This is continuing a line of thought from several previous post on systems. Read part one, part two, part three, part four, part five, and part six 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 recently watched the film Gangs of New York for the first time, and of course, a systems post was born in my mind.
The film hyperbolically depicts Bill “The Butcher” Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis) in his rise to power and prominence as, essentially, the king of New York in the late 1800’s. In my systems-terms, he would be at the top of the system. He is the one who calls the shots which determine how the system runs and who does what within its boundaries. Police serve him out of fear; the fire department works for him because of the prestige it affords him; business owners serve him their goods out of obligation; favors have become countless and all things flow to and from him. The Butcher is the king and center of the system.
The scene which stood out to me, however, is a somewhat small scene as it does not directly involve any of the main characters, yet it reveals a lot about how systems in general work. At one point in the film, Bill is feeling like he is losing power to rival gangs, and losing respect from the population at large.
His solution to the problem? A public hanging in the town square.
It didn’t matter who they were or what they had done, they just needed to find four (exactly four, not three, not five, according to Bill) men, pay their families, and kill them before a crowd to remind people who runs the town.
When the time comes, the four men stand atop the gallows, weeping but filled with pride. It almost seems like they have no idea why they are being killed, they are mere cogs in the wheel of the system. They are small pistons turning so that others more powerful and wealthy than them may be served.
One man, tears streaking his face, stands with his chest high as the rope is tightened around his neck. He looks down on his crying family and makes a short speech about his own willingness to die so that his family may be monetarily compensated for it. Soon the floor of the gallows swings down and the necks of the four men snap.
So, to summarize: One man’s sole purpose in the film/his sole purpose in the eyes of Bill the Butcher, was to die, affording his family a small reward, so that Bill could become more powerful. His role in the system was utterly out of his own control; it was given to him.
In a similar way, I am losing hope in effecting any change I could possibly make in the system in which I find myself. Simply by my own incidental traits, I struggle to see how I could escape my God-given role to play in the system, and find that passive submission is possibly my only option. I am a white male, college educated, from a middle-class, stable family. There is next to nothing I could do to upend and trainwreck my life, landing me on the streets with empty pockets and no remaining options. I am an American/Westerner, meaning that by merely existing, I was inserted into a point in the world’s system where no matter how I live, I am taking advantage of other parts of the world. I have drank coffee harvested by shackled hands, and I have thrown away more garbage in my life than most people in the world will ever touch. Today alone, I have gone through three plastic ‘disposable’ water cups, and I will never see them again, nor will I see the effects of my waste.
My given position in the system sets me up to be ignorant to the needs and oppression of the rest of the world, and I have spent 26 years of my life thinking that I’m a pretty good person who is not intentionally harming others. And I guess, it’s not intentional harm. I harm others because of my passive role in the system, merely by existing.
Just as the men in Gangs of New York were randomly selected to be executed so the powerful may prosper, I was randomly selected to be born and raised in America as a white male, meaning next-to-nothing could ruin my life. The lens through which I see the world is rosy and relatively untainted, as it would take a lot for my life to fall apart. Others, however, born into different places in the system, have to work with everything they have just to not end up on the streets.
We are all cogs, and the sooner we are able to zoom out and recognize our role in the bigger picture, the sooner we will be able to realize how, exactly, we should live and where the greatest areas of need are. Those of you like me, born into positions of accidentally taking advantage of others in the world, should especially look for ways we participate in the unequal tapestry which is the fabric of the world. Not all threads are created equal. Or perhaps I should say, not all positions in the tapestry are created equal.
I used to think that merely because I was a white guy who loved people of all races and colors, I was doing great. This mindset, however, completely disregards all forms of systemic oppression, racism, injustice and waste. I will only see the effects of these things if I go looking for them.
When you go hiking, the maxim to live by is “Take nothing but pictures; leave nothing but footprints.” Yet when it comes to literally every other area of life, we disregard both what we take and what we leave. And this varies from person to person depending on their passive participation in the system. When I die, I will have left exponentially more waste than most people in the world. And the alarming part is that not one person I know haas ever called me out for this. Because most people I know live the exact same way. We do not think about the trash we produce once it leaves our sight, nor do we think about where everything we consume (clothes, entertainment, food, et al) comes from.
The American Hiker’s motto, as it applies to the rest of our lives is, “Take everything we can afford; leave everything we can pay someone else to discard.”
Folks in other parts of the world were born into the position of living where our trash goes. They were born in countries used by ours to get products for next to no cost. Be aware of your position and participation in the world system. Refuse to continue passively participating, like advertisers and manufacturers want you to.
If you’re reading this on a phone or computer, chances are you were born into a position which takes advantage of others, at no fault of your own. When you were born, you were handed a position in the system, but you get to choose whether or not you remain there.
While we wait, we pray for the One who will not take advantage of others from the peak of the system. The One who will (and has) serve those below Him rather than exploit them for His own gain. Therefore, as the church universal, visible and invisible, we pray Maranatha, come swiftly, Lord Jesus.