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.

 

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Is Jesus’ Message Dead?

I can’t believe that Jesus’ message is dead.  I think that, rather, what Christian churches have done with it may be dead.  Churches and church services are not necessarily what Jesus’ message is all about.  I say this as a Christian minister.

I’ve recently been reading carefully the Gospel of Matthew, focusing on Jesus’ words.  Jesus is about looking at the heart.  Jesus is about spiritual values, not materialism.  Jesus is about forgiveness.  Jesus is about opening up to foreigners and outsiders.  Jesus is about helping those less fortunate.  Jesus is about healing.  Jesus is about love.  Jesus is about connection with God.  I can cite chapter and verse for these assertions.

Is our society opposed to these messages?  I don’t think so.  I think that society basically would agree with these ideas.

What kind of world would oppose ideas like this?  It would be, one by one, a society that doesn’t look at the heart, that only looks at outward acts, that wants only more and greater status symbols and material goods, that lives for revenge, that hates foreigners, that only cares about one’s friends and family and no one else, that cares nothing for the poor, weak, and orphaned, that hurts instead of healing, that hates, that disbelieves and cares only about self.  Is this the world we live in?  Maybe.  But I hope not.

It is true that the world sends us messages, largely through TV commercials that run counter to Jesus’ message.  Expensive car commercials show people who are superior to others, or are superior by some standards.  That is a dual message: 1) buy an expensive car; and 2) be better than everyone else.  There are many movies whose plots turn around revenge.  It’s not “good guys versus bad guys.”  Rather it’s more and more, “You killed a loved one so I’m going to get you.”  So there are messages in the world that run counter to Jesus’ message.

But driving around town, I see a lot of Hondas and Fords on the road, so it’s not true that the world is populated by ubermenschen driving expensive cars.  I think most of society is people living with a beloved partner, or a circle of friends, going to work and coming home and trying to do the right thing.  Then there’s the issue of God.

A lot of people, I think, don’t have much room for God.  It’s not that they disbelieve, it’s that they have no time for God, no need for God.  You can’t separate God from Jesus’ message.  Maybe that’s why it may look like Jesus’ message is dead.  It’s certainly true that self-sufficiency is a strong drug.  Making it on your own; self-made man or woman.  Top of the heap.  Number one.

Then there’s the issue of church.  I think about young people clubbing to those insipid songs with pounding rhythm, overpowering bass tones, monotonous melodies.  Then I think about the 17th and 19th century hymns that we typically sing on Sunday.  And the notion of sitting still for an hour listening to me pray, read from the Bible, and preach.  It’s not surprising that some people would have other things to do.  And none of that is a necessary part of the Jesus message.  It is true that Jesus taught in synagogues and read the Scriptures in them.  And I think that Biblical literacy is important.  But that doesn’t mean the traditional church services that have evolved over millennia.  Nor does Christianity mean the vocal, politically-motivated proselytizing, self-righteous right-wing form that seems to get all the attention and would define all Christianity by their own style.  Indeed, all religion.

I think that society has been shaped by Judeo-Christian values.  We think that soup kitchens, Habitat-for Humanity, health care, minimum wage, friendliness, doing a good turn daily are good things.  While there are counter-messages to the Jesus message, I think that a lot of people would be attracted to what Jesus says, if they read His words freshly and without the lens of tradition and church.  While some churches exclude unbelievers, Jesus included everyone He contacted.  He even dined with a Pharisee on at least one occasion.  While churches are dwindling, I still think that Jesus’ message lives.

Parliament 2–The Nithya Healing Shrine

The Parliament of the World’s Religions isn’t just seminars.  There are crafts, schools, art, and other representations from the many cultures and religions that are present at the Parliament.  I went to the exhibit hall to look at crafts, books, jewelry, shawls, clothing and all kinds of merchandise from the 220 distinguishably different faiths at the conference. The exhibits room was vast, and a friend from home and I meandered around for a couple hours.  One interesting place we came upon was an imposing portable Hindu temple with golden statues and pillars, where Balasons, young girls who were brought up in a temple, were saying prayers of healing.  They were dressed all in orange, I suppose technically it is saffron.  You could get “scanned” by the third eye of the Balasons who would diagnose you and heal you.  The whole thing was frightening to me.  How does one walk up to the Balasons?  What do you do when you get up there?  What was all this?  What could a teen know about me or the world?  I was really skeptical about all this.  Furthermore, you were supposed to kneel in front of the Balasons, and I don’t kneel in front of anyone.

There were men and women loitering around the Balason temple who seemed to be part of the outfit.  I asked an elderly woman in a sarong if the girls were Yoginis (female yogis), and was told that they were higher than Yoginis.  My octogenarian friend generously did some recon for me.  She went up for a healing.  The young Balason prayed over my friend and told her to think of strength, say she is strong, and move more.  Afterward, my friend seemed to glow and did move faster throughout the rest of the day.  I thought about all this.  And decided that next day I would go up there and see what the Balason would do for me.  It was exposure to things like this that brought me to the Parliament.

Next day, I returned to the Nithya Spiritual Healing shrine, as I found out it was called.  I spoke with a beautiful middle-aged white woman in a sarong about what I was getting into.  I was thinking, “What’s a white girl like you doing here?”  But, of course, I couldn’t ask her, or so I thought.  She told me that the healing was called Nithya, and that the Balasons were disciples of the Guru Paramahamsa Nithyananda.  I inferred that the Nithya healing was named after their Guru.  A male in white Indian clothes, came up, and, when I told him I was going to write an article about this, he gave me all kinds of information.  This sect are worshippers of  ParamaShiva (Lord Shiva).  Their Guru is His Holiness Paramahamsa Nithyananda.  The Balasons have had their third eye opened by the Guru.  I decided to take the plunge.

They brought me a medical waiver to fill out.  Then I stood in line.  There was always a line all day long to see the Balasons.  Mostly women.  Standing in line, I was a mixture of skepticism, balanced with an open mind.  Today, people were sitting in front of the Balasons, instead of kneeling.  That, I could do.  My turn came.  The young Balason carried herself with authority, confidence, and detachment.  She had no ego.  She stunned me by speaking about a psycho-spiritual issue that had been plaguing me most of my life.  Then she said a second one.  And she was dead-on.  She closed her eyes and prayed a short while and said, “The healing is done.”  That meant our session was over.  She was right.  Right about everything about me—a stranger—and about the healing.  What she said to me was not the kind of general thing that would apply to everybody.  They were important issues I had, that I needed to hear articulated in words to make me understand how much of a problem it was and release I felt when it was articulated.  “Of course,” I thought.  She saw me with her third eye—me a skeptic.

Though the healing was free, they did have a donation box.  In my gratitude for the healing, I went to drop a donation into the box and saw the white woman who had assisted me with the forms and procedure.  She smiled a smile of gratitude when I dropped in my donation.  I looked her in the eyes and said, “There’s something to this!”  She smiled, saying nothing.  I knew she knew I understood.