specific labeling often brings clarity to the behavior. There are enough influences in the world that cloud the issues of morality, truth, and ethics. There are many explanations why people do what they do. At some point, however, objective truth, conscience, and personal responsbility are primary. Yes we need to fix and to heal within our social systems and adapt to an individuals needs. I see many opportunities in the geographic area in which I live. Individuals, however, must be amenable to these opportunities and make positive changes. Just because opportunities and the forgiving nature of victims are required, this assumes that an individual takes personal responsbility for their choices.

  15. Gresh Lattimore on September 3, 2011 at 05:32

    I applaud Br Mark’s call to re-examine our 3,000 year old concepts and language about sin, quilt, and punishment. It’s worth a book! Rome’s laser focus and concentration on these issues is off-putting. That’s what makes the mysticism and elaborate liturgy of the Orthodox church so intoxicating for me. Unfortunately, their social conservatism in not inviting either. Where’s the balance between the two? Most other religions take humans as they are and seek a relationship with their higher power from that viewpoint. We Christians might take their cue and seek to understand why we came to such a different view.

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