Systemic Injustice

Brice Laughrey
7 min readOct 21, 2023

Photo by Brett Sayles

At our church, the theme for our verses of the week has been justice, and that has me thinking about in justice, especially because the idea of systemic injustice is still being questioned by many conservative Christians. Is systemic injustice real? What does it mean? Where can we see it?

For those who have learned to see systemic injustice, the “debate” may seem strange, but for many Christians, not seeing systemic injustice is part of the system. Unfortunately, organized, religious expressions of Christianity are systems, and being ignorant of internal injustice is how corruption persists within systems.

What Is Systemic Injustice?

Systemic injustice is essentially the idea that injustice doesn’t happen in a vacuum; injustice isn’t a singular moment in time. Rather, injustice requires a whole system of things in order to persist. The keyword is persist, because injustice exists no matter what; there will always be injustice. Anytime we have marginalization, discrimination, dismissal, silencing of voices — these are all injustices. I think it’s impossible to have a society where there is no injustice, but in order for injustice to persist — to continue as a normal part of life — that requires a whole system of things to happen.

Imagine a kitchen countertop. It’s going to get germs on it, but if it’s cleaned, those germs are removed. If there’s a system for cleaning the countertop, the germs can’t persist. If there isn’t a system for cleaning the countertop — or worse: if there’s a system that keeps the countertop dirty — then the germs do persist. In the same way, when you have a system that regularly acknowledges and works to eliminate injustice, injustice can’t persist, but when you have a system that ignores or perpetuates injustice, injustice does persist.

Unions are a good example. If employers work with unions they can identify injustices within their companies and make things better. Instead, what often happens is companies work with other organizations and lots of other people to create circumstances that cause unions to fail. We call that union busting. It requires a whole system, lots of people working together to create and perpetuate injustice.

Here’s another example, one that gets a little bit uneasy. It’s another hot topic phrase: toxic masculinity. Toxic masculinity is similar to systemic injustice; it’s the idea that we create systems around, and for, men that cause or encourage them to be harmful to others.

A woman recently was assaulted by a man; he picked up a brick off the ground, and he hit her in the head with it because she wouldn’t give him her phone number. There’s a video; somebody started recording this happening. Nobody stepped in to help her. Many people have argued that this was one man doing something violent; that’s not systemic injustice. The reality is, in order for him to do this and get away with it, everyone else had to be complicit — the person taking the video, the people standing around not helping, even the people using this as a chance to argue against the existence of toxic masculinity.

I heard a couple people say recently that even if only one man out of ten were toxic, if the other nine men do nothing, they might as well not exist. That’s systemic injustice. The system is upheld by both action and inaction, and that system promotes injustice.

Injustice and the Church

No injustice — no bad, oppressive, harmful thing — happens to a person in a vacuum. Justice, then, requires we see it, acknowledge it, and do something about it, and if we don’t do something about it, we’re complicit in the problem.

So, what about churches? Growing up, I had this idea that churches were supposed to be different. They were supposed to be bastions of justice, because we loved our neighbors as ourselves. Yet, I read almost every day about abusive church leaders who uphold systems of injustice.

I read a thread that someone posted about her own abuse, and when she reported it to church leadership, they ignored her. When she pressed it, things got worse. People say to her that this was just “a few bad apples,” so she wrote the name of her abuser, and around that name, she started writing the names of everybody who was involved from start to finish in her report, her case, how the lawsuits were going, the denomination itself, the specific congregations she was involved , etc. She discovered that in order for her abuser to not be prosecuted, it required all of the upper echelons of the church hierarchy, elders and deacons from her congregation, and even fellow congregants, plus outside help, such as lawyers.

Leaders had to control narratives. They had to victim-blame. They had to withhold evidence. They had to control the dissemination of information among the congregants. They had to control special investigative committees. All of this required lots of people. You can’t have an unjust leader get away with abuse without many other people being complicit.

She said there was one elder who spoke up for her. He got labeled a “whistleblower,” and he is facing excommunication from the church because he did the right thing. The only way that happens is if you have injustice in the entire system.

I’ll remind you again: there is not a single expression of Christian faith that I am aware of today that is not dealing with this type of allegation, right now. This is not new. This is the same thing that happened to Jesus.

The Crucifixion Is Systemic Injustice

Consider everyone who had to be complicit in the crucifixion for it to happen. Luke says some of the religious leaders were actively looking for ways to kill Jesus, but they were afraid of the crowds. Eventually, however, they’re able to find enough people to rile up or recruit — guards, Roman officials, and even one of Jesus ‘s own Apostles. They need dozens of people to come together in order to safely arrest Jesus and haul him off to be crucified, and then they need the power of the crowds to pressure Pontius Pilate into going through with the crucifixion.

This is systemic injustice. This is a system built to protect the people who want to harm others, and it’s only because of so much complicity that it can work. Even the other 11 apostles all fled when Jesus was arrested. They’re the other nine out of ten men standing around doing nothing. They’re the crowds recording on their phones while a woman is beaten. They are complicit in the system, because they refuse to oppose it, and ultimately, Jesus is crucified in front of his own mother because of it.

Injustice and Individualism

As American Christians, we often feed systemic injustice by buying into American hyper-individualism. We convince ourselves that we are so buffered from everyone around us that our lives don’t affect them. We convince ourselves that we’re not part of the problem even if we’re not part of the solution, and it’s simply not true. Our hyper-individualism allows injustice to perpetuate. At best, we turn a blind eye to injustice daily, allowing it to persist, and that makes us complicit in the suffering of others. At worst, we actively oppose attempts to alleviate injustice through how we vote and where we lend the power of our voices.

Jesus was martyred because he refused to be complicit. He refused to say nothing when people were starving, when people were poor, when people were marginalized and disenfranchised… He refused to do nothing when he could heal someone. He refused to do nothing even when the people in need weren’t Israelites — even when his own cultures said that he shouldn’t help, eat with, talk to, or associate with those people. He went to their homes. He touched them. He healed them. He fed them. He loved them.

Christians who claim to be disciples of Christ but refuse to acknowledge the existence of systemic injustice cannot participate in a gospel that lifts people up out of injustice. Christians who call themselves disciples of Christ but refuse to acknowledge how we are complicit in injustice cannot work to overcome injustice.

Those of us who have been part of the Church for a long time are familiar with ideas of righteousness, justice, and mercy, but it’s not enough to read the verse and to know the idea. We have to accept that systemic injustice exists not only “out there” but in here. We have to accept that we are either part of the solution or complicit to the problem, and only then can we start making real, active moves to seek justice and love mercy and walk humbly with God.

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Originally published at http://breakingbreadtheology.com on October 21, 2023.

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Brice Laughrey

Owner of Breaking Bread Theology and co-founder of 1310 Ministries. Currently living and worshiping in Las Vegas, NV.