A "Systemic" Problem

by Ethan R. Longhenry

For the past 200 or so years we have seen a fundamental shift in the way that people relate to one another. The Industrial Revolution has certainly brought its share of benefits: greater productivity, acceleration in development of technology, a greater quality of life and longer lasting life, among other things. Yet, in the process, people have become detached from one another, and where there were once relationships, there are now systems.

This represents a profound change that impacts all of us in more ways than we realize. Quantity is often emphasized over quality. Efficiency is most prized. Aesthetics often take a back seat to functionality. The "personal touch" is all but removed!

The industrial machine did not just revolutionize the business and manufacturing worlds -- it also impacted relations within society. Well-intentioned people saw the raw power in the efficiency and reach of systems and developed social and religious systems to handle challenges of poverty, care of the elderly, education, medical care, and other similar matters.

There is no doubt that such systems have been of at least some assistance to many people in America and throughout the world. But are systems really the answer, or is there something missing? The very thing that is missing within social or religious systems is the thing that, at least in theory, led to their creation: a sense of feeling or compassion for others. People can feel sympathy or compassion for their fellow men -- systems, by their very nature, cannot. Systems may be means to the end of trying to provide some assistance for people in need, but they lack the critical ingredient to real success.

What do we mean? In America, many systems have been developed to work on some of the matters of difficulty in society, and yet they have not proven very successful in really solving the problems. We are now almost fifty years removed from the "War on Poverty," and poverty still exists. All the systems that people have developed for various reasons -- ending hunger, getting people back to work, providing medical assistance, even promoting the Gospel -- have not reached their goals. There are always many who have "fallen through the cracks" of the system, or have been injured in various ways by "systemic failure" or "systemic problems." Why is this?

The very things that lead to the creation of systems -- scope and efficiency -- hobble the systems. The net is so wide that many fall through. In order to obtain efficiency, personalization must be lost. Anyone who has waited on the phone only to talk to a computer can understand what it is like to have to work with a system! It is quite humiliating and dehumanizing. It is easy to understand why many people who live within "the system" feel as if no one cares.

This is not the way that God intended for people to take care of one another. When we open the pages of the Bible, we find that systems are noticeably absent. Churches did not pool resources together to build hospitals or orphans' homes. There was no centralized authority that handled all financial resources to distribute them. Instead, God called upon individuals to take care of others, as it is written in I Timothy 5:16:

"If any woman that believeth hath widows, let her relieve them, and let not the church be burdened; that it may relieve them that are widows indeed."

The church is seen as the option of last resort for supporting believing widows, and even then, such involves an individual local congregation, not a large religious collective.

Throughout the New Testament, in fact, the emphasis is on the individual. The parable of the Good Samaritan is used to demonstrate how people are to "love their neighbor as themselves:" they feel compassion on their fellow man and attend to his needs (Luke 10:25-37). The judgment scene of Matthew 25:31-46 is envisioned on the basis of how people have assisted their fellow man in his time of need, not as providing assistance to a system which then helps people, but as directly meeting the need of the hour. Actually visiting widows and orphans in their distress is considered part of "pure and undefiled religion" in James 1:27, not spending money so that others could do so. The responsibility of taking care of the family -- both the young and the aged -- falls upon fellow family members (I Timothy 5:8, 16).

Some people may declare that all of these truths are incidental: there were no systems then, and therefore, everything fell upon the individual. Yet perhaps these truths are not incidental but quite deliberate. Maybe, in the end, systems can be as problematic as the challenges they are intended to solve.

People favor personal care and consideration, despite its limited scope and inefficiency. The practice of Christianity is in fact dependent on constantly showing this type of personal care for others: we can only be the light of the world when we reflect Christ's love toward our fellow man (Matthew 5:13-16; Romans 13:8-10). There are people who are in difficult situations that do not need the bureaucratic red tape of systems but someone who follows Jesus Christ and who can provide a pattern for a more responsible and godly life. People in distress need a lot more than just money for meals or rent and a program to learn how to hold down a job: they need someone to encourage them, to work to hold them accountable, and to show the type of love and concern that Jesus showed to others. A system designed to promote the Gospel cannot demonstrate how to live the message of the Gospel in word and deed (Matthew 28:18-20; Romans 1:16; Galatians 2:20). Systems cannot accomplish these things. Only individual people, motivated by their love of God and love for their fellow man, can (Philippians 2:1-4; Galatians 2:10; 6:10).

It is easy to bash systems and to expose their failures, and these challenges have led many to call for their complete abolition. Yet we have to recognize that we ourselves bear at least part of the responsibility. Systems were put in place, in many respects, because of the failures of people to accomplish the objectives themselves, and there is wide dependence on them. It is easier for individuals or congregations to direct people to the systems in place than it is to invest the time and resources to truly assist them. Many do not feel the imperative to provide assistance for the elderly or the poor since there are so many entitlement programs designed to provide a level of assistance.

Nevertheless, in the end, God intended for people to help people, not for systems to help people. It may require a lot of financial and temporal resources to help people in need, and yet that is what God expects of all who would call upon Him (Luke 10:25-37; Galatians 6:10). Only people can truly show compassion on others and reflect the light of Christ to them (Matthew 5:13-16). Let us, therefore, no longer look to systems to provide all the answers to our difficulties, but instead find opportunities to serve our fellow man!