In Our Economic Crisis, Who Do We Project Our Anxiety Onto? Who Pays the Cost? (Family Systems Thinking and a Biblical Parable)

Disclosure: Today’s post was written after a great workshop by Rev. Dr. Joseph J. Clifford of First Presbyterian Church Dallas. He taught on family systems in the church and the Bible, and as he spoke he spurred on much thinking in my mind. This post is partly my working out some of his thinking on family systems, Biblical parables and how it applies to our current American economic crisis. So there is some tangential thinking going on..still connecting dots. I would love feedback on the post, especially if you are tracking with it or not tracking.

FAMILY SYSTEMS
One of the things that I enjoyed in my Marriage and Family graduate work is the research of Murray Bowen, Edwin Friedman, and other family systems thinkers. It’s especially fascinating when you apply family systems thinking to churches (staffs, congregations), cities, countries, cultures, etc.

There are several key components to family systems, and sometimes it can get quite complicated, but what I’m interested in for this post, and what I will overgeneralize is the concept of anxiety within a system, and how that anxiety is often projected onto someone, or something else. For example, in a family, often when there is anxiety between spouses it can be projected onto a child. In a larger context when there is anxiety, for example in a culture or country, anxiety can be projected onto other people groups, politics, etc.

When anxiety enters that system the goal of that system, whether it be a family, or a society, is to reduce that anxiety and bring the system back to a homeostatic state….otherwise to balance it out. This can be done in many ways, but often the anxiety is balanced out in the system because it has been put on someone or something else outside of it. This is an over simplification, but I think you get the idea.

For example this is what you see in the work of Bowen (in Wikipedia)

He obtained a great deal of information while at Georgetown, including the need to make a hard effort to remain an objective party. He first attempted to have sessions with families and staff on the assumption that togetherness and open communication would be therapeutic. His staff began to become pulled in different directions and the same effect carried through when he attempted these multifamily meetings alone. He decided that families needed to be met with one at a time. During this time he also coined the term “emotional cutoff”. Emotional cutoff refers to the natural mechanisms people use to counter high anxiety or high emotional fusion, from unresolved issues with family. Cutoff can look like physical or emotional withdrawal, avoidance of sensitive topics, physically moving away from family members, and rarely going home.

So if you and your friend aren’t getting along you will pull a third party in to relieve your anxiety, or you may just cut the other person out. Either way you are attempting to bring the system back into balance.

ECONOMICS AND THE FINANCIAL CRISIS
There is no question that our American culture is feeling a lot of anxiety due to the current state of our economic situation (banks failing, mortgage crisis, debt, stocks falling, high gas prices). So the question becomes:

With all of our anxiety due to the financial crisis, who can we, or who will we project that onto?

We are all looking for an answer. We are upset at the realities of CEO’s of major financial organizations walking away with millions of dollars in bonuses, even though they file for bankruptcy. We are upset that the American taxpayers are being asked to carry the burden. On and on it goes.

Greed and fear, which routinely govern financial markets, have seeded this global crisis.
Robert J. Samuelson in Newsweek

Greed and fear. Could it be that it is our greed and fear has brought on this crisis, and ultimately led us to this place of anxiety?

As I see it, and I’m no economist, everyone plays a role in the current state of this economic craziness.

From individuals, to households, to large corporations is it possible that we have all overextended ourselves? Is it possible that our pursuit of the America dream, and our competition to keep up with the Jones’ has brought us into debt not only individually, but corporately?

I won’t blame President Bush for this, because I think we all at times think economically out of greed and fear. After 9/11 President Bush said: (in what I think is somewhat misinterpreted as “go out and shop”)

I ask your continued participation and confidence in the American economy.

We are fearful of losing our way of life, our comfort, so we shop and consume to lower the anxiety. We want what others have, and aren’t content with what we have, so we become greedy in our pursuit for more and more.

A BIBLICAL PARABLE

Mark 5
The Healing of a Demon-possessed Man
1They went across the lake to the region of the Gerasenes.[a] 2When Jesus got out of the boat, a man with an evil[b] spirit came from the tombs to meet him. 3This man lived in the tombs, and no one could bind him any more, not even with a chain. 4For he had often been chained hand and foot, but he tore the chains apart and broke the irons on his feet. No one was strong enough to subdue him. 5Night and day among the tombs and in the hills he would cry out and cut himself with stones.

6When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and fell on his knees in front of him. 7He shouted at the top of his voice, “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? Swear to God that you won’t torture me!” 8For Jesus had said to him, “Come out of this man, you evil spirit!”

9Then Jesus asked him, “What is your name?”

“My name is Legion,” he replied, “for we are many.” 10And he begged Jesus again and again not to send them out of the area.

11A large herd of pigs was feeding on the nearby hillside. 12The demons begged Jesus, “Send us among the pigs; allow us to go into them.” 13He gave them permission, and the evil spirits came out and went into the pigs. The herd, about two thousand in number, rushed down the steep bank into the lake and were drowned.

14Those tending the pigs ran off and reported this in the town and countryside, and the people went out to see what had happened. 15When they came to Jesus, they saw the man who had been possessed by the legion of demons, sitting there, dressed and in his right mind; and they were afraid. 16Those who had seen it told the people what had happened to the demon-possessed man—and told about the pigs as well. 17Then the people began to plead with Jesus to leave their region.

18As Jesus was getting into the boat, the man who had been demon-possessed begged to go with him. 19Jesus did not let him, but said, “Go home to your family and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” 20So the man went away and began to tell in the Decapolis[c]how much Jesus had done for him. And all the people were amazed.

From a family systems perspective there are many things we can look at in this story. But one reality is that the community, to lower its anxiety, cast the demonic out in the wilderness. This is something that we see happen all the time. To lower our own anxiety we often remove homeless people from our communities. Or we live in cities where we are okay with the diversity of ethnic groups as long as that group lives on that side of town, and not in ours. As long as those boundaries are set, we can regulate our anxiety.

But ultimately the demonic is healed by Jesus, but at what cost. The cost was the herd of swine, and possibly the living that the herders were making from the swine. There is redemption from demonic possession for the man, but there is also a cost in the process. Just as there is redemption from our economic possession, but also a cost in the process.

The question we are left with then is, “Who is to pay for the cost?” That is a tough question to answer in this story. We want the demonic to be healed, but if we are to really think through the story there is a sense of injustice in that the swine herders lose their livestock. Maybe they are responsible for casting out the demonic, so maybe it’s not injustice. But as in many Biblical stories there are many perspectives from which to look at the story.

But I think that is the question we are asking ourselves in America. With so many perspectives and lenses through which to view the situation who is to pay for the financial crisis? It is the rich? Is it the poor? Is it the taxpayers? Should we bail out the banks, corporations, etc.? Should we just let the chips fall and see where they land? That is a great question with no good answer, because in our attempt to redeem the situation, ultimately someone is going to have to pay the cost. The question is who?

CONCLUSION
As I wrestle with this issue only one perspective keeps coming again and again to me and I will leave you with it, especially since I have a hard time living it out myself.

Matthew 6:19-21
Treasures in Heaven
19″Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. 20But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

For a great look at Family Systems Thinking in Ministry, Leadership and Church check out the works of Edwin Friedman.

For a great look at socio-economics, politics, etc. in the Gospel of Mark, read Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus.

8 Comments

  1. by C. Wess daniels on September 26, 2008  10:36 pm Reply

    Rhett, fantastic insights. The point about anxiety cuts to the heart of consumerism and the state we're currently in.

    As you said,"We are fearful of losing our way of life, our comfort, so we shop and consume to lower the anxiety."

    Interesting point you make here - consumption leads to the perceived relief of anxiety, all the while greatly increasingly our frenetic desire for excess, a desire that only increases our anxiety further.

    I think the point about there being a cost, is a point that we as Christians would do well to sit with a while and really think about what it might look like to live in the reality that the only way to break the anxiety is not through more consumption, but through a gift economy. That is giving, and giving up, in order to break the cycle of exchange in consumerism.

    Thanks for getting this conversation going in this direction.

  2. by Rhett Smith on September 27, 2008  5:41 am Reply

    Wess:

    Thanks for checking the post out. I like what you have always had to say on issues of consumerism, etc.

    Andrew Jones posted on his blog in a reply to one of my comments some of his posts and resources on gift economy, which is something that really fascinates me and am interested in.

    He says:

    "Kester Brewin tapped into Lewis Hydes "The Gift" when he did his chapter on gift in Signs of Emergence

    Jean Luc Marion's Being Given is great but more theoretical."

    http://tallskinnykiwi.typepad.com/tallskinnykiwi/2004/09/a_gift_economy.html

    http://tallskinnykiwi.typepad.com/tallskinnykiwi/2004/11/generosity_and_.html


    Also, I'm really interested in Ched Myers thoughts on Sabbath economics....

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sabbath_economics

    Anyone have any other thoughts or resources?

    rhett

  3. by Rhett Smith on September 27, 2008  5:41 am Reply

    Wess:

    Thanks for checking the post out. I like what you have always had to say on issues of consumerism, etc.

    Andrew Jones posted on his blog in a reply to one of my comments some of his posts and resources on gift economy, which is something that really fascinates me and am interested in.

    He says:

    "Kester Brewin tapped into Lewis Hydes "The Gift" when he did his chapter on gift in Signs of Emergence

    Jean Luc Marion's Being Given is great but more theoretical."

    http://tallskinnykiwi.typepad.com/tallskinnykiwi/2004/09/a_gift_economy.html

    http://tallskinnykiwi.typepad.com/tallskinnykiwi/2004/11/generosity_and_.html


    Also, I'm really interested in Ched Myers thoughts on Sabbath economics....

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sabbath_economics

    Anyone have any other thoughts or resources?

    rhett

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