Wicked Problems

Lessons from Covid-19 #12

“For we know in part, and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears...Now I know in part, then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” ( I Corinthians 13: 9-10,12)

“Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others that have been tried from time to time.” (Winston Churchill to House of Commons, 1947)

Consider Adam and Eve in Eden as representing God's prototype, or first model of how creation was to function, and our human role in it. Adam and Eve were attracted to each other, completed each other, and were endowed with the ability to understand and look after a beautiful creation in which work was necessary to maintain the creation, and also fulfilling.

But when they missed the mark on how to proceed, problems followed right away. One of their kids killed his sibling.

The Genesis Chapter 1 model for collaborative (working together ) organization was replaced by hierarchical organizational structures, associated with persistent warlike activity punctuated by short periods of peace, throughout the Old Testament.

A hierarchy is “a system or organization in which people or groups are ranked one above the other according to status or authority” (Oxford Languages). 

These vertical organizational structures, where everyone reports to a superior higher up the ranks, became the model around the world in most ancient civilizations and has persisted to the present. 

Ancient civilizations also developed bureaucracies to look after the business of government and other large organizations, and are still a major force today. Bureaucracy literally means “rule of the desk” and can be  an agent of good and advancement of society. 

The term also  bears with it the tendency of becoming  impersonal, unresponsive, unaccountable, self-interested, self-perpetuating and capable of uncontrolled growth and expansion.

The fledgling  New Testament church appeared on the scene at the height of Roman hierarchy and bureaucracy. Empires come and go, but similar organizational structures have persisted.  

The bureaucracy in the time of the Eastern Roman Empire, or Byzantium, has become more recently labelled as a “byzantine bureaucracy” to describe one that is overly complex and devious.

This use of the term complexity here in a negative sense is different from the divinely created complexity of organisms and physical systems. It is a sort of parallel complexity associated with huge modern agencies such as the bureaucratic World Health Organization (WHO). 

Much good has been done by the WHO in several areas of public health. But it has been criticized during the Covid-19 pandemic as being slow, disorganized, ineffectual, and responding to undue political pressure from current world powers. 

I propose that this human-generated, wrong-headed complexity generated in the 1970s a new topic of study, that of “wicked problems.”(1) We have put on our game-face statements  that “we will get through this” when confronting  Covid -19. 

But in considering the pandemic and its associated issues as a "wicked problem" it seems fitting as a problem that is defined as:

“Difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize.” ..., and “a problem whose social complexity means that it has no determinable stopping point . Moreover , because of complex interdependencies, the effort to solve one aspect of a wicked problem may reveal or create other problems.” (2)

The new church, birthed in the book of Acts having an organizational structure like a human body of interdependent organ systems, contrasted sharply with the established organizational structures of the day. And yet the Catholic Church has over the centuries become a large hierarchical and bureaucratic  organization, so there is almost a universal tendency for large organizations to adopt traditional organizational structures.

Jesus reversed hierarchical organizational structure power by declaring that:

“...whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave, just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:26-28)

And when his disciples quarrelled about which of them was the greatest, he responded:

“..you are not to be like that. Instead the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves.” (Luke 22:26)

And Jesus told his disciples:

“ I confer on you a kingdom, just as my father conferred one on me.” (Luke 22:29)

So, Christ is the head of the Church and the newly announced Kingdom of Heaven represents the rule on earth of the relational triune God. The church, as the body of  Christ,  is to be organized in the same fashion as a human body of interdependent organ systems, with Jesus, as God incarnate, taking on the same physical form as us.

Hierarchies and bureaucracies, despite some successes, have been manifestly inadequate in managing the increasingly complex world we live in, creating a disjointed world, and one incapable of an effective response to Covid-19. 

And it is becoming increasingly clear that the novel coronavirus and its resultant pandemic was partly caused by the failures of our organizational structures to both manage the creation and protect us from the probability of more frequent similar events.

In the apostle Paul's day, science had not identified most of the now known complexities of the human body and the innumerable interdependencies of our body organ systems, referred to in Paul's day as members. 

The essential nature of an organizational structure personified in the complex adaptive system common to the human body and the organizational structure  of the early church will be studied next. 

This will be proposed as the platform from which our interdependencies enable our best response, function, and fulfillment.


References :

  1. Rittel, H.W., Webber, M.M., Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning, Policy Sciences, 4 (2), 155-169, 1973
  2. Wikipedia, 2020

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