Religious Blog

Healing Toxic Systems

Rev. David J. Fekete, Ph.D.

June 23, 2019

1 Kings 19:1-15                                              Luke 8:26-39                                       Psalm 42

Our readings this morning are about healing toxic systems.  Systems can develop in many places.  Families are a system.  Workplaces can be a system.  Churches can be a system.  Any place people gather and see each other over a period of time can become a system.  Systems can be healthy or toxic.  Today’s readings are about toxic systems.

Toxic systems are systems that are dysfunctional.  There are tensions, manipulation, hurt, anger, abuse, and fear, among other things, in toxic systems.  But in toxic systems, these stressors are often beneath the surface.  People have a lot of ways of trying to make bad things look good.  Then these harmful behaviors are veiled and submerged.  In order to keep functioning, the bad things in toxic systems are suppressed and unacknowledged.  So, for instance, sometimes people who are abused exhibit a forced smile all the time.  Another kind of coping mechanism in toxic systems is creating a problem child.  The problem child becomes the family’s scapegoat.  They are always misbehaving; they are always blamed; they may develop mental illnesses.  The family that has a problem child may send the child to counseling.  But a wise therapist will look at the whole family’s dynamics.  Virginia Satir was an early pioneer in family systems.  When the therapist looks at the whole family, instead of the problem child, the family panics.  They point all the stronger to the problem child, exclaiming, “No, we don’t have a problem!  The problem child is the problem!  You need to heal the problem child!”  The dysfunctional family doesn’t want the real problems to be exposed.  When the therapist looks at the whole family, the status quo gets upset.  The dysfunction begins to be exposed and people have to look at the real problems instead of putting them all on the problem child.  The psychologist becomes a threat.

Another toxic system can develop in families where one or more of the members are addicts or alcoholics.  An alcoholic is so unpredictable and often violent and abusive, that the family surrounding the alcoholic develops neurotic behavior patterns.  They can minimize the extent of the alcoholic’s dependency.  They can make excuses for the alcoholic’s behaviors.  They can deny that the alcoholic is a problem.  When a person is drunk, they can be easily pushed around.  Often decisions have to be made by others in the system because the drunk can’t make decisions.  Sometimes the family finances are placed in the hands of another member besides the drunk.  Then, if the alcoholic sobers up, the family system is broken up.  They don’t know how to live with a sober person, since over a period of years they have developed a system structured around a drunk.  The sober alcoholic becomes a real, living person, starts asserting their own wishes, starts making decisions.  This can be an unwelcome disruption of the toxic system that had developed around the alcoholic.  I’ve heard of couples who get a divorce after one of them sobers up.  The drunk they married wasn’t around anymore.  The adjustment to the sober person was too difficult.

Our story from Luke got me thinking about dysfunctional family systems.  Let’s imagine what was going on with the demon-possessed man.  Cities back in Jesus’ day were communities.  Everybody knew everybody else’s business.  They were mostly what we would call small towns.  They were a system.  Let’s think about the system in our Luke story.  There was a man possessed by demons.  He was bound with chains and he even broke the chains.  He tore off his clothes.  And the villagers exiled him to the graveyards, out of their town.  But he was still a part of the village.  Everyone in the village would have known the man.  I imagine that the whole village was almost controlled by this wild man.  Almost certainly a system developed around this man.  And since the man was so hysterical, the system that developed around him would most likely be toxic.  Jesus enters the village.  And as God does in every toxic system, God brings healing.  Jesus casts the demons out of the man.  The villagers find the man fully clothed, in his right mind, sitting at Jesus’ feet.  The reaction of the villagers is fear.  They see a miracle of healing and they are afraid.  In a surprising move, they ask Jesus to depart.  They are so afraid they want Jesus to leave them.

I thought long and hard about this story.  I wondered why people, who saw something good happen to the demon-possess man, wanted the source of healing to leave.  Have you ever had something good done to you and you asked the giver to go away?  I couldn’t think of any examples.  But then the idea of toxic systems occurred to me.  The village that had grown used to the wild man didn’t know how to go forward now that the man was a sane part of their village.  They didn’t have a place for him.  The man becomes a prophet.  He wants to stay with Jesus, but Jesus tells him instead to return home and spread the word about what Jesus did for him.

Prophets are not welcome.  In our story from 1 Kings, Elijah flees for his life.  Ahab’s wife Jezebel threatens to murder Elijah.  There is a passage in Amos in which the king’s priest tells Amos to leave the country and go prophesy elsewhere,

Then Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, sent to King Jeroboam of Israel, saying, “Amos has conspired against you in the very center of the house of Israel; the land is not able to bear all his words. 11 For thus Amos has said,

‘Jeroboam shall die by the sword,
and Israel must go into exile
away from his land.’”

12 And Amaziah said to Amos, “O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there; 13 but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom” (Amos 7:10-13).

In both stories, the land is corrupt.  The prophet’s voice brings healing.  But the people in the lands do not want healing.  They prefer the rituals from the gods in the surrounding territories.

The moral laws of Yahweh, or Jehovah as God’s name is translated in the King James Version, were rejected by the Israelites.  They preferred the relatively easy rituals of the Baal priests.  In Baal worship, sacrifices made by priests covered the people and the people thought they could do whatever they wanted.  So injustice in the courts, seizing the land and goods of the less powerful, living in luxury, scales with false balances measured out the grain and other crops for sale flourished in the toxic systems in Israel.  But God’s laws insisted on protection for the disenfranchised.  God said in plain speech that the courts were not to show favoritism to the rich.  God insisted in protecting the widow, the orphan, and also the foreigner who lived with the Israelites.  When the Israelites turned away from Yahweh to follow Baal, they thought that they wouldn’t have to follow all these rules.  Worshipping Baal meant living in luxury at the expense of the common people.  The voice of the prophet reminded Israelites of Yahweh’s laws and told them to turn back to worshipping Yahweh.  So they tried to get rid of the prophet.  In the case of Amos, the prophet was told to go home to Judah and to leave Israel.  In the case of Elijah, Jezebel wanted him dead.

Untangling toxic systems is delicate work.  When people intervene to bring liberation to toxic systems, it is important to provide support as the dysfunction is unwound.  Changing the behavior patterns that people are used to can be emotionally difficult.  Anxiety and even suicidal ideation can develop when toxic behaviors are revealed.  When systems are unwound, places like church can become a place of refuge and community.  Church can provide stability and support as systems change.  So can counselors provide support as people and systems grow healthy.  The question we need to ask ourselves is whether we are a voice of healing or whether we are the villagers who expel the healer from fear of change.