Systems & Symptoms

Michael Metzger

by Mike Metzger & John Seel

System thinking and its implications…
The refusal of American colonials to buy British goods after the passage of the Stamp Act (1765) could be considered the first boycott. The practice didn’t receive its name until 1880, when English Captain Charles Cunningham Boycott’s ruthlessness in evicting Irish tenants, led his employees to refuse all cooperation with him and his family. Hereafter, refusing cooperation was called a “boycott.”

Arguably the most successful boycott began in 1791, when the British Parliament rejected (once again) a slavery abolition bill. After all the moralizing sermons and emotional appeals against the trade, a select group of shrewd abolitionist women began leveraging market forces. They thought in terms of systems, not simply morality. This is a worthwhile lesson for faith communities, who tend to invest more energy and money in redeeming people and less in redeeming society.

The English Slave Trade was a fairly simple economic triangle – classic mercantilism. Britain’s economy was fueled by sugar, which they consumed in vast quantities. It was the oil of the 18th century. “Besides sweetening the naturally bitter tea, coffee, and chocolate, sugar was used in pastries, puddings, biscuits, and candy, and in making many kinds of liquor. It was a preservative in candied fruit, jam, and marmalade, and a 1760 cookbook had recipes for sugar sculptures. One enthusiastic physician, Dr. Frederick Slare, urged the use of sugar for cleaning teeth.”1 It was a culinary symbol of wealth and refinement.

Growing, harvesting and refining sugar requires hot, humid climates, such as the Caribbean. The British West Indies, however, lacked adequate manpower. African slaves were the necessary solution to the supply chain. During the course of the English Slave Trade, over two million slaves were imported from Africa to the Caribbean. By 1833, with the complete abolition of the trade, only a quarter survived. As one historian put it: “The Caribbean was a slaughterhouse.”2

For years, abolitionists harangued members of the British Parliament concerning the evils of the slave trade. Yet their efforts were consistently thwarted. After Parliament’s 1791 rejection of an abolition bill, a group of women published a series of pamphlets urging citizens to stop using sugar. They incorporated markets with morality. One of the booklets sold an estimated seventy thousand copies in four months. Men were startled by its success. At least 400,000 homes eventually boycotted sugar. The English poet Robert Southey spoke of British tea as “a blood-sweetened beverage.” In several parts of England, grocers reported sales of sugar dropping by a third to a half.

Boycotts are tricky. William Wilberforce, for example, was wary of a sugar boycott. In a global economy, he recognized sugar could be bought elsewhere. And it was. “Over a two-year period, the sale of sugar from India increased more than ten-fold.”3 Others in the Clapham Circle believed a boycott was a good remedy and spurred on the women’s work. Yet out of respect for Wilberforce, they took no official stand.

The lesson here is not the virtues and limits of boycotts. Rather, people seeking to improve the world ought to think in terms of systems, not simply morality. This is practical advice for those who tend to approach social problems solely in terms of individual activities. Christian Smith, a sociologist at the University of Notre Dame, found that evangelicals are drawn to missions of mercy to the poor, the homeless, and the addicted. “Worthy as these projects may be,” Smith warns, “none of them attempt to transform social or cultural systems, but merely to alleviate some of the harm caused by the existing system.”4 Individual responses are not enough, when a systemic response is required.

Management consultants observe, “Your systems are perfectly designed for the results you are getting.” This has two implications. First, systems have their own logic. They create inevitable realities. For example, one may lament the success of films such as Super Bad or The Hangover. And yet, Hollywood is perfectly designed for just such films. The business model dictates the kinds of films that are going to be given theatrical release. There is no way that thoughtful smaller independent films – stories geared to mature audiences – are going to be given much attention by the current Hollywood system. The problems of the film industry cannot be solved within the same system that created it. Second, often the answers we seek demand thinking outside of the system. In the world of technology, these pockets of intentional innovation are often called Skunk Works – after the famous Lockheed design team that built the P-80 Shooting Star. Faith communities have for too long been followers – a “day late and a dollar short.” We need to expand our horizons to think systems… sometimes for the sake of abandoning the given system for the greater good.

When Harvie Conn was a missionary in South Korea, he witnessed many prostitutes coming to faith in Christ. Yet there was no economic system for these women to find work. They were trapped between solicitation and starvation. The church was not equipped to respond to their need. That was due to its focus on saving individual souls over changing society’s structures. Faithfulness to the gospel demands both.

“The idea that the gospel is addressed only to the individual,” chides Anglican theologian Lesslie Newbigin, “and that it is only indirectly addressed to societies, nations, and cultures is simply an illusion of our individualist post-Enlightenment Western culture.”5 Loving God and our neighbor requires addressing social and economic systems, not simply alleviating individual symptoms. Ours is a Big Picture gospel that often challenges the taken for granted.

1 Adam Hochschild, Bury The Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin, 2005), pp. 194-5.
2 Hochschild, Bury, p.67
3 Hochschild, Bury, p.193
4 Christian Smith et al, American Evangelicalism: Embattled and Thriving (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1998), p. 201, 198.
5 Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmanns, 1989), p. 199.


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