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[41] And he sat down opposite the treasury and watched the people putting money into the offering box. Many rich people put in large sums. [42] And a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which make a penny. [43] And he called his disciples to him and said to them, “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box. [44] For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” [1] And as he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!” [2] And Jesus said to him, “Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.” (Mark 12:41-13:2)

There are some problems in the world that seem overwhelming. There are some issues that feel insurmountable. Hunger and poverty. Lack of clean drinking water. Slavery and forced labor. Racism and injustice. These issues feel unsolvable because they aren’t one isolated issue. Many issues work together toward the devastating ends we see playing out in front of us. It’s called ‘systematic injustice.’

In the west, individualism is the air we breathe– so, we often have a difficult time seeing the undertow just beneath the surface of systems in our world. That’s also why it can be difficult for us to read the prophets. While there are times prophets speak directly about individual life and salvation, they are far more instances when they address communal aspects of following God. The prophets were concerned with the systems that lead to certain outcomes. They were concerned with people kicking the poor when they’re down (Amos 2:6-7). They were concerned with justice being given to the highest bidder (Amos 5:10, 12). They were concerned with the poor being taxed excessively to benefit the rich (Amos 5:11).

When Jesus watched the poor widow walk across the room and drop her last coins into the offering, he joins the lament of the prophets. He sees the systematic injustice. He sees a religious system designed to help people connect with God and experience life, but it’s instead tearing people down. Jesus comments about how the system is “devouring widow’s household” (Mark 12:40). He’s confronting a system that would take a widow’s last mite and leave her with nothing left to live on (Mark 12:44).

We see that Jesus will confront the system again when Jesus says, “Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down” (Mark 13:1-2). One day, the entire temple system is coming down. It’s all going to be transformed into a kingdom where the “poor are blessed” and where the “meek inherit the kingdom.” Today, read and respond to this piece written by Rob Karch on systematic injustice. What system would God have you confront?

Some may object, saying that it is unnecessary or inappropriate for an individual or group to embark upon a reconciliation process for crimes or injustices committed by the community without his or her knowledge or consent. Several responses to this objection may be helpful. First, when individuals are harmed in very real and tangible ways, even if the causes were perhaps unintentional, systemic and difficult to see, the actual pain is still real and must be acknowledged as such. Second, throughout Scripture we see many examples of community reconciliation where individuals sometimes take responsibility for wrongs committed by the community,[1] the community sometimes takes responsibility for wrongs committed by the individual,[2] and representatives in the current generation sometimes rectify the wrongs perpetrated by previous generations.[3] While western individualists may struggle with this concept of justice, the end result is healing, reconciliation, and unity.[4] And while I am not advocating a return to the Old Testament Law, throughout Scripture we learn that God’s view of sin and repentance seems to take into account both the individual and the community. Third, When speaking of collective sins and systemic wrongs, a compassionate individual who seeks justice and desires to live in a just society will recognize that he or she benefited from, or was spared the consequences of, the very same systemic issues that caused pain and harm to others. Though his or her intention may not have been to participate in a broken or corrupt system, he or she was a recipient, and now his or her desire is to actively confront injustice and participate in healing rather than simply passively follow an unjust system. Fourth, broken relationships are seen as being so serious in Scripture that the reconciliation process “takes precedence even over worship.”[5] When we realize that a relationship is broken, we have no choice but to stop worshipping and seek reconciliation. For these reasons I believe it is appropriate and necessary for an individual or group to embark upon a reconciliation process even if they did not intentionally participate in the harm perpetrated on the other group.

[1] Numbers 15:25; 16:46-50; 18:1
[2] Joshua 7:4-5; Numbers 16:31-33, 49; 2 Samuel 24:10-17
[3] Numbers 35:33; Joshua 9:15-21; 2 Samuel 21:1-14
[4] Joshua 7:26; Numbers 16:48, 50; 2 Samuel 24:25
[5] David W. Augsburger, Conflict Mediation Across Cultures (Louisville, KY, Westminster/John Knox Press), 281, he references Matt. 5:21-26; 18:15-22; Luke 17:3-4; Gal. 6:1-5

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By Ryan Paulson 

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