**Companion Resources Newsletter**
edited by Paul D. Leichty
Volume 4, No. 7 July 2002
Last month, I talked about how caring communities, in an attempt to meet the needs of certain individuals in their midst, form institutions. Those institutions, in turn, become increasingly specialized and professionalized. They take on a life of their own.
It is risky to talk about institutions, for we are talking about ourselves. We are talking about something that is at the core of how we order our lives. Yet that same ordering can also control us as well. Good people do hurtful and destructive things because of their commitment to institutions. I offer these thoughts, not as a fully developed system of thought, by any means, but in a spirit of testing. Your feedback is welcomed. See my address at the end.
There is a particular Biblical language for what happens to institutions that is rarely understood, let alone discussed. It is the language of the “principalities and powers” that the Apostle Paul talks about in several of his letters to the emerging churches of his day.
Often, modern-day folks who have read the passages about principalities and powers dismiss Paul’s language as some ancient worldview about ghosts and demons. But what Paul is really talking about is very close to what we would call “institutions.” An institution takes on a life of its own and becomes a force or power in the world just like each individual person is a force. However, institutions tend to become even more powerful because individuals give them some of their powers.
Individuals give institutions power because of a need to have structure and order in the world. Without institutions, life would be total disorder and chaos as each selfish individual would try to take power over the next person. So institutions are necessary for structuring human life.
The problem comes as these institutions grow in their autonomy and self-sufficiency and eventually follow the same credo as individual persons in our individualistic Western culture. The institutions assume they have a right to exist and that self-preservation is the highest good.
There are usually some good motives behind the push for self-preservation. After all, (to go back to last month’s hypothetical example) if Super Caring, Inc. ceases to exist, who will care for Jim and his friends? How will the good things that institutions do get done if the institution goes out of existence?
Certainly, such arguments must be taken seriously. However, the sad fact is that the institutions themselves have created one of the main reasons behind this compelling need for their own self-preservation. By becoming simply become one more selfish entity in a “dog-eat-dog” world, the institutions forget the _community_ that brought them into existence. They forget that they exist to serve _the community_ just as much as the particular _individuals_ that are on their mission statement.
Even worse, the very specialization that defines their mission and the professionalization that makes them competent in their mission become a kind of blind spot in their consciousness. As a result of not seeing their proper role in the larger community, they tend to erode the foundations of that community. Their “specialty” becomes the only lens through which they can see the individual they serve and even the world as a whole.
With the proliferation of institutions, community becomes fragmented into a growing number of specialties with few people able to see the whole. Furthermore, institutions professionalize the caring roles that the whole community should have and therefore erode the community’s ability to respond as a whole with caring and compassion. Individuals become so dependent on the institutions and their professionals that they don’t see it as “their job” to care.
The institutions, the principalities and powers of our day, if left unchecked, will become destructive. In preserving themselves, they will inevitably cause the death of some other important component of true community.
What would happen if the institution returned to its roots in community in a time of crisis? What if it said to the community, “We are spending so much time and energy raising funds that we don’t have time to care for personal needs…”? What if it said, “We can’t find the people who share our values of caring and are willing to work for the wages we have to offer…”? What if it said, “We can’t continue to burn out people on a job like this and expect them to remain caring and compassionate”?
Would the community be able to respond with caring solutions? Or would they dump the problem back in the lap of a few board members and administrators and tell them to get competitive like the rest of the individualistic and capitalistic world?
The Apostle Paul says that Christians are those who don’t have to bow down to every institutional power that happens to come along. Christians are those who care for each person and mourn when a life is sacrificed for the self-preservation of even the best institution. Christians are persons who see values beyond self-preservation in the caring serving stance of Jesus. Christians believe that faithfully putting ourselves at risk of death is preferable to causing the death of others. Christians are those who believe that all of the powers of the world (including our own “power-full” individual selves) are ultimately responsible to God and fall under God’s greater power. Christians are those who take their instructions from God alone as expressed through Jesus and the community gathered in his name.
It is in a community loyal to this greatest Power that we can find the wisdom and discernment to deal with the institutional powers that we have helped create. That’s not to say that we will attain perfection in our motives and judgments. But it is to have an ultimate vision in front of us. That’s why, for me, a Christian commitment is also a commitment to stand against the destructive powers of institutions and to help build community wherever I am.
Blessings on the journey!
Paul D. Leichty
The Goldenrod Community
Phone/Fax: 1-877-214-9838 (toll free)
“People using Technology building Community”