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How the Gospel of Philip Helps Answer the Question, “What Can I Do about Systemic Problems?”

by Shirley Paulson, PhD

Person sitting on a bridge over water in the mountains

I’ve had a lot more alone-time than usual. Being cut off from normal socializing has forced me to think more about all the people I don’t see, and even those I don’t know.

Why is the world of ‘everybody-else’ important to me? And how should I participate in solving problems for other people? What’s my relationship with systemic problems?

I’ve spent much of my life rather committed to trying to do the right thing, or just taking care of my own responsibilities. Basically, reporting to God, and expecting God to solve everybody else’s problems. But I wonder how much that is really doing for others.

Am I (and everybody else) supposed to work on my own behavior alone with God, as Jesus teaches (Matt 5:3-10)? Or am I meant to be involved with the salvation of others? Should I sell everything I have and give to the poor, as Jesus teaches (Mark 10:21)?

On the one hand, systemic racism and systemic injustice of any kind opens my eyes and my heart to the larger world concerns that affect huge numbers of people. That’s a good thing. Living for personal gain means nothing. But on the other hand, solving systemic problems suggests we’re looking for solutions whereby one size fits all. If we could just find a policy that would take care of everybody’s problem!

I found an insight from the Gospel of Philip that addresses this conundrum. The author of this second-century text tells a parable that opens a door for me:

There was a householder who had everything: children, enslaved people, cattle, dogs, pigs, wheat, barley, chaff, fodder, oil, meat, and acorns. The householder was wise and knew the food of each. He fed the children baked bread and meat. He fed the slaves oil and grain. He fed the cattle barley, chaff, and fodder. He threw the dogs some bones. He fed the pigs acorns and gruel.

So it is with the disciples of God. If they are wise, they understand discipleship. Bodily forms will not deceive them, but they will examine the condition of each person’s soul and speak, appropriately with the person. In the world many animals have human form. If the disciples of God identify them as pigs, they feed them acorns. If cattle, they feed them barley, chaff, and fodder. If dogs, they throw them some bones. If enslaved people, they feed them what is preliminary. If children, they feed them what is complete (80:23 – 81:14).1

This householder is acting alone, but he sets a model for “the disciples of God.” If we think of the ‘systemic need’ being hunger in this case, they seem to be doing the opposite of essentializing – they are not “making one size fit all.” They are finding and respecting the unique way each individual contributes to the world. If these disciples had tried a policy of providing “acorns and gruel” for everyone, then the pigs would have been happy, but it wouldn’t have met the needs of the children, enslaved persons, cattle, and dogs.

Granted, I don’t think I’ll get too far if I think of others as pigs, dogs, or enslaved persons! But I take the point here that Philip is advocating giving what is right for each one by discerning their souls! Each unique soul. And then figuring out from that discernment exactly what their needs are. The particular expression of wisdom this author is getting at is that “bodily forms [won’t] deceive [us].” This wisdom guards against trying to fit everybody into ‘bodies’ or forms that look like, or behave like, me.

What I really like about the Gospel of Philip is that he refuses to categorize in black-or-white terms. When society sets up a dichotomy between good and evil, between right and wrong, we can’t really love our neighbor or do good for everybody. We love one while we hate the other, and vice versa.

Elaine Pagels discusses this parable in The Origin of Satan, and explains that for Philip, “the question is not whether a certain act is ‘good’ or ‘evil’ but how to reconcile the freedom gnosis conveys with the Christian’s responsibility to love others” (p. 172). That gnosis (knowledge) comes from examining the soul of others. It’s really knowing them for who they are.

Is my happiness truly in being with people who look like me, think like me, talk like me? Then I’ll end up ‘feeding’ (or helping) everybody as if they’re all like me. Or worse, hoping they’ll become like me.

Breaking out of aloneness might have more to do with “examining the condition of each person’s soul,” so that I can “speak appropriately with the person,” not a profile. I’m facing up to the false dichotomies that might be operating secretly within me: This person is good, that one is bad; this person is wrong, that one is right.

What I hear from the rallies and demonstrations is: “Examine my soul! Know who I am!” There’s a way to make space for and to cherish all the precious gems that make up our entire community. It doesn’t feel quite so lonely when I take the time to listen, learn, and love the ones I know the least.

1 An editorial note: Enslaved people were a part of Roman households in antiquity, as they had been captured by the Roman army in battles all over the empire. Slavery, as bad as it was, was a part of the culture at the time. Learn more on Wikipedia. This parable uses imagery to describe the importance of individual needs using examples that, at the time, would have been culturally accepted and easily understood. (back to text)