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Fix the System, Fix the Problem?

I spent Monday morning in a packed hotel conference room full of community leaders who had been summoned to hear a presentation on a plan initiated by our city called the “Community Wellbeing and Safety Strategy.” Like many cities, ours is facing significant challenges. Poverty, homelessness, crime, lack of affordable housing, and, of course, the scourges of addiction, mental health issues, and racism that bleed into all of the others. The opioid crisis is hitting our city hard. It is hitting the indigenous population particularly hard. And this spins out into all kinds of social realities that heighten suspicions and diminish good will in our community. The picture of the reality on the ground we were presented with was bleak. “We can’t fix these problems on our own,” the city representatives said. “We need your help.”

The meeting was, in the end, a plea for greater collaboration. Resources are not the issue, we were told. The problem is everyone off working in their own silos, guarding their own funding, territory, and ideological approaches to this or that part of the larger problem. The solution is an “integrative social ecosystem” where all the various “stakeholders” (including the “faith sector”) are in dialogue to mobilize “social capital” and to ensure that the “support industry” is working with maximum efficiency to deliver the best possible “return on investment.” The problem isn’t a lack of money or good will. The system is the issue. Fix the system, fix (or at least dramatically ameliorate) the problem.

I have little doubt that a better system with better communication and collaboration and less overlap, waste, and territorial suspicions would improve the social reality in our community. But the language we use and the assumptions that underly it is fascinating, isn’t it? Words like “stakeholders,” “capital,” “industry,” “sectors,” and “return on investment” point to a very specific way of understanding the nature of both the problems and their potential solutions. If the problems are technical the solutions must be technical. If the overlapping crises in our community are, at their core, the result of faulty, inefficient systems, then what is required is a new, better system. Just get the right amount of the right kinds of resources arranged and allocated in the right ways and get out of the way of the social transformation train, right?!

Over at his Experimental Theology blog, Richard Beck has been reflecting for the past few weeks on what he calls the “social justice blind spot” (navigate forward and backward from this link for other entries in the series). Beck is a determined advocate for social justice, but he’s concerned that many activists are plagued by a belief that “oppression and injustice is primarily, if not wholly, a systemic problem.” Beck cites the story of Michelle Alexander, a prominent lawyer and advocate for political change who left her position at Ohio State’s law school to take a position at Union Theological Seminary. It’s a strange career move, and one that Alexander herself seems to periodically wonder about:

[T]here are times I worry that I have completely lost my mind. Who am I to teach or study at a seminary? I was not raised in a church. And I have generally found more questions than answers in my own religious or spiritual pursuits. But I also know there is something much greater at stake in justice work than we often acknowledge. Solving the crises we face isn’t simply a matter of having the right facts, graphs, policy analyses, or funding. And I no longer believe we can “win” justice simply by filing lawsuits, flexing our political muscles or boosting voter turnout. Yes, we absolutely must do that work, but none of it—not even working for some form of political revolution—will ever be enough on its own. Without a moral or spiritual awakening, we will remain forever trapped in political games fueled by fear, greed and the hunger for power.

In other words, you can fix the system and still not fix the problem. In fact, the belief that fixing the system fixes the problem is itself probably part of the problem.

Of course, “we need a moral or spiritual awakening” can sound just as idealistic and unattainable as “we need a more collaborative integrated social ecosystem.” Perhaps in the absence of the former we should at least address the latter to minimize damage, right? I’m sympathetic to this view. “The best” should never be the enemy of “better.” But the “systems” approach alone seems to evince a rather naive anthropology, in my view. We can do our best to ensure that funds are being used wisely, but that won’t change the racist attitudes that are prominent in our community. We can do our best to avoid overlapping social services, but that won’t do much to address the absent/abusive parents that are in the rearview mirror of almost every addict’s story. We can build supportive housing facilities to assist those struggling with poverty, loneliness, and mental illness, but this won’t convince people that it is their moral duty to love their neighbours.

Today is Ash Wednesday. It is not my favourite day of the Christian calendar. It is a day where my task is to tell the few saints who show up to an evening service two uncomfortable truths: You are a sinner, and you’re going to die. I don’t like telling people this. I’d rather tell them that God loves them and that everything’s going to be ok (I’ll probably find a way to tell them that anyway, truth be told). I don’t particularly enjoy tracing an ashen cross on people’s foreheads, either. It can literally be a rather messy and uncomfortable few minutes as people shuffle up to the front of the sanctuary for their Lenten dose of reality.

But each year Ash Wednesday reminds me that a robust and truly Christian anthropology is a gift to the church and the world. To tell someone that they are a sinner is also to tell them that they were created for more than their sin. It is to tell them that their sin does not define them, that God’s love is deeper and stronger than their failure. It is to tell them that sins are for forgiving and for leaving (and returning to, and leaving again… our steps with and towards Christ are always of the “halting” variety). It is to tell them that there is a grace and a love that transcends all of the pain they have caused and endured, and that they are called to walk in and extend this grace and love to those around them. It is to tell them that what is dead or dying can come alive.

This is a message addressed to human beings, not “social capital” or “stakeholders” or “high needs users of the system.” It is not systems that can experience moral or spiritual awakening. It is not systems whose hearts can be softened to the cries of the poor and the cast aside. It is not systems who can listen for layers of pain behind presenting social issues. It is not systems that can be trained to love. No, these are tasks for human beings.


The image above appeared as I turned the page of my Christian Seasons Calendar to “Lent” this morning. It was created by Jules Atkinson and is called “The Necessary Wilderness.” In her explanation of the piece, Jules writes: “Having lives in an inner-city environment, I found ‘temptations,’ ‘wild beasts’ and ‘angels’ can take myriad forms. Christ, Man of sorrows yet Prince of Peace, is present amidst these contexts, often subverting and recalibrating realities.” 

7 Comments Post a comment
  1. Richard Thiessen #

    Agreed. As we participate with God’s heart for wholeness, systems can be a hindrance or a help, they are never the goal.

    February 26, 2020
  2. Paul Johnston #

    …”Without a moral or spiritual awakening, we will remain forever trapped in political games fueled by fear, greed and the hunger for power”…

    As I understand the Gospels, this is a complete misdiagnosis of the situation.

    Our earthly lives will always exist in sociopolitical contexts, “fueled by fear, greed and the hunger for power.” They are as inescapable as death itself. The power of Christ (forget the term spiritual awakening) allows us to transcend what is inevitable, not to avoid it.

    February 27, 2020
    • Transcendence sounds better than avoidance to me, too. I included the Alexander quote to demonstrate the growing awareness of inadequacy of structural changes without moral/spiritual changes, but I obviously wouldn’t phrase things precisely as she does or understand them in the same way.

      February 28, 2020
      • Paul Johnston #

        Yes of course. I do not mean to suggest otherwise. Forgive me if I have.

        I hear in that quote the failure of the Hebrew covenant, the failure of Judas, the failure of liberation theology, the failure of seeing Christ as a means to another end other than Him.

        February 29, 2020
      • Perhaps. One might also discern a dawning recognition that what we’re trying isn’t working and that human beings are quite a bit more complex and beautiful creatures than we often imagine.

        February 29, 2020
  3. Paul Johnston #

    Likely you hold, “what we are trying” in greater esteem than I do. I see self interest as at least a parallel priority in every collective attempt at goodness and very often the only real priority.

    As for the beauty of humanness, apart from it being an extension of the Holy Spirit, I hesitate to believe in it.

    As for human complexity, I acknowledge that reality but wonder if that is a consequence of Christ likeness or human pride and an inability to acknowledge our complicity in wrong doing.

    February 29, 2020

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