Dear Church, pray for graceful solutions for our wicked problems

Dear Church,

I am so honored to be here with you, readers and authors alike. I resonate with so much of what has been shared in this blog space. The intersection of the Church, race, and injustice is messy and entangled. Each overwhelming on its own. To approach them together, is to walk toward the heart of many wicked problems.

In Organizational Psychology, there is a category of problems called “Wicked Problems.” They can be defined as “a social or cultural problem that is difficult or impossible to solve for as many as four reasons: 1) incomplete or contradictory knowledge, 2) the number of people and opinions involved, 3) the large economic burden, 4) and the interconnected nature of these problems with other problems.” The scale of wicked problems ranges from individual identities to cultural institutions. With so many factors, becoming overwhelmed is easy because solutions are difficult to recognize.

It’s been easy for me to get consumed by attempting to solve the problems on my own willpower (#whiteguilt). That has proven to be unsustainable, resulting in a quick road to burn out. These days, I approach wicked problems with a certain respect and humility for their size and power. In reverence to and awe of an even greater power, I source my power from God.

As I age, making mistakes and progress, I grow increasingly confident that wicked problems cannot be solved without a power greater than myself. I believe that power is called by many names, including God. I believe diversity, relationship, grace, mercy, and love are the base language of God, and are essential guides toward liberation.

I don’t believe the path to liberation is simple, singular, or static. Instead, my faith and experience tell me the solutions are developmental and dynamic. They require individuals and institutions to evolve through accountability and justice, healing and reconciliation. I’m finding the real medicine to these wicked problems is in the grace and mercy of God. This grace and mercy dwells in a diversity of relationships; the relationship to ourselves, to one another, to the Earth, and to God.

This grace compels me to reflect on myself and speak from within my own story in order to share what has helped my identity development. Through my story, I hope to share how my lens affects how I see the world, and to share some tools that have helped me see more clearly. I am reminded of the scripture from Matthew 7:3 (NIV):

“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?”

In my 41 years on Earth, I’ve worked as a musician, educator, and organizer focused on leadership and community development. Diversity, inclusion, equity, and anti-oppression work have been a constant throughout my career. I have also reached burnout and compassion fatigue on three occasions. Specifically, this looked like long bouts of anxiety and insomnia, resulting in depression.

Each burnout and subsequent stepping back, allowed me to rest, heal, and integrate new awareness and allowed my identity to shift. Most of the lessons where humbling, and each one redefined my relationships to self and the world I inherited. It also changed my understanding of God.

I grew up in Jackson, Mississippi, in a community deeply conflicted. I inherited privilege in almost every category of social status. I am a middle-aged man with European features, from educated parents, whose sexuality matches my body anatomy, and who is attracted to the opposite sex. In this way, life’s systems are working for me. However, though I pass as able bodied, I am not. I developed Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) over the summer between first and second grade. RA is an autoimmune disorder, which means my body is in conflict with itself. I do not have many memories of a life free from chronic pain is. I live in a system that is chronically working against me. In equity trainings and conversations, I often hear that last sentence from racially marginalized groups.

My RA has become my biggest blessing and point of connection to this larger work of reconciliation. It affords me great empathy for the pain of others. By working with my chronic pain, I have been able to admit my power and privilege. I once heard a facilitator speak of her ownership of power. She said that she wasn’t truly able to own her power and privilege as long as she hadn’t healed the parts of her that were still hurt and victimized. In my case, I could hardly admit privilege while being in so much pain. Once I reconciled this part of myself, no longer feeling broken by it, I could better see my power and privilege.

Wicked problems are perfectly named when considering race. I consider race to be the greatest lie ever told. It’s a human fabrication, a social construct taken as gospel. Thanks to many experiments, like the Stanford Prison Experiment, we know people take on roles. It also seems roles take over people. What we now call “race”, an outgrowth of white supremacy, born and perpetuated in European science, philosophy, education, and religion. Like a virus, race has infected every level of community from our bodies to the systems and institutions where we live and work. It is internalized by people, then institutionalized in a vicious, wicked feedback loop. Indeed, evil in thought, word, and deed.

Healing, integrating, and reconciling are synonyms in this work, from individual bodies to institutional bodies. So, it makes sense, that internalized racism needs attention at every level of the Body. The apostle Paul so eloquently evokes the community as the Body of Christ. As a student of organizational and community development, many of the field’s thought leaders are using anatomical terms for large systems (vision, heart, metabolism, immune system). Organizations and communities are being approached as organisms. Paul is a visionary in this way.

Wicked Problems cannot be solved with the same level of consciousness that caused them. For this to happen, I must develop and evolve. The solutions emerge and evolve as a result trial and error, feedback, and most importantly, in relationships. In my life, the most significant development I have done in my personal work around all aspects of my identity, has been with mentors who challenged me, allowed me to mess up, and loved me through. Mentors and leaders who model the characteristics of compassion, love, and visionary power, just as I understand God.

Tools for the Journey

Finally, I’d like to share a few resources that have been essential for my identity development. The resources address many levels of reconciliation and change, from massive social systems to the human heart. The books give me hints at what might be necessary for the next stage evolution. I believe they are teachers of graceful solutions. In order to move beyond inclusion and beyond empowerment, the great work (of racial reconciliation) will require us cracking the codes we inherited and addressing our immunity to change, in order to experience a joy unspeakable.

The Great Work by Thomas Berry

Beyond Inclusion, Beyond Empowerment by Leticia Nieto

Cracking the Codes by Shakti Butler

Immunity to Change by Lisa Laskow Lahey and Robert Kegan

Joy Unspeakable by Barbara A. Holmes

In Christ,

John Stewart: “After two decades in the Pacific Northwest working as a musician, educator, and organizer, John has returned to his roots. He is currently reinventing himself (or being reinvented) in New Orleans, as a member of the intentional community at First Grace United Methodist Church, a reconciling congregation. You can find him hanging out at the intersection of his passions: rhythm, culture, power (spiritual, personal, systemic, solar, etc.), embodiment, and stewardship. Above all, John is a reconciler. To learn more, check out his blog post “Growing Up in Black and White.”

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