In his piece “Why the Past 10 Years of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid,” Jonathan Haidt attributes the cohesion of cultures to three things: social capital, shared stories, and strong institutions. Last week I wrote about shared stories; today I’ll discuss strong institutions.
Whenever I hear it said that people are against institutions, my first thought is that I totally understand. That word institution can mean a bunch of things, mostly unpleasant. But Jonathan Haidt says that we need strong institutions if we are going to flourish as a society. For today, we’ll call institutions a formalized group with a cause. Some are huge (like the U.S. government), while others are small (like a church). While we might say that we like causes more than we like formalized groups, the past decade of social media has taught us that causes need people to take them up, otherwise they accomplish nothing more than empty hashtaggery. So, yes, we need groups. But that doesn’t mean they are easy.
Many institutions suffer from distrust. People simply do not trust the integrity of the group. Some professions are trusted and others are not. Research suggests that the public trusts scientists more than politicians. They trust police officers and school principals more than they do journalists or business leaders. This matters because no group can function healthily in the presence of distrust. We need more trust. But we need even more than that. Three changes need to happen if we are going to strengthen groups that keep society going.
First, we must continue to acknowledge the horrific damage that can be done by institutional failure. Last week, White Station’s Leadership Team had meetings related to our policies regarding sex offenders, screening and background checks for all youth volunteers, and financial transparency. These are not easy conversations, but they are worth every minute. Leaders of institutions must acknowledge the harm that one tragic or mishandled incident can cause. Groups, especially churches, thrive on trust; we should never abuse it.
Second, we need to insist on proportionality as we become aware of problems. Just because something could happen doesn’t mean it will happen. Our reasons for concern and angst must be proportional to the likelihood that they will actually materialize. Last year a shooter opened fire in a nearby Kroger, killing one and injuring thirteen. It was tragic; I still go to Kroger every week. Could something terrible happen? Yep. But it probably won’t, so I go. Starving without groceries is more likely than getting shot while purchasing them. Unfortunately, irrational fear has been accelerated by social media, which is like a pantry of negativity that we can visit whenever we are hungry. When we visit too often, we become fat and sick. Jesus did not intend for us to worry about every possible outcome of every decision (Mt. 6:25-33).
Third, individuals need to be less cynical toward institutions. Being less cynical matters because no group can function healthily in the presence of cynicism. A school board is not Marxist just because they see racial justice a bit differently than some parents, and it’s probably not fair to call a local police department racist for something that happened in a precinct 500 miles away. Institutions are made up of ordinary people who often do their best— just like us. Some institutions have better outcomes than others; some also have jobs that are harder than others. Assuming every group on the planet is greedy, corrupt, too liberal, too conservative, racist, sexist, and homophobic is harmful not only to the institutions, but also to the one calling them out. We should never call someone else out unless we first have looked deep within ourselves. Our cynicism and criticism does not help other people be better; it provokes them to be more defensive, which translates into a society more accustomed to being attacked than welcomed. It’s also a recipe for deep loneliness. It’s tough to make friends when we are suspicious of everyone.
Our lack of community is killing us. It’s not surprising that the decline in church participation and distrust in institutions has coincided with a decline in friendship and an increase in loneliness and suicide. People need to know others and to be known by others. How can we ask people to see the best in themselves if we’ve encouraged them to see the worst in others (Mt. 7:1-5)? We need to have the courage and resolve to clean up institutions that are corrupt. We also need to extend some mercy (and help) to the ones that aren’t.