Confronting Today’s Corrupt Societal Machine
In the previous article, we looked at how a societal machine functions. We said that while a societal machine may be used for good, history shows that it inevitably goes rogue—deepening mankind’s needs, not solving them; enslaving mankind, not serving him.
In this section, we attempt to diagnose today’s dominant framing reference. Only be exposing it, can we confront it. Only by confronting it, can we more effectively communicate Jesus’ Message.
This is the 18th article in our series on Messy Dogma. Our objective? To re-engage with the Message and Mission of Jesus. This article focuses on identifying and confronting today’s corrupt societal machine before turning to possible solutions in the final section. Please, if you’re just joining us, you’ll find it more helpful to start with the first article in the series, Year Zero: The World Jesus Invaded. You may also want to peruse the explanation and disclaimers to the series.
3599 words (c. 11 pages) = 45 minute read
Suggestion: tackle it in two sittings. With a strong cup of coffee 😉
History teaches us that all societal machines eventually go rogue. The question is, why … why does this happen?
To keep to the metaphor, the fuel that drives the societal machine is a civilisation’s dominant framing reference.
As pointed out in the first article in this series, Year Zero: The World Jesus Invaded, (we highly recommend re-reading this article), the big picture, or dominant framing reference (or prevailing frame story) of Jesus’ day was essentially one of oppressive domination by the Roman Empire captured in the (coerced) allegiant profession, Ceasar is Lord.
This corrupt frame story drove the societal machine into the ground, polluting its Primary Societal Mechanisms (religion, politics and economics) with its toxic values and co-opting the Means of Control and Operating Systems to infect first-century society with a plethora of systemic dysfunction, injustice and oppression.
And remember, solutions from within the societal machine only perpetrate the problems because they’re contaminated with the same noxious dominant framing reference. As Albert Einstein so aptly said, “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.”
This is why Jesus came to tell another story, one that not only offered a new improved fuel to drive the machine, but one that gave us an entirely different “machine”, too.
Here’s another way to think of this. If the components of the societal machine—mechanisms, means of control and operational systems—are a computer’s hardware, the dominant framing reference is the software, the operating system itself. While the hardware is essentially neutral, the operating system determines whether the computer serves a noble or nefarious purpose.
And just as the first century societal machine was diseased, our twenty-first century mainframe is riddled with multiple computer viruses.
The Power of the Framing Reference
A civilisation’s dominant framing reference weaves together the myriad unconnected societal plots and cultural subplots of a civilisation into one gripping trajectory arc. Simply put, the individuals involved become embroiled in their society’s frame story.
Every human society—both ancient and modern, from as small as a family unit to as large as a nation or civilisation—moves in tune with a prevailing frame story, an identity framework that informs the purpose, meaning, values and behaviour of its inhabitants, determining the answers to questions like: Where did we come from? Where are we going? What is an individual’s role in the story? What are the communal and societal rules we live by? Why does this all matter?
Belonging to a group—family or tribe, faith community or sports team, political party or nation—brings an individual under the influence of that group’s framing reference story, for good and bad (and in some cases, more bad than good). And while every group has its share of radical adherents, compliant adherents, apathetic adherents, and rebellious adherents; it’s important to realise that both the fanatic and the rebel, and everyone in between, define themselves in relation to the group’s frame story.
(Read that final sentence again because it’s critical. Again, re-reading Year Zero: The World Jesus Invaded will help in grasping this point.)
You see, we derive our sense of being (purpose, meaning, values, and behaviour) directly from our society’s dominant reference story. In other words, a society’s dominant framing reference explains how multiple individual minds work together—in both conscious, deliberate ways and unconscious, ingrained ways—as a unified corporate mind, one coordinated and coherent collective. As already stated, we as individuals become enmeshed within our societal story. A frightening thought.
One of the more telling and localised examples of this phenomenon—multiple individual minds working together as a unified corporate mind—is mob-mentality violence or vandalism wherein common sense alludes otherwise intelligent, moral individuals who, caught up in the emotion of an event, subjugate themselves to flagrantly immoral collective action. Those sucked into such mob-fuelled indiscretions are often, after the fact, raked with grief and regret, confessing something along the lines of “I don’t know what came over me.”2 The same principle is at work in more subtle (and often, subversive) ways in all groupings of people.
So, while it’s easy to pinpoint the effects of ‘peer-pressure’ in our teenagers, or point out the pressures involved in being a member of a criminal gang; in reality, these conforming (and often times, corrupting) pressures are present and pervasive in all cultural affiliations and group associations. “Bad company corrupts good character,” is not just a caution young people should heed (1 Corinthians 15:33, NLT).
A societal frame story emerges from a host of factors, key of which are a civilisation’s religion, their inception story, factors such as their geography, climatology and natural resources, and the threats and fears they experienced historically and face presently. And it is maintained and developed through oral traditions, written records, cultural rites and events, significant societal achievements and advancements or critical failures and setbacks, and influential leadership figures. Consider the differences between civilisations such as the Egyptian Empire, the Roman Empire, the Middle Ages, eighteen and nineteenth-century imperial Empires, and modern-day Western society, each based on their dominant framing reference.
Diagnosing Today’s Framing Reference
A civilisation’s prevailing frame story is often seen through the ‘messages’ it rehearses to itself, sound bites that pop up in the society’s songs and movies, in media and news feeds, in scientific journals and bylaws, in its leaders’ rhetoric and even in its president’s speeches. So, consider what a society would look like, and what trajectory it might follow, if it was an amalgam of the following messages:
- Only the fittest survive—the strongest and smartest must dominate and control those they perceive as weaker and inferior.
- Live fast while you hold off the aging process—strive for the maximum amount of pleasure for the longest period of time (and get it all as quickly as possible).
- Look after number one at all costs—get all you can, can all you get, and then sit on the can.
- There are no limits to the planet’s resources—our actions in the present will have no consequences in the future. (Or nothing that science and technology cannot deal with at a later date. A blind faith that technology will bail us out.)
As it turns out, it’s not hard to imagine this at all. Along with other messages of the same kind, this societal ‘self-talk’ combines to form the overriding narrative of our dominant framing reference today. Inflicted by chronic myopia, twenty-first-century man has morphed into a deranged monster-consumer guzzling through the planet’s resources, standing on everyone and everything in his way to get his ‘slice of pie’—dangerously blind to the consequences that await him around the corner.
And hasn’t Christendom become co-opted by this same madness? In trying to be relevant to the culture, it seems one half of Christendom has been swallowed by it. And in becoming fixated with an “up there, after life” theology, the other half has been caught in the swamp of it.
As already stated, a civilisation’s big-picture framing reference may be neutral, and can (and should) be good and helpful. However, as history attests, every societal frame story eventually ground its culture into dust, and our modern-day version is on course to do the same. Truth be told, this time, it threatens to destroy the dust we call Earth as well.
Consider the following two diagrams…
Could it be any clearer? Let’s put a name to this, shall we?
In the first article of this series, we defined the dominant framing reference of Jesus’ day as essentially one of oppressive domination by the Roman Empire which is captured in the (coerced) allegiant profession, Ceasar is Lord.
We could define our Western World’s prevailing frame story as essentially one of humanistic individualism expressed in materialistic consumerism—captured in the anthems of any number of songs: “I did it my way,” (Frank Sinatra), “It’s my life!” (Bon Jovi) and “I want it all and I want it now” (Queen) … to name but a few.
To state it in a simple, almost trite term, the new Caesar is Self, as we’re conditioned to pander to all things that concern me, myself and I. We’re a society of people who insist on our personal rights yet abdicate our responsibilities. We’ve become an entitled generation that treats privileges as expectations, and tacitly believes that the ‘world exists to make me happy.’ We pursue self-enrichment with ruthless abandon and prize self-actualisation above all things.
In a twist of Jesus’ words, our society is happy to lose its soul to gain the whole world, but blind to the irony, we cannot see that our rampant self-centredness is on course to lose the whole world, literally.
Before us, every civilisation has crumbled into ruin. Despite our enlightened progress, we’ve vastly improved our ability to destroy ourselves faster than ever, this time threatening not just our civilisation, but the planet itself?
We’re on a free-wheeling runaway train and despite the noble efforts of millions of good people throughout the centuries—those who want to leave their children a better future—modern man is being swept up and swallowed in a relentless, seemingly unstoppable surge towards self-destruction.
If the world ever needed God’s people to stop playing games and find themselves, now is the time.
These grim words are not far-fetched hype.
Facing a Harsh Reality: A Runaway Train
The ingenuity of modern man has resulted in an unprecedented century of advancement in every conceivable field imaginable, yet we are no closer to addressing mankind’s most desperate, telling needs. Truth be told, in the overall scheme of things, our inventiveness—more specifically, mankind’s brazen tendency to exploit progress for personal profit on an individual, corporate and national scale—has exacerbated these pressing local and global needs, turning them into deep, ragged fissures that threaten our future. In the next few decades (or years?), the runaway train of our modern, free-wheeling economy could careen off its rails. And remember, we—you and me, and our children, and our children’s children—are on this train.
While some experts claim it’s too late to turn our predicament around, I prefer to listen to those who say we still have time to reverse our defective trajectory—yet even these hopeful voices warn that the countdown is on. If we’re headed for disaster, it’s not just an expression of bold faith to contend for change; common sense urges us to do whatever we can to avert disaster.
In Alvin Toffler’s book Future Shock—written over forty years ago—modern man is portrayed as a stunned, shell-shocked victim bewildered by the unrelenting, disorienting pace of change. Toffler’s future is here. Now. Today! Befuddled by the chronic stress of twenty-first-century living, bombarded by the media’s weapons of mass distraction3, bemused by the vanity of political showboating and the inertia of political processes, and blitzed by widespread economic uncertainty, we have largely retreated into our little ‘bomb shelters’ of escapism. Whatever it is we do to make sense of our world, to stave off the shock. (Believers often resort to the comfort of messy dogma to escape or soften the shock.)
However, Future Shock has led to disastrous present consequences, chief among which is mankind’s tragically short-sighted tendency to borrow against his children’s future. Nursing our collective angst, mankind flagrantly guzzles this planet’s resources like ravenous monster-consumers clogging up the environment with more waste than it can handle. Befogged in a modern-day stupor, mankind binges on comfort and convenience—wanting bigger, better lives … and more, more, more of everything, now!
Unless we’re able to shed our short-sightedness and break our ‘present’ malaise, we might not have a planet to give to our children and our children’s children. Unless we’re able to ‘see’ the Future Now—facing the consequences our present actions will beget, making the radical, necessary changes today in line with that sobering reality—we might not have a future to present our children with and in that case, our past will haunt and implicate us. Unless we live with a sense of tomorrow today, our today might become a yesterday we regret.
Fancy Dreams or Real Faith?
When I talk to my teenage children, and ask them about their hopes and dreams, I find myself wondering what their options are, in fact, likely to be. What will the world look like in ten, twenty or thirty years’ time? When, say at the age of twenty-five, my youngest daughter gives birth to her child in 2029, what global fears will surround her pregnancy? When her child, my grandchild, turns twenty-one in 2050, what planet would I have left behind for him or her?
While so many science fiction movies before the dawn of this new millennium presented a bright, technologically-enhanced, twenty-first century utopian superfuture—think Back to the Future II and of all things, Hoverboards?!—the movies served up today cast a darker shadow of the grim realities we now face (e.g. Elysium, and any number of movies made from current young-adult fiction, etc.).
For a sour taste of reality, let me provide a snapshot of the global problems that threaten our planet: hunger and malnutrition, water and sanitation, lack of education and communicable diseases, climate change and environmental abuse, population and migration, economic dysfunctions and disparities, racism and prejudice, abusive governance and corruption, and war and conflict. (While certainly not exhaustive, I’ve collated this list from the Copenhagen Consensus and the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals.)
Overwhelmed? Join the club. But in a sickening twist of a TV-commercial catch-phrase: But wait, there’s more…
The world’s population continues to climb at an alarming rate amid decreasing global resources exacerbating the chasm-like disparity between the rich and poor. And our exploitive modern systems seem bent on perpetrating this breach, not just across national borders, but over neighbour streets and fences. The have-nots grow more angry and bitter over systemic injustice, and the haves grow more anxious and suspicious. Neighbourhood fences get higher and nations spend more money on defence budgets. Everyone is caught up in the incendiary sparks of a vicious, flaming circle.
In his 2002 book, High Noon: 20 Global problems, 20 Years to Solve Them, J. F. Rischard predicted a global population of 8 billion by 2025 and that mankind would reach the planet’s maximum population of 10 billion by the end of the twenty-first century. Considering that it took until 1930 for the planet to reach a total population of 2 billion, civilisation faces monumental challenges—especially in the light of his prediction that 95% of the new births will come from the world’s developing countries. Yikes!
The chasm-like disparities between the rich and poor could by itself rip the globe apart. But for those who think that hiding behind the high walls and security fences of their wealthy, insulated suburbs will help, think again. We no longer live in a world where problems (and opportunities) are locked down in neighbourhoods and nations far, far away.
Over the last two decades (in the wake of communism’s fall), the number of people living in capitalist economies has risen from 1.5 billion to over 6 billion. And with technological advancement (including the Internet) turning the world into a truly global market, opportunities to stake a claim in the global pie are available to all. While this is without question a good thing, the consequences of the clash between rapidly rising population rates and drastically diminishing global resources is obvious.
Rischard has a telling rebuff for those who see the free-market economy “as the solution to all problems”. He states that “whether from intellectual laziness or from single-minded pursuit of ideology, what these free-market fundamentalists fail to see is that while central planners [communism] were either cretins or fools, the market is a moron. An effective moron, but a moron nevertheless: left to its own devices, it will churn away mindlessly.” He explains that “capitalism’s mindless expansion,” exacerbated by the population explosion, will exhaust “the planet’s carrying capacity.”
As far as the promise of capitalism goes, it seems that we’ve thrown out the baby and guzzled down the bathwater, and in the process, created a demand for more of it!
With the planet warming up, the ice caps melting, and the ocean-level rising, an already congested planet faces the loss of prime, habitable land and corresponding forced, desperate, widespread migration. With the promises of technological advance ostensibly serving only to make our mobile phones more sleek and shiny (and addictive), the lack of viable alternative-energy technology and our gross overdependence on fossil fuels, means that at some point in my children’s future (or in my grandchildren’s future), we won’t actually smash into that brick-wall, we’ll run out of oil before we do. Of course, the mad scramble for Earth’s last oil reserves could well be the powder-keg upon which many countries go up in a blaze of madness. Or is that already happening?
Besides war over oil, wars over ideology, prejudice and holy mountains will claim the lives of countless millions—whether through contradictions like ‘just war’ and shock and awe, or through terrorist strategies and guerrilla tactics, or through nuclear bombs and biological weapons.
Doomsday Gloom or Motivation for a Better Future Now?
Despite that what I’ve said might appear like doomsday pessimism, I am an optimistic, glass half-full chap. However, I would like to think that in facing the issues at hand I’m doing my best to be a realist—which means cutting free from my personal, High five! bias to confront reality. In doing so, I’m in good company. When David faced Goliath, he didn’t deny reality with a foolish, chest-beating bravado: “What giant? There’s no giant! I don’t receive your negative report.” David faced the brutal reality of his predicament and, informed by it, moved forward in faith. Only by confronting the sobering reality of our own situation can we wisely and courageously move forward.
For the record then, while I’m convinced that no human institution (religious or secular), no organisation (profit-making or not-for-profit), or political ideology (democratic or whatever) can reverse the hurtling-towards-a-brick-wall course we’re on, Jesus’ message of the Kingdom of God was … and is the only answer to mankind’s grave dilemma.
In ways that I’ve sought to probe in these notes, the Gospel of the Kingdom tackles our human condition now, bringing the King’s will to “earth as it is in heaven.” To underline this scandalous point, the message of Jesus is not primarily about getting as many souls to heaven as possible; it is about bringing God’s rule and reign to planet Earth redeeming all of creation (including as many souls as possible).
And so, we’ve got to press the question: what if we’ve been duped?
What if we’ve by and large bought into a blow-this-joint ‘escapist’ eschatology constructed by a nineteenth-century priest? Has this defeatist, extraction-point theology, inconsistent with first-century, early-church teaching, robbed us of initiative and resolve in the twenty-first century?
What if we’ve been stumbling and bumbling over the wrong questions for so long that we’ve lost sight of the fact that we are the answer? What if we have become mired in messy dogma and gotten lost in a thousand trivial pursuits? Has Christendom become co-opted by the dominating frame reference of this age?
What if we’ve truncated Jesus’ message to solely address spiritual, post-mortem issues when He has called us to change the world and steward the planet? What if Jesus actually intended us to live aligned to the prayer He taught us to pray? What if the future of this planet was entrusted to followers of Jesus? What if the train is careening off the tracks because we took our hand off the wheel?
More than ever, I’m fussing with these questions and the implications of these questions. I believe Jesus’ Kingdom message answers the problems of modern man, and I believe He has entrusted the responsibility of planet Earth to His followers. Admittedly, the problems are huge—literally, Earth-shaking—and I feel woefully small and inept in contrast. However, as simple as this may sound, engaging in this conversation—and confronting the issues realistically—is a first step forward. At least, for me and my children.
What’s the key point to ponder?
I defined our Western World’s prevailing frame story as essentially one of humanistic individualism expressed in materialistic consumerism which is captured in the anthems of any number of songs: “I did it my way,” (Frank Sinatra), “It’s my life!” (Bon Jovi) and “I want it all and I want it now” (Queen) … to name but a few.
Do you agree? And do you agree with the notion that Christendom has been largely co-opted by today’s dominant framing reference?
Where we’re going next?
If you nodded your head in agreement to those two questions, then we’ve got to proactively seek for answers. Filled with Father’s love, the grace Jesus imparts, and the power the Spirit gives, that’s where we’re headed next.
1 In speaking of the “big picture,” I have used the phrases dominant framing reference and prevailing frame story.
The phrase ‘frame story’ is a literary technique, a narrative structure that refers to an overriding framework connecting a series of unrelated stories. It’s the big-picture storyline that provides context to seemingly unconnected secondary tales. For instance, if one doesn’t know that the Old Testament traces the Messianic line, its overriding ‘frame story’, the many minor subplots—as thrilling as they are—might appear either irrelevant or meaningless. Take, for example, the shocking story of Judah’s immoral act (Genesis 38). The account doesn’t teach doctrine, doesn’t reveal any consequence to the crime, and doesn’t even reveal God’s perspective on the atrocity. Reading the incident on its own, the reader can be left frustrated and confused by its inclusion, especially as it seems to interrupt the amazing story of Joseph. However, it merely serves to reveal the Messianic line of David through Judah and Perez (Genesis 38:29; Ruth 4:18-22). Knowing how it plugs into the ‘frame story’ gives it meaning.
2 I personally observed this during my four years at university from 1990-1993 in South Africa. Many of my good friends, who played uni-soccer with me, participated in mob-fuelled destruction of university property in riots that cost many millions of dollars of damage. When I questioned them later, they could barely recall many of the actions that I personally witnessed them perpetrating.
3 I’m borrowing this phrase from the title of the 1997 movie starring Gabriel Byrne and Ben Kingsley.