Skip to main content

Thinking some about ‘Jericho’ and systems

This weekend, I watched my TiVo’d recording of “One If by Land,” the latest episode of Jericho, the CBS apocalyptic drama about a small town in Kansas after a series of nuclear bombs were detonated around the country. The episode was one of the series’ better ones, and it’s got me thinking.

The episode mostly centers on patriarch and former Jericho mayor Johnston Green who goes to a nearby town to look for sons Eric and Jake, who’ve been jailed for trying to sabotage its factory which is being used to make explosives and mortars for an attack on Jericho. When Johnston gets to New Bern, it doesn’t take long for him to learn of his sons’ whereabouts—or to confront the town’s dictator/sheriff Constantino (above photo), who rules his town with a ruthless and ambitious hand.

Heh, I must admit I’ve become a bit enamored with Johnston Green lately. Early on, I sorta boxed him up as a flawed version of the father in the prodigal son parable, but his character has really deepened and developed. Over the last 20 episodes, we’ve gotten to see his wisdom, willingness to admit and learn from his sins/mistakes, his compassion and his moral fiber and strength. He’s flawed, but also steady and strong. And he’s becoming the voice of good judgment and the town’s leader, even if he doesn’t hold an official position.

My husband recently commented that Johnston’s character has been more interesting since he lost the mayoral election to a rival in Jericho earlier in the series—and I think he’s onto something. Over the last several episodes, Johnston’s really beginning to remind me of the cowboy archetype, which in American literature and film often embodies the virtues of integrity, fairness and stick-to-your-guns commitment along with a propensity to work outside the system towards justice. In modern Westerns, this later aspect often seems tipped towards self-centered vigilantism, but classically it was often portrayed through other-centered action—a willingness to step out of rank-and-file and work justly in spite of and often outside of a corrupted or failing system to the benefit of and in cooperation with a community the system is neglecting. Losing the election put Johnston outside the city’s governance system, a system that is being tested and failing to adapt in the midst of radical change. It’s built on the right things—democracy and law—but these things need a form and practice that can function in a new world. And Johnston, like the classic cowboy, is finding those ways. He’s committed to the original ideals but he’s thinking outside the box (the current system). Along the way, his character is tested and strengthened as he works for the benefit of something larger than himself, a larger purpose.

And this makes me think about systems in general and how we deal with them. Systems—organizations or structures we put in place in order to put into practice ideas, goals or worldviews—seem by their very nature to quickly institutionalize and bend towards their own perpetuation. When we are deeply embedded in these systems—be it because we simply live in and depend on them or because we hold positions of leadership or authority within them—we can easily lose sight of why they were put in place to begin with. We can become focused on maintaining or perpetuating, sometimes to the detriment or cost of what they stand for. Often, when the world or culture changes around them, if we are too committed to the system rather than the principles or ideas behind them, we fail to adapt. And that causes harm not only to those principles or ideas but also the people in our communities. Perhaps at times like those, we’d do well to sift through voices outside the system to see if there are any like Johnston Green—those that are finding ways to live out the ideals and principles in a new way.

Doing church—how we organize and express living-together in the Kingdom—also involves systems and as such is subject to these same foibles. Don’t get me wrong: I’m fully aware that we need ways to organize and structure ourselves in order to express Kingdom values and ideals. But we must be careful that those “wine skins” remain servants to the Kingdom and not the other way around. And we must hold loosely to them and operate under the realization that they cannot and will not last forever. They must change, if only because the nature of the Kingdom is to burst through. Like its Creator, the Kingdom is constantly moving and thriving and if we are to live in it we must do so on God’s terms and not our own. Part of this is developing and then letting go of whatever “skin” we put together to express this Life and Love we live and breath in.

There are those who contend that the way we do church now as a whole has reached the point where it isn’t working anymore—and I tend to agree. The way we do church now isn’t resulting in disciples. Too many of us don’t resemble our Master; we look and act no different. There’s still Kingdom-coming and Kingdom-living, but it is too rare; we need only read the New Testament to start understanding that. (Read more here and here and here.) There are voices out there exploring ways to live out this Kingdom living-together in God-breathed ways. The voices I’m attracted to cling to ancient, living Truth and explore how the early church lived and breathed. It’s not about recreating the New Testament church, but (as Wolfgang Simson puts it) incarnating the dynamics—the Word made Flesh living-out—of the church, which above and below all is characterized by love. It’s about walking with and in Jesus, walking with those around us as we go and seeking God’s heart in expressing his Kingdom here-and-now.

In some ways, Jericho’s Johnston Green reminds me of these folks—like Dallas Willard, Richard Foster, Wayne Jacobsen, Jim Henderson, Scot McKnight, and Andrew Jones. They are voices that have stepped outside the current system, confronting and encouraging us in wisdom and love to find ways to express this Love and Life in Kingdom-coming here-and-now.

And I think they are worth listening to.

(Images: Jericho images copyrighted by CBS; church photo from Wikipedia Commons) jerichoctgy