When a System Demands our Allegiance Away from Christ

When I am faced with dishonesty and fraud on a systemic scale, I ask questions of God. But as I trace the origins of injustice, I am directed back towards humanity. The question becomes: what can we do to end injustice?

Recently, the Washington Post reported on the massive falsification of documents by banks:

“Employees at major banks who churned out fraudulent foreclosure documents, forged signatures, made up fake job titles and falsely notarized paperwork often did so at the behest of their superiors, according to a federal investigation released Tuesday.

‘I believe the reports we just released will leave the reader asking one question: How could so many people have participated in this misconduct?’ David Montoya, HUD inspector general, said in a statement. ‘The answer: simple greed.’”

Simple greed. Hmm. Who was greedy? The employees who objected were ordered to continue falsifying documents. The supervisors were merely carrying out the pace that was set for them. And the CEOs and higher ups just set quotas that were unreachable… unless some laws were broken. They in turn did that because they are bound by their shareholders to maximize profit: or face a lawsuit.

In liberal circles, we always put the guilt on systems, providing all of those involved with a convenient out. Yes, the systems are powerful, but the only way we will be able to end this powerful injustice is if we have courage to take responsibility before God for our actions within unjust institutions. If we refuse to carry out injustice, and willingly accept the punishment for our actions of noncompliance, we begin the long hard work of reshaping the system from the ground up.

A Warning to Those Who Do Not Cease Evil

In Scripture, our actions are analyzed as a whole: a person’s entire self stands before God. At first, we modern people, whose lives are intensely divided between work and leisure, family and friends, church and daily life, are disoriented by this whole-person analysis. What about the things I do at my job, in my official capacity?

Kierkegaard expressed it this way, “Nothing, nothing, no error, no crime is so absolutely repugnant to God as everything which is official; and why? Because the official is impersonal and therefore the deepest insult which can be offered to a personality.” That is to say, we are persons before the God of Abraham, without office, title, or rank: naked. There is no private or public. No work nor family, stranger nor friend, slave nor free, man nor woman. We are all equally distinct. God knows who the intellectual authors of economic violence are and the exact amount each of us compromised our values, and we will answer to a God that is partisan for the oppressed.

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A System Demands our Allegiance Away from Christ

But it is also true that we pulled by a powerful official system that urges us to forget our neighbors’ welfare and ground our economic decision-making in a totalizing framework of profit. The world asks us, when we are in our official capacities, to serve profit instead of God. But our challenge, our struggle, is to make any decision that is within our power by another standard of value, the Gospel, which Jesus proclaims,

“‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’”

To let the oppressed go free. To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, the Jubilee year that signals the forgiveness of debts. These are economic and sociopolitical values. Let us ground all of our decisions in this Gospel.

Let us remember that when we do not act to end a system that results in injustice, we are culpable ourselves.


Jeremy has been an activist ever since he accidentally ate the red pill instead of the more harmless blue one. He converted to Christianity while serving a six-month prison term for civil disobedience to close the School of the Americas. He blogs and tweets about faith. He is the coordinator of the Crabgrass Christians Initiative and one of the founders of The Occupy Church.

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  • You make a good point about the lure of systems:  they remind me of a current that just sucks us in.  We have to fight to be responsible; doing nothing just makes us complicit.  Good thoughts, Jeremy!

  • We are the system. We are citizens, consumers, businesses. We the people are the government and we are responsible. When US policy creates oppression in other countries, we are responsible. When US businesses build computers, phones and pads that exploit the poverty of other countries, we are complicit. When US churches fail to address poverty and famine while protecting our budgets and modernizing our buildings, we are the ones who take the wine and bread away from our Lord. 
    We are all God’s children. We are all our brother’s and sister’s keepers.

  • Benjamin

    Oh enough talk about “the system”. I don’t ever recall Jesus talking about “the system”. It just seems to be a phrase communists made up so that they don’t have to talk about people. It all seems to turn into the suggestion that people ultimately just do whatever “the system” is telling them, and that they need the government to give to the poor, as if they have no will of their own. 

    •  Paul talks about the principalities and powers, which is how, in those days, they talked about systems. See Ephesians 6:12. Also, kosmos, “the world” can refer to a concept which we modern systems thinkers would refer to as “the system.”

      •  Jeremy, I like what you said here, but I think we do have to resist the idea that systems thinking is the only way to look at the world – because it is easy to fall into the trap of believing that we’re all just cogs in a machine (or even machines ourselves) and hence incapable of changing anything as individuals.   Clearly you don’t believe that, given that you are trying to change things, but we do have to be careful about the language that we use to describe the powers we face.

    •  It is true that individual responsibility is important, but the fact is that we are all controlled by forces which are bigger than ourselves – paradigms, thought processes, systems and powers.  These cannot be easily dismissed as being ‘communist’ ideas. In a sense, you are quite right – the powers and systems only exist because we let them, but we should not pretend that they do not exist at all.  As Rabbi Lerner says, these things are an extension of a deep spiritual yearning for meaning within all of us, which we usually cannot process because our whole society screams at us that our value is only to be measured in money and power.  Our best interests are served by not focussing on our best interests.

      • Benjamin

        Are you suggesting that a better “system” would actually make people less greedy?
        I do not think that controlling money by the government would just make people less greedy.
        Is it really freedom to do selfish things that makes someone selfish? Isn’t it that person’s spiritual condition?

      • Benjamin

        Not to mention I don’t particularly trust politicians anymore than your average big business owner.

    •  I just LOVE how you say “the poor,” how you manage to convey such contempt through the written medium. I can imagine you spitting as  you say it. Very Christ-like.

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