The Societal Machine
In what will now feel like a switch in direction, we look at the concept of a societal machine as a metaphor to understand how civilizations function. While we’ve spent a great deal of time looking at Biblical words we’ve fudged and various ways to interpret Scripture, the big picture has always been about grasping Jesus’ Message, a very pertinent message with literal society-shaking implications.
To fully understand how Jesus Message can impact our society, it’s important to understand how society at large operates. (Yep, this may seem a little on the boring side. But hang with me. This is an important piece in the bigger picture.)
This is the 17th article in our series on Messy Dogma. Our objective? To re-engage with the Message and Mission of Jesus. This article begins to take us back into real world issues where Jesus’ Message challenges human society, and it outlines the bigger picture as we start to look at solutions to the problems we’ve identified. 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.
1792 words (c. 5 pages) = 15 minute read
An Important Qualification
Before launching into these final sections (and before we look at some possible suggestions/solutions to participating in Jesus’ ministry today), I think it’s important for me to make a contextual qualification. Given the sense of urgency I hope to communicate in the rest of these notes (in an attempt to capture the poignancy of Jesus’ Message), I want to clarify what the last section underscored.
Father God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them. In other words, God’s amazing grace covers it all.
Thus, everything we look at now is only possible to act upon in the context of the love of Father God, the grace of the Lord Jesus, and the power of the Holy Spirit (2 Corinthians 13:14). Without the Father-heart of God we lose heart and hope. Without the grace of the Lord Jesus we slip into dead soul-killing works. And without the power of the Holy Spirit, well, we’re huffing and puffing on our own steam.
Qualification over, but please remember this now that we start to roll up our sleeves up.
A Helpful Metaphor
To date, we’ve highlighted the fact that God was reconciling the world to Himself in Christ as an essential part of His plan to restore all of creation. And as part of this eternal purpose (God’s purpose for this age), Jesus was sent to save the world, and His redemptive plan included deliverance from the prevailing framing reference of His day, freedom from the societal dysfunction and systemic injustice spawned by the Empire.
To introduce a helpful metaphor, the Empire was a societal machine that gobbled up everything in its wake. Jesus’ concrete, practical, earthy and “down here and right now” message denounced the evils of this corrupt machine, and effectively drained it of the fuel required to operate.
Since machines are the archetypal metaphor of our technological age, let’s build on this machine-speak to look under the hood at what constitutes a societal machine, to understand how its components interrelate, and to thereby become better able to discern how our own framing reference enslaves today’s world.
The Primary Societal Mechanisms
Since the dawn of time, in both ancient and modern civilisations (of course, in varying degrees of development and priority), mankind has utilised three primary societal mechanisms to serve and support himself:
- Religion, a society’s system of beliefs—pantheism, theism, atheism, etc.
- Politics, a society’s philosophy of governance—autocracy, democracy, etc.
- Economics, a society’s ideology of wealth—communism, socialism, capitalism, etc.
While these three inter-related 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 those in power use to protect and promote their societal machine including, but not limited to, the use of cultural mores, the levying of taxes, the utilisation of the media and press’s 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 is effective communication and news coverage, and the like.
2. The Operational Systems
The Operational Systems that emerge in response or reaction to these mechanisms and means of control. Both cooperative and counteractive 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. And 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.)
It’s 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 Jew’s four reactions to the framing reference of the Roman Empire, which we outlined in Section 1 (escape, confront, resist or coexist), is a good example of this.
So, while the societal machine can (and should) serve mankind, 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, deepening mankind’s needs, not solving them; enslaving mankind, not serving him.
The Roman Empire was, in so many ways, a brilliant societal machine in its day; however, the social dysfunctions and systemic 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.
A Contemporary Example
Let’s now consider the desperate orphan problem in our world today as an example of how a solution from within the dominant societal machine can eventually perpetrate the problem. It is worth stating upfront that this is not a critique of all orphanages, 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—perpetrates 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 family units 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 ending 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 societal frame story. Yes, the solution does not lie in an institution. The answer emerges from the better frame story 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 child-bearing 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 child-bearing age tended to either be nursing babies, or when not doing so, they 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 to four). However, the organisational work required at inception is very different from an institutional system that foments chronic co-dependency. 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 ridiculed and patronised through other approaches).
What’s the key point to ponder?
If we want to co-operate with God’s purpose of restoring all of creation, we’re better equipped with an understanding of how civilisations function. This may beget the question: Why is this concept so foreign to so much of Christendom? How many messages in the ocean of sermons you’ve heard have dared to grapple with these essential, world-shaping issues?
A more pertinent question now that subject has been raised is this, What are you going to do with this information?
Where we’re going next?
The key issue that arises is this: Why does the societal machine go rogue? For the answer to this, we return next to the concept of the big picture, the dominant framing reference from which a society takes its cues. Yep, we’re going to look at confronting today’s dominant framing reference, a societal machine that has gone completely mad.
(And again, I remind you that without the context of the Father’s love, the grace afforded us through Christ’s accomplished work and the empowering of the Holy Spirit, the next section might seem too heavy. Too despairing.)