Why we need more than personal relationships to make change

Depriving the unvaccinated of health care is a bad idea:

Oh boy, Twitter may bring out the worst in some of us, but wishing death upon the unvaccinated, which is what progressive Christian blogger John Pavlovitz (ironically, who wrote “If God Is Love, Don’t Be A Jerk”) implied in the above tweet, may top the list. I am grieved at the immorality of his position, but also the impracticality of it. I am not sure if Pavlovitz thinks this is a way to motivate the unvaccinated to get the vaccine, or simply a way to punish them, erasing them from earth, hoping that solves our problem. In either case, depriving them of medical care makes Pavlovitz as much of a killer as they are, or even as this pandemic has been.

I want to reiterate what I was saying last week: death is our common enemy, and we need to fight it together. When antivaxxers succumb to death, it is a tragedy. When they are intubated after getting covid-19, they beg the doctors and nurses for the vaccines, only to find out it is too late. It is a horrible circumstance. It is tragic because so many of these deaths could have been avoided. And to Pavlovitz’s credit, it is infuriating. I understand the anger at people who won’t get vaccinated, because their lack of vaccination is moving us in a backward direction. Philadelphia’s case rates have tripled in the last month. The Delta virus is very aggressive and it gives its victims a larger “viral load,” which means the sickness is more intense, and even the vaccinated aren’t fully protected. So it is very frustrating that there is a strong resistance to vaccination in the U.S., and so Pavlovitz’s anger is not in vain.

We aren’t up against flesh and blood

For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.—Ephesians 6:12

But directing our anger at individuals is not fruitful because the dangers of the virus and the sources of misinformation about it are not contained in individuals. I understand the anger at antivaxxers, but the problems they represent are much bigger than they are. Wishing them death is evil and ignorant. As the writer of Ephesians says above, “our struggle is not against enemies of flesh and blood,” but against much bigger forces than that. And that is so true of antivaxxers and also against all sorts of opponents to justice.

After I posted my blog last week, I received a few notes of disagreement that seemed very similarly worded, mainly about deaths of people who have been vaccinated. But as it turns out there are only 12 Facebook accounts that spread most of the misinformation. Joe Biden thinks that Facebook is responsible for the spread of misinformation. Facebook is defensive, and suggests that its effort to promote vaccination is enough to counter the misinformation spread on its website. And it’s not just Facebook that has a responsibility here, it’s Fox News too. Even though Hannity recently begged his viewers to get vaccinated (which he’s since taken back), Tucker Carlson is still pedaling conspiracy theories on his very highly-rated evening cable news talk show. So we are indeed up against the rulers, the authorities, and the cosmic forces of evil. This is not about convincing individuals to change their mind, it is about structural change.

That isn’t to say that individual change isn’t important. By all means, speak to unvaccinated people about your concerns, especially your loved ones, because their choice may save their life. But when it comes to big sins like misinformation and systemic racism, they cannot be fought on an individual level. This is good news, because it means that getting angry at people who buy into the popular conspiracy theories and tropes and rehearsed arguments isn’t a solution to our problems. Condemning individuals, or “cancelling them,” is essentially useless when it comes to addressing our systemic issues. Arguing with your Facebook friends about it kind of just feeds into the problem. Because the fight isn’t happening on an individual level.

This is not an unpopular opinion, most of us know that Internet disputes, or even personal disputes, won’t be solved through making a compelling or an aggressive argument, which will likely trigger the “fight or flight” response. However, the counter to this approach is often just a change in tone or behavior. We’re convinced that if we were kind, if we said something differently, if we were more generous or understanding, that we could get through to people. Sometimes trust relationships can make a difference, but we are dealing with a much bigger issue than individual change can solve.

We need systemic change, not personal change alone

So the issue isn’t “tone,” it’s strategy. There is a time for a harsh tone and time for a loving tone in personal relationships, but the issues we face today: misinformation, homophobia, racism, patriarchy, they aren’t personal choices because people aren’t coming to these decisions on their own. Their suspicion, their hatred, and their choices are manufactured. People’s politics are informed by forces much greater than personal relationships, and so we need to address those forces, instead having the arrogance to think that a relationship can overcome them. We aren’t that strong on our own.

I shared this idea with a friend, and he said that it was a mix of both structural and personal change. I asked him why he thought so. He said, it wasn’t until a family member of his came out as gay, that his family changed his mind. That is indeed an institutional and structural change because family, itself, is a unit. It wasn’t a friend that came out as gay, it was a family member. And in family systems, minds can change dramatically with structural change, and similarly within family systems, it is very hard to change minds when you’re on the outside.

I know this personally, because I have a handful of vaccine-resistant relatives in my family. And my dad, a physician, feels powerless to change them. The family system is normed already. It works in a certain way. And despite my dad’s conviction that his vulnerable sisters should get vaccinated, it is very difficult to change his system without him incurring a lot stress and possibly feelings of betrayal. In fact, my cousin told me he doesn’t have the authority to ask my 90-year-old grandma to get her vaccine. That showcases the power of institutions and systems to affect change. When we change a system, personal change follows. And unfortunately for my family, I am praying that something drastic doesn’t need to happen for them to change their minds, but I do believe a crisis could cause the systemic change we need.

I think that’s what we witnessed last summer. After the U.S. watched Derek Chauvin murder George Floyd, the U.S.’s static racism was challenged. And it caused a lot of anxiety, in the world, and in our churches. As I write this, I’m listening to the testimony of the Capitol police officers after the insurrection. The insurrection showed us how serious unchallenged misinformation can be, and it finally led to Twitter and Facebook banning Donald Trump from their platforms. Hopefully, that crisis will lead to a systemic change.

Change systems, pray for the Spirit to move, and find softened hearts

So for Christians, I think we need to address these systemic issues in two ways:

The first one is to change our structures, and see that as a path to changing people’s mind. Structural change is essential for personal change. Structural change can be led by our leaders too, which means that personal conversion of those who lead is essential, which is why it is essential that we hold our leaders accountable. Obviously, Donald Trump and Tucker Carlson’s personal conversions would affect a lot of people (similarly, though, cancelling Tucker’s show or banning Trump from Twitter did help things). But we need to work for systemic solutions instead of wasting our love and effort just thinking that our battle is against individuals. It is much greater than that. More than just structures made by humans, it is against the powers of death, against spiritual forces too.

Which leads me to the second thing that Christians need to lean into; the transformation of the Holy Spirit. Pray for the Spirit’s conviction to grow and move and change hearts. Pray that eyes can be opened and people can be baptized through the Spirit. In the Bible we see what miraculous acts can follow the Spirit. Overcoming the differences, especially of language, that separated the diasporic Jewish people in Pentecost, required an act of God. The Civil Rights movement was an act of God; woefully unpopular, but God still used it. The abolition movement was an act of God; up against an entirely economic system based on slavery, and it prevailed. We need acts of God to make the changes we want, not just personal effort.

It is the power of the Holy Spirit that makes it possible to have an entire church based on incarnational love. I believe that relationships are a miracle in and of themselves. I think we can relate to God by relating to others. That we don’t need curricula, doctrinal study, or lecture halls to transmit the Gospel to one another. You may ask why our approach to relational discipleship doesn’t apply to structural change? Why not lean into the way we make disciples and relationships to how we approach issues like misinformation, or systemic racism? The answer is that our incarnational approach works with those who have softened hearts, who are ready to move with the spirit. We admit that our incarnational approach has limitations—in fact, we’ve devoted Cell Leader Trainings to addressing its limitations. But it works best with those who are looking for Jesus and looking for how we express Jesus.

The forces of evil we face that have infected our friends and family have made them hardened and not ready to move with Jesus, and while personal relationships may soften their hearts, to make the progress we want to make, our battle needs to be focused on “against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil.” The benefit of this approach is that it spares individuals of our anger, so we don’t turn into Pavlovitz, as seen above; but it also helps us focus our efforts so we aren’t simply trying to change an individual’s mind, when its more efficacious and important to reorder the structures that led them to that place.

It’s clear that Jesus came to reorder the world. That’s what the Kingdom of God is: a re-ordering of the world. In his life, he constantly challenges how things work, in order to change the world. He heals individuals, yes, but he does so to point to his revolution. He is not healing individuals as his sole way to save them. His healing showcases a new way to heal the world. And on the cross, Jesus is not just saving individuals, he is changing and saving the whole world. We know that the cross of Jesus isn’t just meant to save individuals or for individual forgiveness; but it is much bigger than that, much more cosmic than that, but also still intimate. Jesus changes the world, and our hearts are softened, and can receive his love. Under our Lord, all things will become new. It is this cosmic spirit that we make structural change, and it is through the cross that we understand the limitations of personal persuasion or personal appeal.

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