Peace is Systemic


This essay won first place in Bethany Theological Seminary’s 2008 Peace Essay Writing Contest which asked the question: “What story will a Peace Church tell the world?” It was published in Messenger, September 2008, Vol. 157, no. 8.)


Rev. David Lee Jones, Th.D.

Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary

April 2007


The Outdoor Life Network documentary: The Case of the Missing Salmon chronicles the plight of the Oweekeno Village in northern British Columbia, Canada.  The Oweekeno Tribe inhabits the village of Rivers Inlet which, prior to the fall of 1999, saw over three million salmon make their annual spawning run through their inlet.  In the fall of 1999, however, the unthinkable happened–only 3500 salmon came–three million less than usual.

The villagers were first alerted that something was terribly wrong when the local grizzly bears, who lived in relative harmony with the natives for thousands of years, presented a serious problem. The bears, which made their annual pre-hibernation trek to the streams to gorge themselves on the fall run of salmon, altered the peace and stability of the village by rummaging through garbage cans and threatening to break into houses for food.  The bears were starving.

That fall, the villagers shot fourteen bears–mostly mothers and their cubs.  It was a sad chapter in an otherwise longstanding peaceful relationship between the bears and the village.  What began as a “bear problem” soon revealed itself to be a salmon problem which ultimately pointed to a massive–possibly global-environmental problem.

Scientists and environmentalists searched for clues to unlock the mystery of what happened to the missing salmon. The documentary suggests that there was a convergence, “a perfect storm” of related issues which contributed to the salmon’s disappearance.

First, Rivers Inlet has endured longstanding commercial fishing.  Secondly, since the 1960’s the area has significantly increased mass lumbering of its old growth forests.  Razing the forests has had a profound effect on the rivers and inlets in the area.  Removing trees near the banks of rivers increases silt runoff and depletes necessary shade.  The increase of silt and the loss of shade cause water temperatures to rise and salmon are very susceptible to changes in water temperature.  One environmentalist in the film noted that just one degree increase in water temperature can cause salmon to turn away from an inlet.

Additionally, the warming of the river opened the door for a nasty and unnatural predator of salmon eggs and fry–the mackerel–to come into Rivers Inlet.   Add to this the lumber companies’ policy of spraying Round-up and other herbicides into recently logged areas and things get worse.  Since the Oweekeno depend on the salmon for their livelihood–they increased their logging efforts to make-up for the loss of fishing income.  When the salmon disappeared– the eagles flew away.  The bears and villagers didn’t have that luxury.  Further, the local trees are now at risk because they get about 75% of their nitrogen from the decaying salmon carcasses that the bears eat and discard.  Fewer decaying salmon means less nitrogen.

photo courtesy When human beings feel anxious and threatened they usually acquiesce to the impulses of the least developed part of the brain which sends the alarm–fight or flight! So it is understandable that anxious villagers turned to deadly violence when the bears ransacked their village, but violence is far too quick and easy a solution to complex systemic problems.  In today’s volatile world, far too few patiently pursue peaceful alternatives to violence. Peeling back the many layers of this story we see that shooting the bears eliminated a symptom–not the underlying systemic causes.

The starving bears present for the Church a powerful metaphor–for when those who ordinarily exist in relative peace and harmony with others one day become uncharacteristically aggressive–shouldn’t we find out why they are so hungry and try feeding them before killing them?  I was a pastor for over twenty-one years.  On my best days, family systems theory helped me appeal to my higher brain and spiritual-self in anxious and threatening times in order to remain less reactive.  Occasionally, I could transcend my carnal nature and learn to pause rather than react primitively when angry or upset parishioners began “clawing” at my office door.  Instead of responding by yelling: “Honey, get the Winchester!”  I began to wonder why they were so hungry or hurting and what was going on systemically. Unfortunately, learning such patient curiosity is a spiritual art that demands remarkable diligence and discipline.  I tried to ponder whether there was a way to feed them instead of fight with them.  Fighting generally only increases the conflict and leaves a residual of hard feelings with a long shelf life–sometimes over many generations.

When one hears that 14 bears went on a rampage in a small Canadian village it is easy to assume that the bears perpetrated the violence and deserved to be shot–but when you learn they were starving and were just trying to survive–you instead rightly conclude they were actually the “symptom bearers” crying out for help in a sick system.

Human beings are not very good at calmly peeling back the layers of our respective systems because we are not very good at either discovering or acknowledging that we always share in the complicity of a sick system.  The French have a saying: “For the response–we are all responsible.”  If we pull back the lens far enough we always discover underlying and often surprising reasons for conflict.   Such mature self-assessment is not for the faint of heart.

Bowenian family systems theory (in concert with Paul’s theology of the Church being the Body of Christ) invites us to question our initial assumptions about peace and conflict.  First, family system theory suggests that as soon as we blame one part of a system for a system’s problems, we have lost the appropriate focus.  In family systems theory there are no “good guys” and there are no “bad guys”–one country’s freedom fighter is another country’s terrorist.   Rather, systems theory rightly focuses on how anxiety affects the interconnectedness of all the parts.  Anxiety increases any system’s capacity to become volatile and react violently.  Family systems theorists are famous for noting that there can be no pathology without a host cell.  Systems get sick because their self-regulating antibodies have been compromised or there is an absence of mature leadership or the presence of immature leadership at the top. Every healthy body, organization, or nation has a healthy “head” which monitors and regulates the body’s health and actions.

In his book, Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times, theologian and systems expert Peter Steinke notes that the family systems’ concept of self-differentiation has four salient constructs.  These four constructs offer fresh and practical applications for peace-making.

First, self-differentiation means articulating a clear statement of self: “This is me–this is not me.”  “I like this and I don’t like that.”  “This is where I end and you begin.”  Differentiation is always about maintaining appropriate boundaries with others–and not meddling in other persons’ business or territory.  It means taking the log out of our own eye before noticing the speck in the other’s eye.  Self-differentiation requires individuals first to ask themselves how they are functioning in the system–its focus begins by assessing oneself and not diagnosing others.

Second, differentiation depends on a mature commitment to staying appropriately connected to the larger system.  In systems theory, a clear articulation of self is always married to remaining connecting to the larger system. There can be no “Lone Ranger” mentality in a maturely self-differentiated person or system.  One always weighs how one’s behavior will affect and effect the larger system.  Incidentally, compromise and meekness and self-differentiation are not mutually exclusive

Third, differentiated persons and systems possess the capacity to remain emotionally non-reactive–even in anxious situations.  The Oweekeno people had other options to solve their “bear problem.”  The bears could have been fed with the hope that they would peacefully hibernate or they could have been tranquilized and relocated to a healthy system elsewhere.  Differentiated persons and systems always “look before they leap.”  Remaining non-reactive is essential.

Fourth, differentiated persons and systems have the capacity to base and makes decisions on time-tested principles rather than capricious whims, rumors, unsubstantiated threats, or fear.  Well differentiated persons and systems take time to pause and ponder a situation and base decisions–not on highly charged emotion or inadequate data–but on a thoughtful process of information gathering that patiently questions and probes.  It bases decisions on time-tested spiritual principles like: “If you live by the sword you’ll die by the sword” (Matt. 26:52), “turn the other cheek” (Matt. 5:39), and “beat swords into plowshares” (Is. 2:4).

The 9/11 attacks on America were unthinkable–but had America responded to 9/11 from a maturely differentiated sense of self rather than out of raw reactivity we might be in a vastly different place today.  Had we listened more openly to the world community and attempted to stay connected with it, had we gathered better information on supposed weapons of mass destruction, had we remained more calm and taken the time to consider alternatives to solely military interventions, had we considered the global spiritual ripple effects of our “shock and awe” campaign, and had we based our decisions more on time-tested spiritual principles we might still be in good favor with the world who showed our nation an unprecedented outpouring of goodwill, empathy, understanding, and sympathy.  At this juncture it is simply hard to measure the long term spiritual and systemic damage our response has done both to ourselves and God’s good earth.

We had an opportunity to model to the world a vastly different response to unspeakable terror–and we dropped the ball (or was it a bomb?).  In October 2006, the Amish in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, responded to unspeakable terror and violence in their community with commendable spiritual aplomb for I suspect they understand both the human condition and Christian humility and meekness far better than our political leaders.  They masterfully applied all four features of self-differentiation as noted above.

First, they showed great self-differentiation.  They never wavered from their communal- definition that they are a pacifist community.  They showed remarkable clarity amidst an incident where many people of faith would have lost spiritual focus, compromised or jettisoned spiritual values, or acquiesced to retaliation or vengeance.

Second, that they immediately prayed for and started a fund for the family of the man who terrorized and killed their innocent children is nothing short of a remarkable commitment to staying magnanimously connected to the larger community.

Third, the Amish’s behavior epitomizes non-reactivity.  Their response remains a Powerful witness to the world that violence does not have to beget violence, and acts of terror do not have to beget hatred.  Remarkably, the Amish found a way, as a spiritual community, collectively to tap their faith and non-violent values instead of their most base and primitive human instincts.

Fourth, the Amish immediately applied the time-tested spiritual principles of their cherished Ana-baptist tradition by reminding themselves that harboring hatred, fanning the flames of revenge, or refusing to forgive is toxic to any system–but especially spiritual systems.  They wisely chose the higher ground.

Because, from a systems perspective, systems must be self-correcting, a Peace-Church cannot just “tell the world a story” about peace–preaching peace just isn’t enough. A Peace-Church must ultimately understand, remember, embrace, live, and model the hard truth that peace and violence are always systemic–and only systemic assessments and interventions ultimately work. A Peace-Church must not just tell the story but must, like the Amish, live the story because in systems thinking, abiding change only happens when spiritual principles take on concrete practices and behaviors.

The Apostle Paul sums up the systemic nature of peace and violence best when he said:  “For if one member suffers, the whole body suffers, but if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (I Corinthians 12:26).




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Located in Nashotah, Wisconsin, Nashotah House Theological Seminary is the oldest institute of higher education in the state of Wisconsin. Founded in 1842 by a Missionary Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Nashotah House belongs to the Anglican tradition of worship, theology and spirituality. That is, Nashotah House traces her roots to the Church of England and locates herself within the worldwide Anglican Communion. Comprehending the fundamental disciplines of Holy Scripture, Theology, Church History, Spirituality and Pastoral Ministry, the curriculum at Nashotah House not only roots our students in the ancient wisdom of the Church, it prepares and empowers them to communicate the Gospel to the world today.