I’ve noticed an interesting phenomena in today’s world. It seems like we are becoming increasingly dependent on our institutions. When I worked at a church, I constantly heard people talk about what the church wasn’t doing and how they were suffering for it. We talk about voting as if it were the one moral obligation of our society and as if lawmakers are responsible for the ills of society. At the college we work at, students and parents are expecting more and more from the institution.
Maybe it has always been this way. Maybe I’m just old enough to start noticing. But we certainly have a heavy dose of dependency on the institutions that surround us. We expect them to help (if not completely solve) our problems. We blame them when our life is unsatisfactory. There is a royal “them” that seems to be shaping our entire society and each individual life.
The Role of Institutions
When I was a youth pastor, I had a parent say this to me: “We’re so thankful for you and for this church. We drop our son here every Sunday night so he can learn how to be a good person”. There is so much wrong here I don’t know where to start. My first few years in ministry, I heard stories like this, but thought they were a bit exaggerated. They’re not. This kind of statement was lobbed at me on a consistent basis. In essence, I was asked to raise their kids and blamed when it wasn’t working. And I was a 23-year-old single adult a couple years out of college!
When Kennedy famously implored “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”, he was really on to something. But we’ve lost this idea, if we ever truly held to it. It is all about what our institutions are doing for us.
The reason this matters is because we are in a state of moral emergency. Depression, divorce, suicide. Lying, cheating, thievery. We’re lost.
It is too easy to pretend the complete opposite is true, that institutions are useless or inherently harmful. That isn’t true either.
The point of an institution is to help. Not do on behalf of. Not enable. The point of church, government, and social groups is to help us. To provide some boundaries that let us know how the world works. To show us consequences. Not in a vacuum. Not as an ultimate end. But to lead us toward making our own decisions, setting our own boundaries. A little “v” inside The Freedom V.
It is a tightrope for sure. But a necessary one. Look at parenting for example. The aim of parenting is to rear children to be good citizens. It’s not (solely) to protect them from any kind of harm (including risk or challenge or disappointment). It is not to do things for them. We all know people who parent in that manner and have seen that the worst victim of it is the child who does not know how to take ownership of their own decisions, accept consequences, or persevere through difficulty.
The truth is it is just easier to put character development on our institutions. It is easier to charge them with creating policy to force us into right action rather than owning the choices we make. It is easier to depend (and blame) them for our inability to learn and make decent choices.
Institutions certainly have a weight to carry. But it isn’t your weight. We are missing a crucial balance. The world is so dizzying because we have lost our sense of equilibrium. We’ve put too much hope in institutions and not enough in the capacity of our own character. Until we flip the switch, nothing will change. And it will likely get decidedly worse.