One of the factors that led to the tragedy of the 2016 election is an ever-growing distrust in public Institutions. In 2015, Pew found that “…only 19 percent of Americans trust the federal government always or most of the time”. And for those of us who work or otherwise gather in the church, we know that the deep distrust for organized religion and institutional power within religious denominations is having a major impact on membership and spiritual life.
I have heard some version of “They’re all crooks” in regard to politics and organized religion since I was young. And more and more this sense that institutions with power are by their nature corrupt has gained a serious foothold in our communities.
This anti-institutional impulse, in many ways, has been a cornerstone of US sentiment since its founding, but the levels of distrust we are experiencing now are beyond our standard pattern. Furthermore, this skepticism is being translated into political and social Movements and policy.
I share most of the active critiques against institutional power that I encounter in the public square. I tend to think that given a little bit of power, and a mechanism to exercise it, people will do everything they can to either grow or maintain dominance. I do think that in a lot of ways, our institutions have been actively preventing us from following the free flow of the Spirit’s deep and penetrating work in our communities.
I do think that our politics, and in turn our government, has lost the sense of it’s call to service and it’s understanding of its own central purpose; i.e. to contribute to its citizens flourishing and well-being.
I think that the media, long considered one of our noblest institutions, has instead been dominated by sensationalism and viewership, rather than a real belief in the fourth estate. It has actively corrupted our political process and seems to be getting worse every day.
In the church, institutional power often looks like a rigid theological uniformity for the sake of dominance, a tight-fisted hold on where and how we spend our money, and a resistance to the kinds of moral, ethical, and communal calls that could potentially disrupt the previous two commitments.
We will spend millions of dollars in the ELCA, for example, to maintain church property, failing seminaries, and calcified programming all to comfort and coddle our deep fears about the death of our church. Our institution’s mechanisms actively impede the ability for certain individuals to fully realize the call which they have discerned, i.e. LGBTQIA+ and Black and Brown candidates. And more and more we seem to be “nibbling around the edges” (to steal a phrase from our latest Democratic debate) rather than living with prophetic imagination.
I work inside this institution, and I am so frustrated by what feels like an unwillingness to imagine. It’s not for a lack of creative and courageous minds, it is rather a fear over the loss of institutional power. I know that many of my colleagues feel the same way.
And yet, the more I work within the church, within communities who are seeking to accomplish something together, the more I am grateful for even our failed attempts at good order and process. I find that I cannot get on board with wholesale calls for the demolition of our social, religious, and political institutions. Instead, I am holding out hope and doing what I can to support and encourage movements of reform and transformation within these institutions.
Most of our institutions, the ones we know best, arose from the energy and the vision of social and political movements. Granted, many of these movements have not been in the best interests of all of the people, maybe not even most of the people, but they do arise from the genuine desire of human communities to work together towards a particular end.
As social movements gain power, they need to develop mechanisms for exercising that power and for building the next wave of movement energy. This is where they institutionalize, which is really just the codification of organizing principles and practices.
Institutions provide guidance and support to movements and communities. At their best, they limit individual power in lieu of communal. They ensure that everyone at the table has a voice, and that we are able to act powerfully together.
We can see this emerging structure within the early church. In Acts, the bubbling of a communal institution begins with the pooling of resources in chapter 2 and 4, and particularly with the consequences faced by Ananias and Sapphira (perhaps not the most hopeful of narratives). It begins to firm up more with the recruitment of deacons to serve the Hellenist’s widows, and by the time Paul returns to Jerusalem there is a full-blown church leadership structure.
Throughout it’s 2,000 years of existence and development the Christian church has institutionalized and re-institutionalized many hundreds, even thousands of times. Each faith community that begins to pull away from larger or more powerful religious institutions, will in fact reach a point of its own institutionalization or simply die. This happened with the Reformation, the East/West Schism, Evangelicalism, and many more examples that I won’t go into here.
I think it is important to be honest about the power and the influence that our current institutions hold, and rather than simply abandoning them for the sake of idealism, I think it is in our best interest to reform and transform our institutions in ways that allow them to move nimbly alongside the grassroots movements within their base communities.
I think we hear a lot of calls within both the political and religious communities for the immediate death of institutional power, and the creation of “brand-new ways” of being citizens and people of faith (Here’s a little secret: they are not exactly “brand-new”). Whether this is broad calls for political anarchy (a real social theory not the caricature we’ve often heard), a fully de-centralized church, elimination of denominations and any kind of institutional hierarchy, I find the arguments for these non-institutional bodies mostly naïve and uncritical.
The rhetoric assumes that institutionalization isn’t a natural process within the life cycle of social movements, that our institutions are wholly defunct and corrupt, and that human beings can be trusted to act against their own self-interest without the stricture and empowerment of institutional power. My anthropology just simply isn’t that forgiving. Blame Luther, or Ananias and Sapphira.
I don’t want to see our institutions flame out and waste all the power they have built over decades and centuries of existence. I want to see them use their power in new and creative ways. I want to see the grassroots movements within our institutions move and transform both structure and the operation, while leveraging the significant resources at our fingertips.
In the ELCA, I want us to continue the process of decolonization that Black and Brown folks have begun, and which the other 96% of us who are white, have been called to by our neighbors, our family, and Christ. We’ve already seen the ways in which the decolonizing movement within the ELCA has had an impact within the broader institution. Slow, painful, and yet impactful.
I want to see us think creatively about leadership in the church, not simply repeat the process that has far too often kept particular folks on the outside looking in. I want to see us confront clericalism and careerism. To examine our candidacy process, evaluate our theology of ordination, and trust lay people for God’s sake.
I want to see the ELCA act boldly with its dollars, and to be honest about the financial power that our denomination possesses. I want our churches to trust in their community more than their building. To trust Christ more than mere habit. I want us to say that we aren’t afraid of death, because we are people of the resurrection.
I want to see the ELCA act powerfully in the political square. To leverage all its resources and its moral vision to fight for liberation and the flourishing of all people. To remind its member that politics is one of the faces of God.
But within all of that reform, my hope isn’t that the ELCA ceases to exist, but that it die and rise daily as the rest of us do. I want the ELCA, this institution that makes me crazy, to become even more powerful, more influential, and more committed to its mission.
As the distrust of institutions continues to grow, I think we do ourselves a disservice by coming to the conclusion that institutions are, by their nature, corrupt. Our institutions are us, and we have to confront our own complicity in this notion that power is corrupt on its face and take responsibility for the institutions we build and maintain.
Rather than cynically calling for the rejection of institutional power, how can we begin to understand our institutions as structures and practices along the way? How do they help us reach the goals of liberation and freedom that we aspire to? How do they actually ensure that power isn’t used in sinister ways?
Powerful movements emerge in our world with some regularity, and our institutions have the ability to nurture, and support, and advance the mission and the vision of those movements. Let’s not give up on them quite yet.