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Suicide Machine, Part I

15 January 2008

In Chapter 7 (“Three Interlocking Systems”) of Brian McLaren’s Everything Must Change, McLaren sets forth three interactive systems operating in the world:  (a) the prosperity system, (b) the security system, and (c) the equity system.  He also imagines a fourth system that integrates them all.  (Michael C. Armour might call that fourth system the world’s soul.)  When any one of the three systems is dysfunctional, McLaren says, the system becomes a “suicide machine,” a system that is essentially programmed to destroy itself, either by catastrophe or by attrition.

Besides being a helpful conceptual model of human life, McLaren’s three-system model aligns pretty well with modern chaos theory and its more spectacular phenomena.  The well-known Lorenz attractor (sometimes called the Lorenz butterfly), for example, is a state diagram of a very simple three-parameter, nonlinear, dynamical system.  Lorenz’ attractor exemplifies concepts that are familiar to most of us by now from the popular media, including “sensitive dependence” (where you end up depends on where you start, even for robust systems) and “tipping points” (which chaos theorists might call “bifurcations” instead).  In the latter case, certain system trajectories tend to stay within a fairly well defined envelope around some steady or quasi-steady state (Lorenz calls these quasi-steady states “attractors”), whereas other system trajectories lying just a short distance away may hop over to an envelope around some other, neighboring attractor.  You and I can think of attractors as different regimes in which the system operates more or less stably; when we shift from one stability regime to another, or from a stable regime to an unstable regime, we can say that our system has “bifurcated” or “reached a tipping point.”  The butterfly shows at least two strange attractors, with the state trajectory hopping from one to the other every so often.  (You can try it yourself here.)

Consider the case of global terrorism under a working hypothesis (for the sake of argument) that global discrepancies in income and buying power and socioeconomic status are reliable predictors of changes in terrorist activity.  (We need not pretend that economic nonuniformities explain all changes in terrorist activity, only that they explain some proportion of those changes.  There’s room for both the red- and the blue-staters in this thought experiment.)  In this case, we have the global prosperity system (GPS) operating as it was conceived but resulting in a nonuniform distribution of wealth and economic opportunity; we also have the security system (GSS) operating as it was conceived, with a spatially varying distribution of nefarious activity including everything from local petty theft to armed invasions of sovereign nations by other sovereign nations.  We’ve even had terrorism in the GSS since long before the time of Jesus (remember the Zealots?).  But until recent years, the GSS has been relatively stable, at least in the U. S., with occasional terrorist events but no systemic threat.

Now you probably expect me to say, “9/11 changed everything.”  But that’s not quite right.  9/11 may instead have been a horrific symptom of a bifurcation that had occurred well before 9/11 actually took place; in fact, we can point to the ’93 attack on the World Trade Center, the attack on the Marine barracks in Lebanon, and the attack on the U. S. S. Cole as indicators that something fundamental was shifting in the security bubble around the United States.

In McLaren’s formulation, terrorism’s explosion in the last two decades or so can be partially explained by a dysfunctional prosperity system that accelerates the enrichment of some global societies at the relative expense of others.  He does not, by the way, suggest that “a rising tide lifts all boats” is a lie; he appears to say, rather, that a rising tide that is not constrained by an active equity system informed by the kingdom of God lifts some boats but sinks others.  That equity system, whose primary function is a corrective on dysfunctional desire (known as greed, perhaps), has legal elements, but ideally (i. e., in the kingdom of God as introduced by Jesus) it is dominated by personal and community virtue:  humility, generosity, kenosis, etc.

Although I find some of McLaren’s stuff to be little more than thinly veiled polemics against capitalism and economic freedom, his conceptual framework is awfully helpful and ought to give us plenty of food for thought.  He anticipates my criticism (and the criticisms of others) and protests that he is no socialist.  For now, I choose to take him at his word.  Not that it matters:  what’s more important is that we take his formulations and weigh their merits against scripture, and in particular, against Jesus’ formulations of the kingdom of God as set forth in the gospels, as expounded in the letters, and as presaged in the Hebrew Bible.  

Relax, in other words, in Gamaliel’s counsel; whether or not McLaren’s thought experiment has biblical merit is God’s business.  But if it does, we do well to make it our business also.


One Comment leave one →
  1. 15 January 2008 10:18 pm


    Having made a payroll in another life and having read Schumpeter in the German, I know that his phrase “creative destruction” as applied to the activity of capitalism comports with the improvisational creativity of jazz, chaos theory with its fluctuating order out of disorder, and the ongoing passionate and compassionate work of the Living God in, through, around, over, above, and under creation. Sadly, too many practicing capitalists prefer the safe course of getting, spending, investing and competition and avoid the riskier, weighty matters–like thought, creative expression, and seeking after the One who makes exchange and invention possible. Frankly, I prefer Dante, Shakespeare, and Blake to Schumpeter and McLaren.


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