The visiting preacher from the denomination’s seminary came today, and led the adult study class in addition to giving the sermon. She mentioned expanding how we look at our faith in action - I’m all for that – and went on to mention, very briefly, about looking at systems, and changing the system, and seeing how we fit into the system. That concerns me. Looking for systemic answers forces the thinker into seeing only certain types of answers. Specifically, it creates answers that look like they should work but don't. The example she gave was an excellent example of how I believe systemic thinking can go wrong. She noted an area of Mississippi where 30-40% of the population is black, but 80% of the prisoners are, and how we needed to look at a system which created that result. But the prison population is not a black/white divide; it’s a father/no father divide. Nationally, at least, when you correct for absent fathers, you find no difference in the incarceration rates of blacks and whites.
So contemplating that “system” and how it got there, and what our place in it should be, or what we should do, will get us precisely nowhere. We will pour our energy into a problem that doesn’t exist and neglect the one that does.
In America, there is no system. That's the American system. That's a gross oversimplification, and I could make a more accurate statement by going on about how there are many systems, all of them complex and interrelated, yada, yada, ya. But taking that approach only encourages people to stick with the same sort of approaches and answers. For purpose of rethinking, it is better to start from the radical statement: there is no system.
In seminaries, the people who intuitively understand the academic system and the church system attempt to help the unfortunate by changing systems about which they know little: business, government, economics, popular culture, etc. If that seems a harsh assessment, it is. Systems are more likely to be understood intuitively. Thus, there are business books and church growth books by people who have done very well at those things, and they all say something different. They can analyze parts of what's happening but mistake it for the whole. (And good heavens, what conclusion could academics in Chicago come to except that it’s "a systemic issue?")
People studying a system from the outside can learn a great many useful things, even correct things. But somehow, it doesn't add up to making changes that do any good.
Examples: you made an oblique reference to coffee growing in Central America. If we analyze that system carefully, we can note what other crops could be grown instead, or look at the distribution of money from American and Europe into those economies and who benefits. And we will learn enough to make any coffee-drinker a little queasy, wishing she could do something different that would be more helpful. So we come up with the idea of Fair Trade, and certifying it and everything. In doing so, we reward a random group of people in Central America who do things in a way we think should work better, and sell via cooperatives. But the cooperatives are as likely to be corrupt as the previous system, so we end by doing nothing but rewarding a different group of corrupt people. That's what you get when you look for systemic solutions.
Example two: Both before and after the revolution in Romania, people tried to get telephone access for poor people. Ceausescu closed down a lot of villages and moved people to the cities, hoping to get a manufacturing base and get people closer to electricity, phones, etc. At the same time, there were intermittent efforts to string wire on poles deeper and deeper into some rural areas. Neither approach fixed very much. But cell phones did. Cell phones did not destroy the old system, but exploited features of it. That sort of spontaneous creation of structure and destruction of structure is what actually moves things forward. And thus far, Americans do it best, for a variety of reasons - many accidental. That is changing, but is still true.
People don't change unless they have to, and systems don't change unless they have to. Rather than changing a system, it's usually better to blow out a door or a window. The Civil Rights Movement did not succeed because it modified the system. It succeeded by exploiting parts of the system - legal precedent and common values - and pressing the contradictions until something new happened. They neither destroyed nor accepted the old system.
We get taught very young to look at an illusion called The American System. We have highschool civics or history books which compare socialist systems, communist systems, autocracies, mercantilism, and then our own, the capitalist system. But capitalism is just one way to harness the free market, and the free market isn't a system at all. The free market is a constant stream of structures made and destroyed. That is both its strength and its weakness, and that's fertile ground for many discussions, but the key point to notice is that it's not a system at all. If people study it as if it is a system, they will be bound to see it that way. And as above, they will keep mistaking parts for the whole.
The Zen koan "The Tao that can be described is not the real Tao," applies here. The system that can be described is not the real system. Better to start from the idea that there is no system at all.