Broken Systems, Broken People

Light streaming through windows in a ruined building

We all know the story of Adam and Eve. The serpent comes and tempts them in the garden. Adam and Eve fall into sin. And then what happens?

Well, if you ask children in a Sunday school class in your church, I think you’ll hear them say, “Everything gets messed up. Every part of God’s creation is distorted because of the Fall.”

But then something strange happens. Those children grow up, and they turn into either Republicans or Democrats.

Before you accuse me of partisan politics, here’s what I mean. If you asked the typical American adult, “Are people poor because they are broken or because the systems in which they live are broken?” What you’ll hear is something like this:

  • Republicans tend to emphasize individual brokenness. People are poor because they’re lazy, because they’re engaged in destructive behaviors, because they don’t have healthy marriages, etc.
  • If you asked Democrats, they’ll tend to say people are poor because the systems are rigged against them. There’s structural injustice. There’s embedded racism.

Democrats tend to emphasize broken systems. Republicans tend to emphasize broken individuals. But what the Bible teaches is that the Fall really happened. It affects both individuals and systems!

Individuals Matter

Western civilization would have us believe that we are isolated, autonomous individuals. Again, that’s not what the Bible teaches. We are made for relationship—specifically for relationship with God, self, others, and the rest of creation—we are social creatures who are deeply embedded in communities and in the systems that shape those communities. You cannot separate the individual from the community.

That said, every individual human being is a unique, vitally important image-bearer of God! All of us are designed to be in right relationship with our Creator, a relationship severed by the Fall. Because of this, full human flourishing is impossible without being united to the One who restores this relationship—our Lord Jesus Christ! It is only when we are in Christ that we fully experience the benefits of His kingdom, both now and for all eternity.

So saving faith is absolutely essential for human flourishing, and God has ordained that the verbal articulation of the gospel message (Rom. 10:14-17) as the normal means that He uses to draw people into saving faith. We must always share the gospel with others and with ourselves, because many have not yet heard the good news of God’s story, and because we all need reminders of this story every day.

Moreover, caring for individuals living in poverty and their individual needs (as well as helping them develop their individual gifts and assets!) is good work, reflecting the heart of our God.

Systems Matter

But again, individuals don’t exist in isolation. People need to experience personal relationship with Jesus Christ, but His reconciling work extends so much farther than just healing individual brokenness (Col. 1:13-20).

The ways that individuals and systems interact with one another actually makes it almost impossible to disentangle them. Let me give you an example. Have you ever been treated unfairly? Stop and think about how you felt and what that did to you. That wasn’t just something external to you. It’s something that affected you deeply.

About 15 years ago, I got some unwanted first-hand experience with this. I was embedded in a system that was deeply broken. No matter how hard I worked, no matter what I did, I couldn’t bring about change and I was being mistreated. Now, that bad experience wasn’t just something external to me. It actually changed me inside. I found myself angry, bitter, and depressed. It started to impact my relationships with others because I was so angry. I found myself not wanting to work hard. I found myself wanting to give up, because what’s the point of working hard if it’s not getting you anywhere? It even affected me physically in ways that persist to this very day. Individuals are broken and systems are broken, and those two things are deeply intertwined.

Maybe you’ve had a similar experience. If you have, you’re not alone! You see, researchers are finding that broken systems deeply impact the inner workings of the human being. Among these findings is that oppressed people actually start to believe and internalize the lies of their oppressors—so much so, that it actually rewires the brain so that the oppressed believe what the oppressors are saying about them.

We Need to See Both

Nobody should better understand the comprehensive effects of the fall on both individuals and systems better than Bible-believing Christians, because the Bible talks about this. Unfortunately, something has gone wrong in American Christianity.

Researchers have found that if you ask Americans “Is poverty due to individual brokenness or systemic injustice?” there’s one people group in all of the country that is the least likely to believe that systemic injustice is one of the causes of poverty.

In their book Divided by Faith, Michael Emerson and Christian Smith find that white, Bible-believing Christians are the least likely group among all Americans to believe that systemic injustice is a cause of poverty. They suggest that this has to do with the individualism and pietism that has often characterized American Christianity. We tend to reduce Christianity to a personal quiet time with God rather than a life-encompassing mission that seeks to bring His kingdom to bear on every square inch of the cosmos, including broken social systems.

What Should We Do?

Here are a few ways to start shifting how you engage with both broken individuals and broken systems, especially as we seek to serve alongside those in poverty.

  • We’ve got to understand the biblical narrative about the comprehensive effects of both the Fall and Christ’s redemption. The Fall impacts everything, and Christ’s redemption does as well. Jesus isn’t just beaming up individual souls to heaven and then destroying the rest of the world. Rather, Colossians 1 says that Jesus Christ is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. He’s the Creator and Sustainer and Reconciler of the entire cosmos. He is making all things new—both broken individuals and broken systems. And as His people, we need to apply the power of His death and resurrection as far as the curse is found.
  • There are different ways to address broken systems. Sometimes this means simply helping low-income people to avoid oppressive aspects of existing systems. For example, we might help low-income people to avoid payday lenders and link them to non-exploitative banks.
  • Sometimes it means creating parallel systems in which they can flourish. For example, the Chalmers Center works in the space of microfinance. Microfinance creates what is, in essence, an alternative banking system for poor people because mainstream banking systems don’t work for them.
  • And sometimes it means changing the systems altogether.
  • Addressing broken individuals also means sharing the good news of the gospel with them so that Christ can bring His healing into their hearts and lives. Individuals need to be transformed as well as systems.An important comment on that last statement. Americans tend to conflate affluence with virtue—Don’t assume that materially poor people are unbelievers or are less spiritual than you are. Many of the poorest people on the planet have deep, deep faith in Jesus Christ. When a person who is struggling to eat everyday prays, “Give us this day, our daily bread,” they often have a more profound understanding of that prayer than those of us who live in affluence will never understand. We have much to learn from them about spiritual life!
  • Finally, all our efforts must be rooted in a gospel-humility—a deep conviction that we are all deeply broken and that we all need the comprehensive healing that only King Jesus can bring.

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Brian Fikkert

Brian Fikkert

Dr. Brian Fikkert is a Professor of Economics and Community Development and the Founder and President of the Chalmers Center for Economic Development at Covenant College. He is coauthor of the best-selling book When Helping Hurts as well as Helping Without Hurting in Short-Term Missions, Helping Without Hurting in Church Benevolence, and From Dependence to Dignity: How to Alleviate Poverty Through Church-Centered Microfinance.

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