Systemic counseling for group transformation defines two kinds of change: surface change and second-order change. With surface change the motto really is “the more things change the more things stay the same.” Surface change does nothing to fundamentally alter the system, the underlying order of a group, large or small. It’s like putting on new clothes over a still unwashed body. The stink will eventually become all too apparent in time.
Second-order change brings systemic change—a real, fundamental re-ordering of the structures that sustain groups, be they mental, relational, financial or other forms of power infrastructures in societies. Giving women the right to vote was a second-order change. So were civil rights laws. Whenever there is a redistribution of power, there is second-order change.
In order to effect a second-order change that is sustainable, not only is a lot of collective energy required, a heart change is also required. Having been a catalyst for systemic transformation on a national level, let me explain a bit of my story and what I mean.
At a church I was an associate pastor of many years ago, I experienced sexual harassment and when I reported it along with some other things, I was retaliated against. I eventually ended up filing civil rights discrimination lawsuits to hold the larger church body accountable for its many inequities and injustices against me and many others as well. It was a long drawn out case that dealt with constitutional law, church-state issues, and clergy sexual misconduct. It required me to take an activist stand, just as the Occupy movement is doing.
But for true transformation to happen, it required more than just taking a stand, important as that is. It also required that I find all the places I criticized about the system in my own heart. If I criticized the aggressive tactics of the larger church body against me, I looked for aggression within myself. If I was furious with their lies against me, I looked for the lies I told myself and others, no matter how small. I would then look for the core of good within the bad. I would find the light in the darkness. I would see that aggression and lying were tactics I used to protect myself when I didn’t feel safe. Then I would understand that the impulse to protect was good, even if I or they had twisted it into aggression or lying, and I would have compassion for myself and them and then I could forgive myself and them.
When I would heal my own heart and soul by doing these steps above, the system would shift—often immediately. Right after I would heal within, I would get a phone call, email, or other notification that the courts had suddenly had a “change of heart” and rule in my favor. Or the larger church system would suddenly relent and choose to negotiate when previously they refused. This happened repeatedly over several years until finally the story played itself out. In the end, I became the first ordained minister in the country ever to be granted civil rights by a federal ruling—a second-order shift establishing new rights for clergywomen.
So, in shifting our unjust economic system, the Occupy movement is taking a crucial first step. The next step for all of us who wish to shift the economic inequities is to look at our own hearts with regard to how we use money. Upset about corporate greed? I hear you. But let us look within. How much of your income do you donate to charity? Even, or especially, on a good year? How many things do you buy that you don’t really need? The latest flat screen tv, the latest iPhone, the latest ____? Where are you wasteful and unaware with where your own money goes? Do you balance your checkbook, keep a budget, and balance necessities with play that help and do not hurt the environment (extra car trips to do errands, or plane rides to vacation spots around the globe)? Where are you not honest with your accounting? How much debt do you have on credit cards? Any criticism you have of the system, turn it around and ask yourself where it is in you.
I have seen some of these things in myself and in many people who are protesting the inequities in our larger system. These questions of mine, uncomfortable as they may be, are what is required to bring about lasting, heart-full change on a systemic level. There is no judgment in these questions. It is honest self-inquiry only. But after taking a stand, until we heal within with all the love, compassion, and forgiveness we can give ourselves and others along with any corresponding corrective action we can take in our own lives, any change we are able to generate will either be surface change or short-lived at best.
Use the Occupy movement’s energy to motivate you to look within and heal. Occupying our hearts is a stimulus plan that will really bring true second-order change!