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“Systemic injustice is to a high degree invisible to its perpetrators.” –Walter Wink

Save the World

OK. Is it time for an examination of conscience? In what ways do I participate in systemic injustice? As an upper middle class adult white male, the ways are countless. Do the stores I shop in, especially my favorite grocery chain, Kroger, pay all who work for them in their stores and supply chain a living wage? I doubt they do. Do I participate in systemic injustice when I pollute the air by releasing more than my share (however that might be measured?) of carbon emissions into the environment? Certainly I do.

While I try to compensate for my lifestyle by donating several thousand dollars each year to peace and justice organizations such as Mercy Corps, Human Rights Watch, Nature Conservancy, and Doctors without Borders, these groups do little to prevent systemic injustice; they only deal with its consequences.

To significantly reduce systemic injustice in our world (say, by even 50%), we need a billion people, each infused with a passion for compassion and with a social and political intelligence

To significantly reduce systemic injustice in our world (say, by even 50%), we need a billion people, each infused with a passion for compassion and with a social and political intelligence (perhaps like that of a Gandhi or MLK) that will allow them to successfully challenge or “engage the Powers,” to use the title of Walter Wink’s book.

Since this isn’t likely to happen, perhaps systemic injustice can only be diminished by the worldwide catastrophes that are likely to dominate our news for the remainder of this century. We already see the effects of the refugee crisis caused by the “war of all against all” in the Middle East. The numbers fleeing wars will soon be supplemented by millions more fleeing the consequences of climate change and rising ocean levels. Water shortages and drought—all aided by too-rapid population growth—will create additional misery and movement for millions. Current systems of economic oppression and exploitation may not survive these massive changes. National governments may devolve into numerous systems of local control, something we derisively like to call “tribalism.” We are seeing this already in parts of North Africa and West Asia.

My doomsday scenario for the remainder of the twenty-first century, which may prove to be an accurate prediction, has by now in your reading of this piece distracted your attention from the point at which I began these musings: what is my personal responsibility for systemic injustice of the sort deplored by Walter Wink. How clever of me!

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One way to stop people from thinking (a necessary first step in problem-solving) is to scare them, to make them feel fearful. The emotion of fear easily paralyzes us into inaction. Leaders of the Republican Party in the United States have won many elections this century by telling people they should “be afraid, be very afraid” of immigration, gays and lesbians, big government, taxes, poor people, especially those with different skin colors, as well as a whole assortment of miscellaneous people who are conspiring to take away their homes, jobs, guns, religion, and freedom.

Democrats and liberals—folks like me—often use the same tactics (perhaps unwittingly) in their attempts to get people to take climate change and injustice seriously. We scare people by telling them how awful things will be for their children and grandchildren if we don’t act now. We also have a disturbing tendency to make fun of people who are too ignorant or stupid to see the problem as we see it. Scaring people and then criticizing them for not thinking clearly is an approach both unfair and doomed.

So it is with systemic injustice. None of us can “wrap our heads” around a massive, global economic, social and political collapse caused by greed and human-aided climate change. We simply refuse to think about such things for to do so would literally drive us insane.

My individual responsibility for injustice must be addressed first and foremost in my heart, and then in my head. I must first find a way to “feel the pain,” in Bill Clinton’s words, and then think clearly about a practical way to respond, in my corner of the world, using my skills, with people I know or deal with frequently.

Maybe I could ask the manager at Kroger where they get their fruits and vegetables and what the workers who grow and ship them are paid. Better yet, I could ask ten of my friends to do the same. I might even suggest such an approach to members of my church and my friends in other volunteer organizations to which I belong.

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Now that would be a start!

Ken Wolf