Why is the word “systemic” a flashpoint for certain Christians?

Certainly, the Bible has much to say about individual sin and redemption. But (1) focusing on “systemic” issues doesn’t need to negate a focus on “individual” issues. In fact, a focus on “systemic racism” actually exerts a lot of pressure to evaluate people individually, and not on the basis of their race—as long as we keep in mind how those supposedly individual evaluations are often subtly (and nefariously) shaped by systemic issues.

And, more importantly, (2) the Bible also has a lot to say about structural sin and the communal nature of human life. For example, I’ve been reading through Ezekiel in the Daily Office, and he paints in some really broad brushstrokes when prophetically denouncing people. What about all the “good apples” that he and other prophets overlook? Sure, some of that is down to figures of speech that substitute the part for the whole and vice versa, but some of it is also the biblical truth that our actions have ripple effects in the various communities of which we are a part.

I’ll confess that, when I hear certain critiques of “systemic,” and especially “systemic racism,” those critiques sound like they’re based more upon Enlightenment individualism than they’re based upon the Bible. Now, of course, that doesn’t mean that everyone who speaks of “systemic” issues is speaking biblically!

But why shouldn’t Christians speak about “systemic” issues? It strikes me as unfair to assume that, once the word “systemic” is used, that we’ve abandoned the gospel. After all, “our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph 6:12). That’s one of the passages that come to mind when I speak against systemic racism.

Another passage that comes to mind is from earlier in the same epistle:

11 So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called “the uncircumcision” by those who are called “the circumcision”—a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands— 12 remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. 15 He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, 16 and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. 17 So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; 18 for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, 20 built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. 21 In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; 22 in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God. (Eph. 2:11–22)

If these verses from Paul don’t at least have systemic implications (implications that, to be sure, involve human individuals!), then I don’t know what they’re about.


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