You’re Not the One to Save the World

David Knopp (my good friend and frequent intellectual sparring partner) and I had a discussion on Twitter over how we, as Christians, should talk about structural/systematic injustice. (David’s Twitter account is private, so I can’t link the conversation.)

David argues that we ought to focus on the individual. Only a moral agent (a person) can do wrong. Institutions and systems are composed of people. Thus, systematic injustice is most helpfully understood as many people behaving unjustly.

His solution begins with the Golden Rule: “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Realize you have a responsibility, and do the right thing. Don’t blame culture or institutions (like Hollywood) for an individual like Harvey Weinstein’s actions. Blame Harvey Weinstein, and blame the individuals who choose who looked the other way.  For him, “the prescription [for cultural injustice] is always going to be the individual”

What he’s reacting against in part, I think, is the tendency of some (*cough*SJWs/culture warriors*cough*) to blame problems on vague entities, like Wall Street, or the patriarchy, or “liberals”. David correctly points out that whatever wrongs we attribute to those institutions are perpetrated by individuals, not disembodied corporate malignance.

For my part, I think David’s position is solid and well-reasoned, and there’s a simple clarity to it I’m a bit envious of. Ultimately, though, I think it’s more helpful to consider systematic problems as separate from, and greater than, individuals. There are big-picture realities you miss when you’re focused on individuals, which is to say we need a vision of systematic injustice that’s bigger than individuals without diffusing responsibility or resorting to tilting vague windmills.

First, theologically. The systematic injustice of the world began with the fall, and the world still groans under the curse, longing to be remade. This systematic injustice at it’s most complete, encompassing the entire system, the whole ecology in which we live.

Second, culturally. One of the many, many helpful ideas I’ve gotten from Andy Crouch over the years is understanding culture as setting the “horizons of the possible”. “Culture” is the structure of stories, laws, technology, infrastructure, knowledge, and values built slowly, generation by generation, in which we live and create in turn.

“In which we live” is the operative phrase. Like fish in water, we exist within our culture and are both enabled and limited by it. For example, the invention of the automobile has allowed commerce and economic growth that couldn’t have been imagined before the Modal T. At the same time, though, our cities are now designed around cars, not people. This has shaped how we understand our relation to work, to neighbors, even to church. Since cars have freed us from farms, many of us would literally starve if the network of trucks stopped delivering to grocery stores — a possible fate only possible thanks to the automobile.

This cultural bungalow we call home can push in some very unjust ways. Consider how American smartphone culture has made the ongoing epidemic of porn addiction possible. Or consider this horrific story, which my friend Brandon Dickson brought to my attention. The leaders of CAAIR and Simmons Foods are obviously culpable for running chicken farms by what is essentially slave labor, but there are also cultural forces that made that situation possible — a judicial system desperately in need of reform, capitalism willing to degrade and exploit human persons for profit, and a culture of consumption that doesn’t care where food comes from, so long as it’s available and cheap.

Money is third and closely linked with culture. If you paid your taxes last year, a small part of the sum went to Planned Parenthood. If you bank, or invest in the stock market, or buy a home with a mortgage, there’s a pretty good chance you’re putting money into the pockets of the people whose greed brought about the housing crisis of ’08. Shopping on Amazon kills local stores, fuels a consumeristic vision of the good life, and gives Big Data just a little more information about yourself.

We can’t live without money. And money will never be pure.

So far, I’ve listed three types of systematic injustice — the fallenness of the world, the way culture makes specific wrongs possible, and the web of money we’re entirely entangled in. I could mention Hannah Arendt’s concept of “the banality of evil” — how evil is further by people who simply do their jobs and live their lives, unaware or unconcerned about the consequences. I could mention the media. Pluralism. The internet.

The problem, then, isn’t that people do the wrong thing. The problem is that nearly impossible to not do the wrong thing. People are so blind, so enmeshed as they participate in systems of injustice — systems that hurt people — that it’s impossible for them to even start to love their neighbor as themselves because they don’t see their neighbor nor themselves clearly.

Which brings me to my fourth, final, and most personal point. I hope I’m a little less blind. But I know I’m just as ensnared. I don’t want to further evil or support injustice, but everywhere I turn, I find wrongness. It’s not all equally bad, thank goodness, but it’s impossible to avoid. I can’t avoid participating in systems of injustice, much less dismantle them.

Realizing this leads me to grace and mourning. I need grace. The world needs grace. What is wrong with me, and with the world, and with my relationship to the world, isn’t something I can solve on my own.

I love what Tyler Wigg-Stevenson has to say in The World Is Not Ours to Save:

The world is not ours to save.

(His Q Talk video is one of my all-time favorites.)

When you realize that redeeming the world is God’s vocation, not your own, you’re free to help with the work, to pursue your own vocation without guilt. You’re still responsible, but not for everything. As Steinbeck wrote, “now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.”

I mentioned mourning. Mourning is our non-responsible response to tragedy. Every time there’s something tragic in the news, I hear someone ask the question “what could we have done differently? How can we make sure this never happens again?” Those are important questions. But as Wigg-Stevenson points out, all our efforts to prevent future tragedy will never undo the wrong that has already been done. He points to Hiroshima: we can work for nuclear disarmament but we can never return even one of the lives the A-bomb took from that city.

Further, every legislative or administrative response to tragedy (and the responses are nearly always legislative) is only a stopgap, a striving for a utopia that we will never reach. Wigg-Stevenson phrases it as the “temptation of a pure futurity of progress”. Evil and injustice will always, always find a new outlet, a new form to take.

That is not to say that inaction is the proper response to tragedy or injustice, but rather that no action is finally adequate. No action or activism or reparation can undo what has been done, and no action can prevent other tragedy or injustice from occurring. Mourning acknowledges this brokenness. It laments the wrongness of the world, our implication in the wrongness, and admits our inability to (ultimately) change the world.

So the tension, then, is between responsibility to do what we can in the face of the reality that it will never be finally effective in the face of the systems of injustice and evil within which we are implicated by our very existence. We must mourn and do what we can, looking not for an end of history but towards Christ’s promised redemption of all time.

I suspect David will have a lot to say in response to this; I don’t want to suggest that his view is as limited as I’ve portrayed it here. As he unpacks his perspective I’m sure he’ll have answers for my points and more, which I very much look forward too.

And do watch Tyler Wigg-Stevenson’s Q talk. It’s really good.



2 Replies to “You’re Not the One to Save the World”

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