THE SOCIETAL MACHINE
The Power of a Framing Narrative
In this article, we look at the concept of a societal machine and explore the implications of allegiance to Empire and Caesar today.
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The Primary Societal Mechanisms
Since the dawn of time, in both ancient and modern civilisations (of course, in varying degrees of development and priority), human society has utilised three primary societal mechanisms to serve and support itself:
- Religion (Ideology), a society’s dogma of beliefs—pantheism, theism, atheism, etc.
- Politics (Statecraft), a society’s philosophy of governance—autocracy, democracy, etc.
- Economics (Commerce), a society’s system of wealth—communism, socialism, capitalism, etc.
While describing these three primary mechanisms as separate and distinct cogs serves to clarify each component, it goes without saying that in many cases, these mechanisms are not disparate entities. Often, they inform and shape each other, and are typically greater than the sum of their parts, as we’ll explore in a moment.
Secondary Societal Systems
While these three interrelated and interlocking mechanisms are the core of the societal machine, there are two other critical facets to consider in completing the picture:
1. The Means of Control
The Means of Control are used to protect and promote the societal machine. These include the use of cultural mores, the levying of taxes, the utilisation of media influence and the use of military power.
It goes without saying that the means of control may, in themselves, be neutral, and can be used for good. Benign cultural values and customs which promote peace and justice, for example, are essential. So too is effective communication and news coverage, and such like.
2. The Operational Systems
Both cooperative and counteractive operational systems rise in any society. The former seek to support or profit from the societal machine, the latter seek to correct or confront it.
Again, the systems themselves might be neutral and used for benevolent purposes. For instance, supportive education systems, judicial systems, law enforcement and medical systems are all essential to a functioning society. Counteractive systems that address a society’s inconsistencies of conscience are crucial, too.
Of course, there are also a myriad of counteractive systems that are malevolent by intent and design, especially when they’re ideologically designed to defend or oppose the machine.
Necessary & Beneficial
It is important to point out that the above mechanisms and systems are both necessary and beneficial for organising and managing human society. Without them, society reverts to anarchy and chaos, and in the state of flux, the power-hungry take advantage.
It’s also important to note that these systems are defined by and are dependent on the machine—even those that run counter to it derive their reason for being from the machine’s framework. The Jewish people’s four reactions to the framing narrative of the Roman Empire (escape, confront, resist or coexist), which we covered in Responding to the Gospel, is a good example of this.
So, while the societal machine can (and should) serve society, the problem is that these mechanisms, means of control and operational systems—according to history, a history that has a nasty habit of repeating itself—eventually go rogue. Why? At least two reasons. On the one hand, a society can go off the rails through neglect and excess. On the other hand, a society can hit the skids when hijacked by nefarious agendas. Either way, the result is the same: the machine deepens humanity’s needs instead of solving them, enslaving humanity instead of serving us.
The Roman Empire was, in so many ways, a brilliant societal machine in its day; however, the social dysfunctions and injustices it spawned are just as renowned, if not more so.
Admittedly, my diagnosis is terribly simplistic; in reality, it’s a thousand times more complex. Hopefully, the sketches above convey the point conceptually.
Human Hierarchy: Helpful or Harmful?
At this juncture, and before we dive into how a societal machine goes rogue, it’s worth being crystal clear about the merits of human hierarchy and structure. Why is this important?
As agents of the Message of Jesus, contending for change, it’s critical that we confront the corruption and injustice of our day without torching the many good and vital aspects of human society.
This is especially important in a day when neo-marxist ideologies seek to burn everything to the ground. Let’s not forget, we’re standing on the shoulders of generations before us. Yes, these past generations were imperfect, as future generations will no doubt say of us. However, if you and your loved ones are living on the eightieth floor of a building, you don’t take a wrecking ball to the lower floors because the electricity of the building needs rewiring. You identify the problem carefully and seek out solutions that address the issue without pulling down the building on top of you and your loved ones.
To the degree two or more people want to achieve a shared goal, to this degree a measure of organisation is required. Organising ourselves requires an efficient and effective structure with related systems of operation to accomplish our shared mission, values and plans.
As our organising efforts become more complex, leadership is required, and this leadership is best achieved when offered by those in their areas of competence. This concept of structure (and its related systems) allied with competent-based leadership is called a hierarchy. Indeed, without a hierarchy of values, we cannot even agree on the shared goal.
Even as individuals, we need a degree of structure in our lives to operate in an organised manner. Without systems of operation, we’d oversleep, eat terribly and turn up late for work. Again, without a personal hierarchy of values, we would struggle to prioritise what’s important in our lives.
Even the human body itself is a hierarchy of structure and systems. It has a skeletal structure and various systems—the nervousness system, the digestive system, and so on. If the body’s structure or systems are exposed, it faces critical danger; yet without the structure and systems, the body would be utterly incapable of functioning.
Thus, hierarchies, structures and systems are not inherently corrupt in themselves. Of course, they can be. Those born on racial ideologies, for example, are corrupt from the start.
In contrast to those spawned on dubious or unethical foundations, many hierarchies (structures and systems) are merely neutral and functional. They are helpful not harmful.
In terms of two or more individuals organising themselves around a shared goal, the hierarchy exists to serve their coordinated efforts in line with the agreed objective. However, the moment the organisation starts to serve the hierarchy itself, the group should endeavour to make the changes necessary to correct it. Typically, a hierarchy serves its function well to the degree it remains based on competency rather than power.
Hierarchies: The Bad & The Ugly
Thus, while hierarchies are often helpful and good, there are bad and ugly versions, too.
Over time, even in healthy, value-based organisations, hierarchies tilt towards dysfunction and go bad if the organisation fails to maintain the integrity of the competency-based system and keep in check the power-based inclinations of its most talented and charismatic players.
In the worst case ugly scenario, hierarchies skew towards autocracy as power-seeking individuals either exploit weaknesses in the structure and systems or co-opt it through the sheer force of their personality. Corrupt people corrupt hierarchies—sometimes consciously; often unconsciously.
The result? Others are disposed by the now dysfunctional or corrupt hierarchy and are often exploited by the resultant systemic bias. A once helpful hierarchy can be become harmful.
Before we pre-judge who these villainous people who lord it over others are likely to be, we’d do well to face the villain in the mirror. We are all subject to the temptation to abuse an otherwise neutral structure or system for self-gain. Unchecked self-interest morphs into power-seeking with disturbing ease. In contrast, being honest about our own bent towards self-advancement is an important start, as personal integrity fosters public efficacy. Candid about human nature, we’ll then ensure our structure and systems enjoy the necessary checks and balances to keep them neutral and free from misuse and exploitation.
Generally speaking, inequality is the result of two things: individual prejudice or systemic bias.
Individual Prejudice & Systemic Bias
Acting on personal prejudice, an individual might oppress or exploit another person. To regularly abuse this second person, the oppressor would need some tacit sense of power to continue doing so. Or otherwise, the oppressed person could withstand them in some way.
While the oppressor might enjoy this power due to some personal advantage, such as physical strength for instance, in many (most?) cases, exploitation is possible because the oppressor feels entitled to do so—because the hierarchy in which the two exist permits it in some way.
Now, the word ‘prejudice’ means to make a pre-judgement. Technically, it refers to, “a preconceived opinion that is not based on reason or actual experience”.
So, while the oppressor may not only be supported by the corrupt hierarchy in which both parties exist (for example, the work place or society at large), their individual prejudices might also be a product of the corrupt hierarchy itself, or perhaps another dysfunctional hierarchy (their home environment or their culture, for instance) in which they learnt their preconceived notions.
Thus, individual prejudice is not necessarily independent of systemic bias. It might be, of course, but often it’s not. That said, and to be crystal clear, whether an individual is supported by a corrupt hierarchy or not, every individual is responsible for their own actions.
Because the Gospel addresses the heart first and foremost, it equips us to deal with the self-centred and self-advancing motivations that cause dysfunction and corruption at the source.
Jesus recast His vision of an ekklesia who model the values of His kingdom often. When the disciples got themselves into a pickle trying to big dog each other (Matthew 20:20-28), Jesus grabbed another opportunity:
You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant.”
(Matthew 20:25, 26, italics added)
Pointing out that those in positions of authority had corrupted the societal hierarchies of the day with their abuse of power, Jesus declared, “yet it shall not be so among you”.
While this has direct implications for the way communities of faith ought to function, it also speaks of the values of the Kingdom that followers of Jesus are to model in the world.
In a passage on leadership, James expanded on the power of leaders who practice self-control in their words and communication (James 3:1-12) and provided a recipe for godly wisdom, comparing it against the self-seeking agenda of corrupt leaders:
Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show by good conduct that his works are done in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter envy and self-seeking in your hearts, do not boast and lie against the truth. This wisdom does not descend from above, but is earthly, sensual, demonic. For where envy and self-seeking exist, confusion and every evil thing are there. But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality and without hypocrisy.”
(James 3:13-17, italics added)
The hierarchies of organisations, businesses, governmental bodies and political parties need followers of Jesus who demonstrate the “wisdom that is from above”, wisdom that is…
- willing to yield,
- full of mercy and good fruits,
- without partiality and
- without hypocrisy.
Society’s Framing Narrative
History teaches us that all societal machines eventually go rogue. We’ve suggested two reasons why this happens, the question now is, how … how does this happen? Obviously, if a tyrant rules the machine wielding absolute power, it’s not difficult to understand how it happens. But how does a machine go rogue in more democratic societies with so many moving parts?
The primary mechanisms described above—religion, politics and economics—fuse together, creating a society’s value system or what we’re call the societal framing narrative. To keep to the metaphor, it’s this framing narrative that becomes the fuel driving the societal machine.
A host of other factors also play a part in shaping a society’s framing narrative, such as a society’s inception story, their geography, climatology and natural resources, and the threats and fears they experienced historically and face presently.
The narrative 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 Greek Empire, the Roman Empire, the Middle Ages, eighteen and nineteenth-century imperial Empires, and modern-day Western society, each based on their dominant framing narrative.
Here’s another way to think of a societal machine and its framing narrative.
If the components of the societal machine—mechanisms, means of control and operational systems—are a computer’s hardware, the framing narrative 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.
As pointed out in Unpacking the Gospel of the Kingdom, the framing narrative of Jesus’ day was essentially one of oppressive domination by the Roman Empire captured in the (coerced) allegiant profession, Caesar is Lord.
This corrupt narrative 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 societal dysfunction, injustice and oppression.
This is why Jesus told a transcendent but tangible story, one that didn’t just offer an improved fuel source to drive the machine, but one that gave us an entirely different “machine”.
The Incredible Power of a Framing Narrative
A society’s framing narrative weaves together the myriad unconnected societal plots and cultural subplots of a society into one gripping trajectory arc. Simply put, the individuals involved become embroiled in their society’s narrative.
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 narrative. This provides 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 cultural mores and communal 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 narrative, 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 narrative.
This is important to grasp.
We derive our sense of being (purpose, meaning, values, and behaviour) directly from our society’s framing narrative. In other words, a society’s narrative 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 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, racked with grief and regret, confessing something along the lines of “I don’t know what came over me.”
I personally observed this during my four years at university from 1990-1993 in South Africa, a combustible period prior to Nelson Mandela’s presidency. Many of my good friends, who played club and 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.
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 oftentimes, 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).
Unmasking Empire; Exposing Caesar
A society’s framing narrative 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 framing narrative of our Western world today. Inflicted by chronic myopia, twenty-first-century humanity has morphed into a deranged monster-consumer guzzling through the planet’s resources, standing on everyone and everything in its way to get a ‘slice of the pie’—dangerously blind to the consequences that lie in wait around the corner.
As the Empire co-opted Jewish religion in the first century, Christendom has likewise become co-opted by twenty-first century madness. In trying to be relevant to the culture, it seems a large portion of Christendom has been swallowed by it. Fixated on an “up there, after life” theology, another large portion has simply been swamped in the flood of society’s framing narrative.
On the one hand, a me-centred faith runs rife while on the other hand, an escapist faith keeps many detached from reality.
With Christendom complicit or distracted, our societal machine goes rogue. For the first time in history, our modern-day machine has the potential to not just grind our society into dust but to also destroy our planet.
Consider the following two diagrams…
Could it be any clearer? Let’s put a name to this, shall we?
We defined the framing narrative of Jesus’ day as essentially one of oppressive domination by the Roman Empire which is captured in the (coerced) allegiant profession, Caesar is Lord.
We could define our Western world’s prevailing narrative as essentially one of humanistic individualism expressed in materialistic consumerism.
It’s 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 are quick to 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. To put a finer point on it, many seem happy to lose their soul for 30 seconds of fame. Blind to the irony, we cannot see that our rampant self-centredness could in fact lose the world, literally.
The King and His Kingdom
Jesus envisioned an ekklesia, an executive body against which the powers of darkness would falter and fall (Matthew 16:18, 19). It was not a coincidence that immediately after this breathtaking vision, Jesus taught these words:
If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?”
(Matthew 16:24-26, italics added)
The Kingdom advances through an ekklesia who have slayed not pandered to Self, an ekklesia who swims upstream against the deluge of humanistic individualism.
An executive body united by its outrageous love for God, defined by its extravagant love for others. An executive body that backs up its Christ-centred lives and Christ-filled communities with good deeds that bring the Father glory (Matthew 5:16).
A new society fuelled by love, invested with wisdom from above. A new society from where agents of change model the values of the Kingdom; first, confronting the self-centredness and prejudice in their own hearts, and then serving the world in acts of kindness, gentleness and mercy while advocating for the poor and marginalised of society.
Principalities and Powers
As we’ve discussed, the societal machine seems to assume a mind of its own, animated by a framing narrative that drives it forward. Paul may have alluded to just this phenomenon in his letter to the Ephesians:
For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.”
While we may conclude that demonic forces are actively at work to exploit the collective consciousness of a society, Paul’s solution was not to yell at the devil but to put on the armour of God (Ephesians 6:10-17), a metaphor for Christlikeness. He summed up this metaphorical picture with the same idea in his letter to the Roman believers:
…put on the armour of light … put on the Lord Jesus Christ…”
(Romans 13:12, 14, italics added)
Paul’s solution was Christlikeness.
He made the same connection between Christlikeness and spiritual warfare to the Corinthian believers:
Now I, Paul, myself am pleading with you by the meekness and gentleness of Christ … For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ…”
(2 Corinthians 10:1-5, italics added)
The point, I think, is clear. The solution is not found in first confronting the demonic but in conforming to Christ. The answer lies not in an ekklesia fixated on the works of darkness but one appropriating the completed work of Christ. As Francis Frangipane said, “Victory begins with the name of Jesus on our lips; but it will not be consummated until the nature of Jesus is in our hearts.”
Our Christ-centred lives and our Christ-filled communities are the context from which followers of Jesus catalyse change amid the corruption, injustice and darkness present in society.
When a society’s narrative runs foul, even seemingly good solutions from within the societal machine can eventually perpetrate the problems. Why? Because they’re distorted by the same narrative. As Albert Einstein so aptly said, “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.”
Let’s look at one example in our world today: orphanages as a solution to the orphan crisis.
It is worth stating upfront that this is not a critique of orphanages per se, and until better solutions are found, the orphanage model remains absolutely crucial in providing answers for parentless children.
So, I am not suggesting that the solution to the ‘orphan problem’ is no orphanages. That would be moronic. In fact, I’ve picked this example because it shows how an otherwise good thing—an orphanage—can perpetrate the problems inherent in the societal machine from which it originated.
It goes without saying that solving the colossal problem of homeless, parentless children on the planet involves a complex approach; including, for example, preventing social dysfunctions that cause the destruction of the family unit in the first place. However, given that we’re behind the game, and millions of children are orphaned through extreme poverty and communicable diseases, conflict and wars, and so on, problems within our societal machine are solved primarily through institutional means.
In other words, having defined the problem—orphaned children need a home (and the thought of simply opening our own homes is either too novel, or too impractical, or perhaps not a logistical possibility)—few question the value of establishing an orphanage: an institution that can cater for large volumes of orphans. An institution that can be staffed by trained experts, who offer a wide range of services to the children (education, medication, etc.). And an institution that is set-up legally to ensure the protection of the children’s rights and all those involved. Sounds right, doesn’t it?
While many orphanages operate successfully—and those who work in such institutions must be commended for their selfless work—most orphanages become crippled with the enormous costs associated with the maintenance of such an institution: providing necessities for the children themselves, financing the initial and ongoing expenses of the brick-and-mortar orphanage itself, and the costs of training and paying expert staff … maintenance and administration costs that have no end in sight. And thus, the answer becomes riddled with typical institutional problems, meaning the consuming needs of maintaining the orphanage starts to dwarf the needs of the orphans themselves. The children simply become numbers in a black hole system that ravenously consumes resources.
Again, this is not meant to suggest that good work does not happen within such institutions. Great, heroic work does take place, but those who have been involved in such institutions will readily admit that before long, the system’s requirements trump the needs of those the system was designed to serve. In some cases, hugely expensive administration and fund-raising departments are established to raise and manage finances the institution requires resulting in only a percentage of the money raised going to those the institution was created to serve. And, of course, the actual results of an institutional upbringing are extremely discouraging to say the least.
So, what is the answer? The solution that many are discovering is so simple, it is profound. Simple, because when you hear it, you’ll say, “Duh! That’s obvious!” Profound, because it’s an answer from outside our framing narrative.
Yes, the solution does not lie in an institution. The answer emerges from the better narrative of family and community, a story that is, in fact, consistent with a resource inherent to many of the societies in which homeless, parentless children are endemic.
In most of these societies, older women, ‘grandmothers’ past childbearing age, are deeply revered and once held a pivotal role in their society. A function largely dismantled through factors such as extreme poverty, this pivotal role was the nurturing and upbringing of the children in their village—both their own grandchildren and those in their community. In contrast, women of childbearing age tended to the nursing of babies or, when not doing so, managed the demanding work intrinsic to farming and pastoral communities.
Several initiatives that I know of have begun to reignite this important function within these societies, helping these community ‘grandmothers’ to rediscover their role, supporting them to do what institutions—with all their qualified experts—could never do.
Yes, this requires organisation: for instance, identifying and re-training these precious women, and connecting individuals and faith-based communities to support these women emotionally, financially and practically, as they provide a ‘home’ (within their culture) for a set number of orphaned children (usually no more than three or four). However, the organisational work required at inception is very different from an institutional system that foments chronic codependency. Not only are orphans given a genuine ‘home’—a parental caregiver—just as importantly, the role and dignity of these ‘grandmothers’ is restored, and the society’s culture is valued (rather than patronised through other approaches).