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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Fathers and Atypical Swedenborgian Monotheism

All that Belongs to the Father Is Mine

Rev. David J. Fekete, Ph.D.

June 16, 2019

Isaiah 45:5-8, 22-24                                        John 16:12-15                                     Psalm 8

Quite a while back I was interviewing for a teaching position at our divinity school in California.  I made the observation that in Swedenborgian theology, the male corresponds to truth and the female to love.  The dean of the consortium to which our divinity school belonged challenged this doctrine.  He said, “I feel that I love my children as deeply as my wife does.”  Fathers do love their children as deeply as their wives do.  I was caught off guard by this remark.  I didn’t say what dawned on me later.  I could have asked him if he expresses his love in the same way as his wife does.  I still believe that there is a distinction between the way men and women express love.  But this doesn’t mean that fathers love their children any less than mothers do.  The fathers I observe in this church are very affectionate with their children.

Fathers haven’t always shown their love for their children.  In my parents’ generation, fathers were often the disciplinarians in the family.  “Just wait till your father gets home,” I often heard my mother say.  It was difficult to relate to my father on a day to day basis; he wasn’t easy to talk with; and his general manner was harsh.  While my father may have expressed his love for me decidedly differently than my mother did, on a few occasions he indicated his love dramatically.  There was one time when I had set out across the United States and moved to a far-away city.  I was going to be my own man, stand on my own two feet, and make it on my own.  I didn’t need my parents; I was a man.  Later, a friend of mine and I were driving back to our parents’ house in the winter for Christmas vacation.  As it turned out, my van broke down outside of Detroit.  We had to hitch-hike into the city.  We waited and waited for someone to pick us up.  But no one did.  Standing outside in a blizzard, in the freezing cold, we seriously wondered if anyone would ever pick us up, or would we die in the cold.  There weren’t any cell-phones back then, so there was no way to call anyone.  Finally, we did get a ride, and my friend and I got dropped off at the bus station in Detroit.  What do you suppose this man who was standing on his own two feet, who didn’t need his family, who was going to make it on his own, what do you suppose the first thing he did upon arriving at the bus station?  I called home and my dad answered the phone.  I broke up, and couldn’t talk.  My dad asked me where I was.  And while my mother slept through it all, my dad drove out in a blizzard to the bus station and took me home.

Years passed.  Now I was completing my studies for ministry.  But after five years of studying in good standing, the Committee on Admission to the Ministry had doubts about me.  At Convention in 1985, they held a meeting of the whole council of ministers late at night to decide whether they would ordain me.  In a rather perverse display of ineptitude, they told me to sit outside the meeting room while they deliberated just in case they wanted to bring me in for questioning.  I had gotten a degree at our church’s university, spent five years in our church’s divinity school, I was now 29 years old, and my future was being decided in the meeting room I was sitting outside of.  I sat there for three hours.  But I didn’t sit there alone.  For the whole three hours, my father sat next to me, trying to make the unbearable situation bearable.  My mother had gone to bed.

All this happened when I was living in Boston.  The result of the meeting was that I wouldn’t be ordained.  I had no future.  Over the next year, I applied to Ph.D. programs.  One by one, my applications were declined.  Only one came through, the University of Virginia.  Then, as I was preparing to make the move from Boston to Charlottesville, Virginia, the engine blew out on my car.  My father drove all the way from Detroit to Boston, had a trailer-hitch installed on his car, helped me load up a U-Haul, drove me down to Charlottesville, and helped me get set-up in my new apartment.

It’s unfortunate that my father was so hard to deal with on a day-to-day basis.  Though these dramatic actions demonstrated how much he loved me, our relationship remained strained throughout our lives.  I think that he believed that a father had to be in charge all the time;–be the boss.

I think that today’s fathers feel differently about their role in the family.  Showing outward affection, hugging, playing with their children are things that today’s fathers do, which fathers of my dad’s generation didn’t.  Today, we see stay-at-home-dads.  Today’s dads are nurturing.  Like mothers.  Maybe today, even the differences between the way women and men show affection are beginning to diminish.  Men and women are beginning to show love in analogous ways.

This new direction in fatherhood has important theological resonances.  We use male language when we talk about God.  We talk about God the Father and God the Son.  And with today’s fathers showing love outwardly, our images of God are more loving than they had been a generation ago.

However, in Swedenborgian language we speak of God as Divine Love and Divine Wisdom.  This includes both masculine and feminine correspondences in Swedenborg’s system.  Remember, the feminine corresponds to love and the masculine to wisdom.  So seen as love and wisdom, God holds includes feminine and masculine aspects.

This Sunday is also Trinity Sunday.  And once again, I need to state that Swedenborgians do not have a doctrine of Three Persons, as do traditional Christians.  Our understanding is based on language like we heard in John, “All that belongs to the Father is mine” (John 16:15).  Only if Father and Son are the same Person can Jesus say, “All that belongs to the Father is mine.”  It is all Jesus’ because the Father is in Him and He is in the Father.  It is not that they are as one—they are one.  How else are we to understand Isaiah 45:22,

Turn to me and be saved,
all you ends of the earth;
for I am God, and there is no other

Most Christians think that it is Jesus who saves.  But Isaiah 45 clearly says that it is Yahweh who saves, or Jehovah as the King James Version translates God’s name.  And also, Yahweh clearly says, “I am God, and there is no other.”  So either Jesus isn’t God, or Jesus is Yahweh.  “All that belongs to the Father is mine.”  Jesus and the Father are one.  Jesus is Yahweh in the flesh.  “I am God and there is no other.”

Among the last things that Jesus says after His resurrection is, “All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth” (Matthew 28:18).  Jesus has all power because He is one with the Father, is Yahweh in the flesh.  This is what John’s Gospel means when it says, “Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God” (John 13:3).  Only God comes from God and goes back to God.  Only God has all things under His power.  Jesus is God; God is Jesus.  Jesus is God, and there is no other.

The End Times and Us

For those interested, I have a novel take on the book of Revelation at the following link:

The Jesus Question

For those who are interested in Christianity, I delivered a talk on the Jesus question last Sunday which is too long to post as a blog.  My talk may be accessed at:

Jesus Christ Superstar Revisited

I remember hitch-hiking to the lake my uncle lived on, one summer in 1970.  I got picked up by a car with four girls in it.  As a male adolescent, I couldn’t believe my good luck, riding in a car with four girls in it.  They had the car radio tuned to the FM rock station (back then there was AM radio, which played “bubble-gum” pop music, and there was FM which played acid rock like Hendrix, Clapton, Ten Years After, and Jethro Tull).  “Jesus Christ Superstar” came on the radio.  I asked the girls, “Is this Jesus Christ Superstar that everybody’s talking about?”  They didn’t know.

The fact is, everybody was talking about Jesus Christ Superstar in 1970.  It was one of the most popular rock-operas next to Tommy, by The Who.  And it launched Andrew LLoyd Webber’s illustrious career, who wrote the music for Jesus Christ Superstar.  Everybody had to have an opinion about Jesus Christ Superstar–stoners, clergy, church-goers, theater buffs, everybody across the board.  It was that much of a sensation.  Life Magazine devoted a whole issue to it.

Jesus Christ Superstar challenged religion, which happened a lot in the late ’60’s/early ’70’s.  The very title, calling Jesus a superstar, was a challenge.  And Jesus Christ Superstar was good rock music.  We listened to it over and over again because we liked the music.  But this rock-opera also took the Jesus story seriously, and engaged with the story seriously.  I remember one evening while there was a social event at our church’s divinity school.  One minister offered to listen to the whole rock-opera with any church goers who wanted to do so.  Then, after we heard the piece, he opened up the floor for questions and comments.  We took it that seriously, and the minister took it that seriously.  Some thought it was sacrilegious; some thought that it brought the Jesus story into the modern world; some thought it was a holy opera; some thought it was too strange a mixture of religion and rock.  But everyone had something to say about it.  Godspell came out later, but it wasn’t the musical masterpiece nor as sensational as was Jesus Christ Superstar.

What occasions these reminiscences is my TV.  On the retro channel, due to the Christmas season, they just played Jesus Christ Superstar.  Watching it so many years later, I had many feelings.  But I was mostly struck with the thought that they could never make this album and movie today.  Back in 1970, religion had a strong enough influence in society that you could make an album about religion, and it would mean something.  There is so much religious apathy today that Jesus Christ Superstar would largely be ignored.  And Andrrew Lloyd Webber’s career wouldn’t be launched by it today.  Consider two films, The Passion of the Christ in 2004; and The Last Temptation of Christ in 1988.  I thought I should see The Last Temptation of Christ.  It was a  shocking movie in its day because it depicted Jesus and Mary Magdalene in a sexual relationship.  I didn’t see The Passion of the Christ, and didn’t think I needed to.  These films came and went but weren’t the sensation that Jesus Christ Superstar was.  And they were only movies, they weren’t music and film and theater all, as was Jesus Christ Superstar.

It would largely be ignored today because religion is largely ignored today.  An opera that engages seriously with the Jesus story wouldn’t catch on because of the so few people who also engage seriously with the Jesus story.  Or with religion itself.  W. H. Auden writes, “But on earth indifference is the least/We have to dread from man or beast.”  I think today’s indifference to religion, though, is indeed something we do have to dread.  If we still can dread anything–other than something that threatens self-interest.  Apathy and indifference is more of a threat than we may credit it to be.  I’m glad that the abuses and ridiculous and hurtful ideas from religion are being denounced and done away with.  And if apathy is the remedy for this, well and good.  But by the same token, the bland world I am finding myself in today, is still frightening.  To me, it is a deafening silence.

Religion and the Onslaught of the ’60’s

In the movie MASH Hawkeye observes Major Frank Burns praying, and remarks, “Have you ever seen this syndrome before?”  Duke replies, “Not in someone over the age of eight.”  That interchange captures the spirit of the late ’60’s/late ’70’s.  Irreverent, anti-authority, self-confident, free love,–and in the movie, elitist.

I grew up in the ’60’s/’70’s and feel that there is much to be treasured from that era, now gone.  Peace and love, philosophy, self-reliance, music, freedom, individuality.  But along with these ideals, this idealistic time, came the kind of spirit that MASH captures so well.  Religion is ridiculed and the religious Frank Burns is an intolerable character.

Where so we go from there?  The spirit of the ’60’s/’70’s declared religion to be childish and ridiculous, and irreverent camaraderie to be the virtue of the day.  I think society bought it, and that those values persist today.  People turn to pop-culture to find behavioral norms and proprieties.  And for some, probably a lot, there is no place for prayer, no use for prayer.

Churches are failing, even synagogues and mosques are seeing diminution in attendance.  A while back I thought we are in a “post-Christian” age.  Now I see it as a “post-religious” age.  Even the “spiritual-but-not-religious” demographic is less than half of North American culture, and only a fraction of the population in Europe.

Certainly there were bad ideas in religions.  Certainly there were abuses of power.  Certainly there was hypocrisy.  But religion also contributed some of society’s most glorious cultural artworks, literature, philosophy, and, of course, theology.  The religious and spiritual impulse is a beautiful aspect in the human situation.  It makes the psyche sing.  It gives us honesty, sincerity, generosity, care for others, the quest for truth, repentance and human perfection, and ecstasy.  Without spirituality, what are we left with?

“But on earth indifference is the least/We have to dread from man or beast,” the poet W. H. Auden writes.  I don’t know.  I fear indifference.  I can’t but feel that the indifference to religion and even spirituality is numbing society.  We’re getting bland to everything, getting bland.  And we are retreating into tribes.  Instead of spiritual community that reaches out to the stranger and foreigner, we are retreating into tribes that close off the other.  We ignore religion to the peril of the loving community that the world can be.  While religion is often castigated for causing wars, I think that the lack of genuine religion is causing us to be more xenophobic and antagonistic to the other.  Will the indifference of our age ever produce another work like Beethoven’s 9th?  Will we ever know again the peace that passes understanding?  Will we ever again sing, “Love divine!  All loves excelling!”

What I Was and Am

Considering where I came from

Where

What it was

I’ve come a long way

The horror

The pain

The hurt

Hurt, hate, and anger

So, I developed

Developed coping mechanisms

Is this the naissance of evil?

Time heals only with deliberate application

Of religion

 

Religion is a work in progress

God!

The religion I came from

That developed in my nascent environment

Religion is a kind of feed-back loop

Developing along with me

As I apply religious principles and develop

So those principles develop

Without religion I would be lost

And I am so close to being lost

A person’s enemies are of one’s own household

Religion and regeneration

Rebirth–born again

Hope

Come a long way

What I came from

What I was

Hope

What I am now

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