Some months ago I asked my daughter Claire about her experience doing college coursework while on the trail in Montana this past fall. They were getting first-hand experience when it comes to some of the land use issues and environmental challenges that we are facing. I wanted to know what kinds of ideas had been capturing her attention. One of the things she talked about were wicked problems.
The term caught me right away, and even more so as she began to explain it. Something about these texts and this time reminded me of the idea, so I did a little research this week.
The term, as Claire learned about it, is used to describe those political conflicts that just can’t be tamed.[i] Her reading had to do with the many environmental struggles that have continued for generations, but the idea is transferable. Wicked problems go beyond scientific, economic, or rational analysis. They arise with issues that are controversial, acrimonious, symbolic, and expensive. They just never seem to go away. In fact, one of the ways you can identify a wicked problem is that they have a sense of déjà vu about them: “Didn’t we just deal with this? I thought we already solved this!” And yet, here it comes back around again.
A number of characteristics help to distinguish wicked problems from their tamer cousins. First of all, we can’t agree on what the problem is. So this battle that is represented by Roe v. Wade—is it a question of women’s rights, or a question of the rights of an unborn child? Parties involved in enduring controversies like this are selective. They differ in what they consider to be the relevant facts, and when they do agree, they often interpret the facts differently. In other words, the formulation of the wicked problem is the problem, or at least part of it. We can’t even agree on what the problem is. The answer depends on the perspective of the beholder.
This gets to another characteristic of wicked problems. Their solutions are not true or false. They are good or bad. And of course, these judgments vary depending on our interests, values, and worldview. So much morality swirls around these issues, so much root tension defines them that they can never be solved, but at best only resolved, and then only temporarily, only for a time.
And here’s one of the hardest things about wicked problems. They are wicked by nature in the ways I’ve just described. But they are also wicked by design. Here’s what I mean. Most people can appreciate nuance. They can appreciate the core, conflicting moral concerns that cause people to find themselves on different sides of a difficult problem. They can empathize with someone who thinks differently. They can walk in another person’s shoes for a time.
Someone who is pro-choice can at least comprehend the logic and even the emotion of someone who is pro-life. And someone who is motivated to defend a defenseless unborn child can at least comprehend that the woman’s body and her control of it is an issue too. The fact that these divides even cut through our religious institutions is a pretty good sign that these problems are not tame, but indeed, wild and wicked by nature.
But wicked problems are wicked in part because they can and are compounded by political actors, institutions, and decision-making processes. They are wicked by design in that they are connected to other problems and other motivations. They are complicated by conflicting priorities and competing economic interests. They are politicized by people and groups for other purposes; they hide ulterior motives for profit or power. Our empathy gets us so far, but then we see a comment designed to rile up a base, a story that just drives us crazy, and drives us back to our corner of the debate.
Here’s how a couple of writers first described the challenge in the 70s:
Social problems are never solved. At best they are only resolved—over and over again.) ... We use the term 'wicked' in a meaning akin to that of ‘malignant’ (in contrast to ‘benign’) or ‘vicious’ (like a circle) or ‘tricky’ (like a leprechaun) or ‘aggressive’ (like a lion, in contrast to the docility of a lamb).[ii]
So here comes the lamb of God who, according to John, takes away the sin of the world. Does this include our wicked problems? The next day, John again points to Jesus. Here he is, the “Lamb of God.” Something about this, about what they’ve seen, about what their teacher John has told them compels them to leave John behind and follow Jesus. To go see for themselves what this Jesus is all about.
What is it? What are they looking for, and what does it say about what you and I might be looking for these days—especially when so many of our problems seem so wicked?
We don’t have to wait long for a clue. “Rabbi, where are you staying?” There’s a clue in what they call him—rabbi. They are looking for a teacher, for someone to help them understand, to educate them on how to rise above all these wicked problems that seem to get us again and again. They may also be looking to define him, prejudge him. Where are you staying? What camp are you with?
And what does he say? Come and see.
Something happens. In the matter of a day they go from looking for a teacher to having found a messiah, a savior, one anointed, set aside, blessed for something special. They came looking for a teaching, but they stayed for a movement.
We might think of a lamb as something to be slaughtered in the temple to pay for our sins, but this is not the case. In Judaism, lambs were never used for temple sacrifices. Other types of animals were used. This isn’t about somehow satisfying a perfect God who is so emotionally stilted that he can’t make his way to us without something dying. The lamb was always about liberation. Lambs were only used for the Passover, the celebration that remembers God freeing the people from slavery in Egypt, feeding and fortifying them as they began to walk away from a problem that was so wicked it had persisted for centuries.
And this lamb will be slaughtered, as the cross reminds us. And yet from this death a movement that has persisted for thousands of years will be born and these followers will become some of its most committed leaders.
What were they looking for? And what did they find?
I think they found a new way of being. They found a possibility for peace, even, and perhaps especially in the midst of life’s wicked problems. They found a way that refuses at every point to pit one group of people against another as if we are warring tribes, but instead to remember that the only way we are going to find our way through this mess of commitments and unresolvable tensions further complicated by bad actors is to hold onto one another, to love enemies as well as friends, to refuse to draw battle lines or go quietly into our fortresses of brittle certainty.
It is not accidental that the first act of these new disciples is to go and gather more. Encounter with God creates an awareness that transforms our behavior. It joins us with others, which is the only way we will ever transform the world as the light to the nations Isaiah envisions.
“Our era is one of connected crisis,” says Joshua Ramo in his bestseller The Seventh Sense. Our problems are connected—a tangled web of challenges. They are both caused by and can only be resolved by networks of networks. Ramos sees this “seventh sense” as “the ability to look at any object and see the way in which it is changed by connection” and only by connection.
But this is not new to those who follow the way of Jesus. The story of this lamb is a story of the interconnectedness of all things in God. This is an important word in an age of technology that connects us more and more even as we find ourselves feeling greater isolation and loneliness—a wicked problem to be sure. Power and promise is found in networks and ecosystems shaped by the Spirit of love. Paul’s image of the body that he will get to later in Corinthians understands this at its core.
And as we grow to understand the power of connection in all its forms, in all its places and corners and from all its perspectives, as we see our deep connection even to those we think have nothing to do with us, we will discover the power of this gospel and the life it offers. We will be a light that shines on enemy and friend alike, illuminating the love that binds us all together, making for the ways of peace and reconciliation. Thanks be to God!
[i] This summary is drawn from Martin Nie (2003). “Drivers of natural resource-based political conflict” Policy Sciences 36: 307-341.
[ii] Rittel, H.W.J. and M.M. Webber (1973). ‘Dilemmas in a general theory of planning,’ Policy Sciences 4: 160.