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Systems, Part 3: You Can’t Win.

Is it even possible to change the world within the current system?


This is continuing a line of thought from two previous post on systems. Read part one here, and part two here if you haven’t yet! These are more academic and less casual than my usual posts, and they are more for my own personal reflection as I sort through a lot of these things than they are for you (no offense). I hope you enjoy anyway though! 😉 -e

I just got off the phone with my friend James. James is one of the smartest people I know, and has provided me with much of the framework for thinking through seeing the world and her systems. Today we spent a decent amount of time talking through an issue, only to arrive at a rather hopeless conclusion. We began talking about my resolution, initiated earlier this year, to stop buying new clothes and patronize only thrift stores. My intentions behind starting the resolution were solid, as I wanted to see an end to my support of companies which profited from the sweat of slave laborers who sourced their goods.

Sounds pretty simple, right?

Buying used clothes sends none of my money to the big corporations which enslave thousands of people and force them into unfair and unsafe working conditions. It hasn’t been very hard, but there has been the occasional temptation to snoop around at H&M or Urban Outfitters, but so far I have stayed good to my resolution.

Now, here’s why that matters. Because it doesn’t.

Because other articles I read while diving into internet research pointed out that some thrift stores are just as detrimental to local economies as bigger brand-name stores. Goodwill, for instance, takes crates full of clothes which didn’t sell in America and dumps them into third-world countries. Sounds like a win-win, right?

What this actually does is run local clothes-makers out of business, because why is there a need for clothes to be produced when American companies are dumping their goods for free in your town? Not only are they free clothes, they’re free Western clothes, which for some reason, is how the world strives to look.

To review, my two options are, support gigantic conglomerate companies which employ sweatshops to produce their goods, or support thrift stores which essentially put clothes vendors in poorer countries out of business, disrupting local economies. It’s actually a lose-lose situation. James, however, pushed me to follow a logical rabbit trail. He took me back to the history of tribal ethics, which went something like this:

Imagine you live in a small tribe where your actions are judged according to the tribal systems and if you do something wrong by these, word will spread among your family, your in-laws, the tribal elders, etc. Your morals are self-contained within your tribal system, and your own fear of shame from these people you know intimately will prevent you (for the most part) from breaking this ethical code.

Nowadays, however, the system is universal. you are not judged according to tribal ethical codes, but according to universal codes which are generally abstract and invisible. For instance, you don’t want to drop an empty soda can on the sidewalk because of fear that people will see you and hold you accountable to this unwritten universal code of ethics. Not only that, but many people would go so far as to fear dropping it in the trash can as opposed to the recycling, because ‘trash is destroying the environment while recycling is saving it.’ We modern people hold ourselves, for the most part, to this universal ethic which is heavily cultural, and more and more politically-based.

So, when I decide to shop exclusively at thrift stores, I am making a minute change which may or may not make a tangible difference in anyone’s life, but I assume it will because of what I have learned about human slavery and production of merchandise. My ‘moral good’ is more abstract than it is tangible. I will never meet someone who would have made my t-shirt I didn’t buy at Target. Makes sense?

In other words, despite my convictions about buying new clothes, it is nearly impossible to trace the effect it is having on the world.

James pushed further.

“Do you drive a car?” he crackled through my headphones.

I do. And this led to the greatest irony. Because, while I’ve been attempting to save the anonymous Malaysian worker from his laborious job, I’ve been pumping the atmosphere with exhaust fumes, which help to stir up hurricanes and typhoons which attack Malaysia and destroy his family’s home. (Yes, this is heavily hyperbolic and anecdotal, but follow the ironic illustration.) The very person I’m trying to help in one way is the very same person affected by another one of my actions in a different category.

So, does this mean that I sell my car and buy a bike? Will the world be a better place when I do that? No, not really. Because just one person, as I’ve said before, can do very little to change a world run by systems.

Think of the legendary film Fight Club, which (spoiler alert!) ends by destroying the American economy in an attempt to reset the world and level the playing ground.

“Revolution will never work,” said James. “You cannot simply call to destroy the system because the system is always going to reinstate itself. The same hierarchy is going to surface.” Someone will become richer and others will be oppressed. And those at the top of the system will always take advantage of those caught in the gears of it. The poor will always be pushed down.

“If you think revolution is the answer, destroying the system and starting over, all you’re doing is creating a new elite.” This is why Fight Club’s proposal is flawed. Because when the credit card skyscrapers fall, Tyler Durden is the new elite. He is the new ruler. And right there, a new system is initiated. Because there will always be jobs people don’t want to do and the labor is pushed down the line until someone is poor or weak enough to be forced to do it.

There is a reason for this, and then there is hope. The reason is, ultimately, we live under the jurisdiction of the system of satan. He is the “Prince of the air,” as the Bible refers to Him, and until he is dethroned once and for all, all of our attempts at righteous systems will be flawed. This is the beauty of the Kingdom of God: A system ruled and governed by God alone. A kingdom where justice is served to all, and where none are oppressed and all are equal. Truly equal.

The hope comes in the form of the very first Christian prayer: Maranatha; Come soon, Lord Jesus. 

In other words,

Come, Lord Jesus. Disrupt the system. Bring the kingdom of God, where justice and mercy reign and you judge men.

Until that time, I continue to ask myself the question of Francis Schaeffer, which has haunted me for years: How then shall we live? 

My thinking behind the thrift store resolution was not necessarily to change the world or disrupt the product flow of H&M, but to take responsibility for what I am able to change. I cannot control how my neighbor spends his money, but I can control how do. I am not responsible for what is in the pockets of America, but in the pocket of Ethan Renoe. And with that, I decide not to fund sweatshop-using conglomerates. I may never see an ounce of change in this, but what I will be able to do is say that “I did the best with what I was given,” which is really the best any of us can say. We are not responsible for the world, but we are responsible for what’s entrusted to us. Some of us are trusted with more, while others are given less. And from those entrusted with much, much will be expected.

That is a thought which should haunt us.


Click here to read Part 4: The Lord of the System!!

10 comments on “Systems, Part 3: You Can’t Win.

  1. Pingback: Systems, Part 2: “I have faith in the system” – ethan renoe

  2. Hey Ethan, I really enjoy observing your questions and wrestling with the systems that create the world we live in. It’s not as Kafkaesque as I’d like, which is probably a good thing. I find the basis of your argument really interesting: “Nowadays, however, the system is universal. you are not judged according to tribal ethical codes, but according to universal codes which are generally abstract and invisible.” I think “universal ethics” is tribal ethics just with a more obscure face. I think only several things are universal and throwing garbage into the streets, like your example is not one of them. Really fascinating stuff though- can’t wait to read more.

  3. Well written, well considered. I don’t comment much on this site, but I enjoy reading your thoughts. Looking forward to the next installment.

  4. Sort of touches on the distinction between guilt cultures, shame cultures, and fear cultures. The Gospel has something for all three.

  5. Pingback: Systems, Part 4: The Lord of the System – ethan renoe

  6. Thanks, Ethan. Too many self-styled “Christians” think unbridled capitalism is somehow mandated by God. They’re indifferent to the wreckage unregulated market forces cause in the lives of the poor and the vulnerable. You’re following a more thoughtful, humane and, IMO, a more godly path.

  7. Pingback: Systems, Part 5: Righteous Anger – ethan renoe

  8. Pingback: Systems, Part 6: Resistance – ethan renoe

  9. Pingback: Systems, Part 7: Blind Participation – ethan renoe

  10. Pingback: Systems, Part 8: Cursed Are The Happy – ethan renoe

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