Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Family Systems Theory, Identity Politics, and the Apocalypse

Written by: on October 9, 2023

Murray Bowen’s Family System Theory tells us that when a change is made in one part of a system a compensatory change in another part of the system will follow. [1] The Family System Theory can be applied to non-family groups such as businesses, organizations, communities and large societies.[2] This week we read, Francis Fukuyama’s book, Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment in which he argues that the demand for recognition by particular groups of people is killing our democracy, fracturing the left into a series of identity groups and spawning the rise of a populist right that feels its own identity is under threat.[3] While I am still processing this book, it has made me wonder if the uncomfortable place in which we find ourselves in our nation today is the natural chaos that ensues in a family system, or any system, when a challenge is made to the system’s status quo.

Fukuyama argues that while such movements as Black Lives Matter and MeToo are important, to heal our nation, we need to use identity as a way to come together and integrate rather than divide ourselves. He feels that to do so “will be the remedy for the populist politics of the present.”[4] While I appreciate his desire and even some of his suggestions about how to integrate our identities, I am not sure I believe this is the only path to healing our nation.

Fukuyama calls identity politics the “politics of resentment” because those who identify with a sub-group more wholly than with the larger group, for example, identifying only with black women instead of women in general, are doing so because they have felt less-than, disrespected, oppressed, for so long they have become resentful. They are finally “speaking up” by banding together as an identity group to take a stand for themselves. However, their taking a standing and voicing their resentment challenges the status quo. Their voiced resentment challenges those in power, those who have always dominated, the System, and therefore causes what Bowen refers to as a “compensatory change” or what we see in those clinging to populist politics and nationalism. When the System is challenged, it leads to chaos until it can recalibrate to a new way of being a system. I think this is where we find ourselves now and I think it is an important place to be.

Chaos and discomfort, even bad behavior, happen because people are having to re-think, re-calibrate, remove some of their long-held ways of thinking, living, dominating, being. This isn’t easy – thus the bad behavior we see – as resentment on the side of those being challenged grows, but it is necessary for change to happen.

Women, people of color, the LGBTQ+ community, those whose voices and bodies have been oppressed for so very long *are* resentful and with good reason! They are standing up for themselves but to do so they must band together – for a louder voice, but also for their own physical and emotional safety. And to some, it may seem as though they are becoming megalothymic, but after centuries of being put in their place or placated with laws or policies that supposedly give them equal rights but in practice do not, it’s really difficult to trust that isothymia will be enough.[5]

Fukyama says that Socrates calls these kinds of people “warriors” but I wonder if, instead, they might be prophets. Prophets imagine a better world than the one they in which they live and they call people to build such a world. Biblical prophets imagine a world in which God’s Shalom reigns and they call all of us to build that kin-dom. I wonder if those who Fukuyama says are partitioning themselves off into political identity groups are modern day prophets calling us to a more inclusive world.

Prophets usually get either run out of town or killed because they challenge the powers that be, the status quo. Those who have had “the power” in our nation have traditionally be white straight men. Currently I am raising three white, straight (as far as I know) boys and am married to another one. I am not a white straight man hater. However, I have also been a woman for my entire life and have experienced being “put in my place,” more often than I would like to remember and often, that happened IN THE CHURCH.

When I was first exploring ordained ministry as a calling and career, I mentioned this to my college pastor. He looked at me with shock in his eyes, “But you can’t!” he stammered. “Um, why not?” I sincerely wondered. “Because you are a woman!” he replied. “What?!” I asked? “I’ve never heard that before!” “Yeah,” he spat. “It’s right there, in the bible.”  To which I inwardly replied, “Well, then, watch me.”

Resentment took root in me that day and has grown and flowered over the years as I continue to experience sexism, microaggressions (yes, that may be a buzz word but it’s an accurate one), and even sexual harassment in the church. So, I get it. I get identity groups because I am part of the “woman identity group” and I will stand up for women every-where and every-time.

In a video she made, Nadia Bolz-Weber, welcomes us all to “the apocalypse.”[6] But not the kind of scary doom-filled apocalypse churches so often like to scare us with but the original kind of apocalypse that proclaims a “big hope filled idea: that dominant powers are not ultimate powers…that empires fall, tyrants fade, systems die, God is still around.” She says, “In Greek, the word apocalypse means to uncover, to peel away, to show what’s underneath. That’s what this country has been experiencing in recent years. All these movements such as MeToo and Black Lives Matter are simply exposing what was always there.”

She continues, “If those who came before looked to the bible to justify their dominance, then let us look to it to justify our dignity. It’s in there.”

And she’s right. It is in there. Jesus shows us that we ALL have inherent dignity. We are all valued, all welcome, all invited. (Here, some may argue that yes, we all have inherent dignity, all are welcome and invited but we are not all called to the same position. Fukuyama addresses this as well saying, “Since humans are varied in their talents and capacities, we need to understand in what sense we are willing to recognize them as equal for political purposes.”[7] I’m not one to say everyone gets a trophy, nor that everyone shares the same gifts or callings, but I don’t believe, if we employ any kind of serious biblical criticism, we can use the bible to justify keeping anyone with appropriate gifts, “in their place” or, in my case, out of ordained ministry.)

The family system (or the national system) is in chaos right now because those who have been voiceless and powerless are challenging the system with their claim for dignity, recognition, and appreciation for the fullness of their humanity. This is scary and difficult for those who must relinquish some of the power they’ve held on to for so very long and their acting out is to be expected if you adhere to systems theory, but I don’t think we can heal until the dignity of all, and I do mean all, is lifted up, recognized and appreciated.

When I preside at Communion, I often use this invitation from the Iona community:

We are here because Jesus has called us –
strangers and friends,
locals and visitors,
believers and doubters,
the certain and the curious.
It is always a mixed company that Jesus gathers
and invites to his table where, in bread and wine,
he meets us
and through him we, who are different,
are joined to each other.
So come,
not because you understand,
but because you are understood.
not because of how you feel,
but because God has food for you.
Come, not because you deserve a place,
but because Jesus invites you,
just as you are.

I think that is what people want, what they need. They want to be invited, to be wanted, to know there is a place for them at the table.

I wonder if all of us felt invited, welcomed, in all of our human-ness, if we wouldn’t need identity politics anymore.

[1] Linda Metcalf, Theories in Marriage and Family Therapy, a Practice Oriented Approach, (Springer Publishing, NY, 2011,) 48.

[2] Ibid, 42.

[3] Francis Fukuyama, Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment, accessed on Scribd, 183.

[4] Ibid, 200.

[5] Ibid, 10.

[6] Nadia Bolz-Weber, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=olgaS6Pydc0, accessed October 9, 2023.

[7] Fukuyama, 37.

About the Author

Kally Elliott

Mom of four. Wanna-be Broadway star. PC(USA) pastor. Wife. Friend. Sometimes a hot mess. Sometimes somewhat together. Is this supposed to be a professional bio?

11 responses to “Family Systems Theory, Identity Politics, and the Apocalypse”

  1. Jenny Dooley says:

    Thank you for bringing Bowen into the conversation. I have found his principles so true in families and church contexts.

    I really love the communion invitation from Iona that you referenced and the statement you offered at the end of your blog, “I wonder if all of us felt invited, welcomed, in all of our human-ness, if we wouldn’t need identity politics anymore.” I wonder how well as leaders we personally allow ourselves to be fully invited into that space with God… fully welcomed, fully human, fully loved. I know I struggle to receive the invitation and stay put at the table. I also have to consider the way shame plays into my identity formation. It’s been awhile since I read Bowen. Does he discuss shame?

    • Kally Elliott says:

      Hi Jenny, I don’t know if Bowen discusses shame… It has been awhile since I have read Bowen in depth but I do think he has wise advice for any of us who live and work in systems (all of us!). Now you have me wanting to look into if he discusses shame!

      I appreciate what you said about “staying at the table.” I will often accept the invitation to come to a table (be it communion, leadership, etc) but I don’t always remain put. For various reasons I will remove myself. Thank you for also giving me this to think about.

  2. Esther Edwards says:

    First of all, thank you for your ending invitation. How appropriate for this blog discussion.
    “Come, not because you deserve a place,
    but because Jesus invites you,
    just as you are.”
    How we all often believe that we need to earn our distinction in Christ… Yet he asks us to come as we are. There again I come back to Simon Walker’s thoughts on the matter “Some Christians would like to see God as the Great Executive in the sky…(and we are His) eager junior managers, running his operation for him; as a devoted salesforce, racking up the converts”… Yet, he desires a self-emptying which frees us from the need to be great (Leading with Nothing to Lose by Simon L. Walker, p. 146-147). So much to still apply…

    • Kally Elliott says:

      Self-emptying is hard!

      And it’s got me thinking about the politics of resentment for those who have been silenced, oppressed, shut out, etc for so long but who are now standing up and saying, “No More!” Can we preach that to those groups? Or should self-emptying be preached to those who have long held the power? More than likely, I should be preaching it to myself!

      I don’t have an answer…I really am wondering.

  3. Travis Vaughn says:

    Kally, you wrote, “Prophets imagine a better world than the one…in which they live and they call people to build such a world. Biblical prophets imagine a world in which God’s Shalom reigns and they call all of us to build that kin-dom.” In my NPO, at least in the biblical/theological foundation, I’m trying to locate human flourishing (my focus is on pastors / ministry practitioners who don’t experience such flourishing…rather they experience isolation, discouragement, burn out, etc. often because they have unstated allegiances, unhealthy rhythms, and mistrust) as embedded in God’s good creation and part of what it is to be made in the image of God. I do think that part of casting a vision for what could be has to involve painting a picture for tangible aspects of what God’s shalom looks like as intended for creation. Like…how it looks to tangibly relate to others in healthy ways, steward the earth, love and relate to God, etc. How tangible do you paint what shalom looks, or could look like (e.g., cooperating with one’s neighbor to start a business that solves a local problem, plant a garden for the neighborhood, advocating for people who are marginalized, etc.) vs. painting with a broader brush (“we should love our neighbors”) in your communication with your congregants or even others in your community? And how do your congregants typically respond? Hopefully, I’m making sense.

    • Kally Elliott says:

      You’re totally making sense!

      Whew! I’m not sure how tangibly I communicate God’s shalom now that you mention it! Dang!

      When preaching, I do try to come up with tangible examples: such as, here are some things that might be helpful to you… See that single mom who is barely making it through her week? What if you bought pizza for her family one night this week? Or, what if, instead of one more thing to get you ahead, you went for a hike in the mountains that surround our town? What if, that hike was a chance to listen to God’s creation around you, be filled with the beauty, paying attention to your own breath and heartbeat and God’s care for you as you walk… what if you don’t work to earn your rest/sabbath, but rest because God calls you to rest? I don’t know if that is exactly what you are talking about but I do offer questions such as those when I preach.

      When I talk one on one with other pastors/friends/colleagues, I don’t shy away from asking what I think needs to be asked. Such as, are you taking a day off – like completely off? (I could ask myself such a question.) Or, I see you running really hard and then crashing and this seems to be a pattern…. why do you feel the need to run so hard?

      When I think on a larger scale – like how to solve community issues I tend to have a harder time making tangible suggestions. I don’t think this is because I am afraid of offending the congregation members – I have plenty of experience with that! I think it is more because I can usually see both sides of an issue and really try to see the good intentions behind both sides. It’s harder then to say, “We should be doing…..”

      Just some thoughts that hopefully responded to your question.

  4. mm Russell Chun says:

    Your post brought this to mind. “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction” is one of the fundamental principles of Newton’s third law of motion in physics. It means that when one object exerts a force on another object, the second object exerts an equal force in the opposite direction.

    Hmmm a law of nature. You wrote, “I think that is what people want, what they need. They want to be invited, to be wanted, to know there is a place for them at the table. I wonder if all of us felt invited, welcomed, in all of our human-ness, if we wouldn’t need identity politics anymore.”

    So true.

    Kim Sanford wrote that we are made in God’s image.

    I like that too, but I don’t think anyone believes that. Perhaps there are some in the Judeo-Christian faith, but the rest of the worlds religions…not so much.

    Even in the Christian world you have the “woman” barrier (well not for you).

    I have no answer, no profound statement at this point. Only a sigh of sadness as I watch the violence of Hamas (an identity) the retaliation of Israel (an identity) and the rest of world (who knows what) be drawn into a cycle of violence.

    Shalom, Shalom (perfect peace).

    • Kally Elliott says:

      Oh Russell! Yes! Your sigh of sadness echoes in me. Violence in this world is a result of us not being able to recognize and lift up the dignity in each and every person. My sighs are deep this morning as I have watched wayyyyy too much news.

      • mm Russell Chun says:

        My eyes are glued to the News channels and on the internet.

        This morning, I took a break and watched Superman’s son Jordan discover his superpowers. And before that Godzilla versus King Kong (only 5 minutes – there is only so much dumb one can absorb).

  5. Adam Harris says:

    Love this raw blog Kally. It touches on a lot and it does raise some good questions and conversations around current issues. The prophet Matthew McConaughey said something pretty insightful when he was discussing the BLM movement and reaction that took form in the “All Lives Matter” response. He said all lives do matter, but sometimes recent events call for us to prioritize some groups over others in order to restore dignity. Great post!

  6. Kally, your reflections on Murray Bowen’s Family System Theory and Francis Fukuyama’s ideas on identity politics are both insightful and thought-provoking. It’s evident that you’ve taken the time to deeply consider the complexities of the current social and political landscape, particularly with regard to identity-based movements and their impact on the status quo.

    Your personal experiences and your connection to the “woman identity group” provide a poignant perspective on the deep-seated resentment that can arise when marginalized groups seek recognition and equality. Your journey in defying traditional gender roles and expectations is a testament to the power of challenging the system.

    The analogy of the current societal upheaval as an “apocalypse” in the original sense, meaning an uncovering or unveiling of underlying issues, is a powerful one. It underscores the importance of acknowledging and addressing these long-standing disparities and injustices.

    Your closing thoughts about the desire for inclusion, acceptance, and a place at the table for everyone are profoundly resonant. Indeed, fostering an environment where all individuals feel valued and welcomed in their entirety could potentially alleviate the need for identity politics, as it would fulfill the very human longing for recognition and dignity.

    Thank you for sharing your personal experiences and engaging with these complex topics in such a thoughtful way. Your perspective is a valuable contribution to the ongoing dialogue on these important issues.

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