The institutions might help you, but they can’t replace you

We aren’t out of the woods next November

I really appreciated what Ken White, a.k.a. Popehat, had to say in his contribution to the Atlantic the other day. He’s talking about the crisis at the border and shared that this isn’t just a Trumpian problem, but an American one:

The fault lies not with any one administration or politician, but with the culture: the ICE and CBP culture that encourages the abuse, the culture of the legal apologists who defend it, and our culture—a largely indifferent America that hasn’t done a damn thing about it. This stain on America’s soul will not wash out with an election cycle. It will only change when Americans demand that the government treat the least of us as both the law and our values require—and firmly maintain that demand no matter how we feel about the party in power.—Ken White

Ken is reminding us about, and not excusing the current administration from the American problem. He is invoking Matthew 25’s “least of us” language and his use of “values” here is a clear analogue to Christian values. That sort of syncretization between America and Christianity is a little disconcerting, but for most missionaries it’s appropriate to bring the Gospel immediately to your context, so I’ll allow it.

But what I appreciate about his point is that despite being a lawyer, he doesn’t legalize or institutionalize a solution (while still holding the law and institutions accountable for evil). He says it is an issue of values, culture, and conviction. I appreciate that he’s sharing responsibility for the problem and acknowledging we’re in the mess together. It’s helpful to note that an election won’t save us (if you want more on that, check out this Tweet thread on Obama’s immigration record). Of course, I think Jesus is the one who saves us, but I am often tempted to think institutions will save me, and I think I’m programmed to in order to disempower me, even.

Yes, you can actually talk to children

I was struck by this dynamic the other day. We have 47 kids at our congregation. They have a wide variety of ages. They act like kids act; so in the open time between the meetings, they run around, and they raid the snack table. Who could blame them? They love filling up disposable cups with popcorn and running around the space flinging popcorn around. It’s a wild ride. But it obviously causes some problems. The space gets messy, the cups are often wasted, and the intensity of the children, who are very comfortable in the space (a good thing), can sometimes make someone less comfortable with the space (notably a parent or a child). We were discussing the matter the other day and people came up with a few solutions. One suggestion was to ban popcorn. Another one was to use reusable cups. We also talked about moving the snack table altogether. I was a little amused at how many opinions this generated (I love the dialogue, so the more, the better). But more than just the dialogue it generated, I was surprised at the “institutional” solutions we came up with. Have we been convinced that a policy is our only way toward solutions?

This is disturbing to me, especially as a parent in this instance, because we participate in the community as village parents. We own our building together and we raise our children together. If a kid ate ten cookies and is on his fifth cup of popcorn, I think anyone who notices can help them out by talking to them. I think we ignore kids because they are small in status and stature. We also are fearful, for some reason, of parenting someone’s child. But most parents don’t mind another adult talking to their kid about behavior that they shouldn’t be engaged with. Most parents don’t want their kid to eat too many sweets, waste supplies, and throw popcorn around. We certainly don’t want that in our homes or at someone else’s home. My suggestion to our team was to relate to the kids like they were people because, well, they are.

The institution is like a custodian

This sort of thinking leaks into a lot of our ideas, it seems to me. Institutional solutions are a sort of holding ground, or anteroom, for grace to be fully realized, for personal transformation to occur, for the incarnation to prevail.

So that the law was our custodian until Christ came, that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a custodian; for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.—Galatians 3:24-26

Paul tells the Galatians that the law is a “custodian” or a “teacher” that guides us toward our faithful future, and even turns to love. The “custodian” moves us toward the ultimate revelation of God in Jesus. Too much focus on the law, which in this case is the Law of Moses summarized in the Ten Commandments, “institutionalizes” our faith. I think that at the heart of the Old Testament, the law was never meant to be that institutional. The main rule of the Old Testament, in my opinion, is that God’s love endures forever.

But I think it’s easy to take a shortcut and make a rule do the relating for us. It’s also easy to assume that no structure or order is necessarily and we can work everything out personally. I think though Christ has come, and we’re not living under the law or the institution anymore, some of its remnant is helpful. We haven’t built a new creation yet, so we still bring the Gospel to our present with flexibility.

This is exactly why Paul thought it was good for Timothy to be circumcised. Timothy, a son of a Greek, was circumcised since he was ministering to Jewish people who might be offended at his lack of circumcision. But famously, in Galatians, Paul rebukes anyone that would require circumcision as entrance into the church. So there is a difference between allowing an old rule to be a deliverer of grace, and supplanting grace with it.

Our work is not done when we make a rule, even if the rule helps us get us moving on the right path. Putting it another way, we might have some norms about children after the meeting and their behavior that we introduce, but that doesn’t take anyway the necessity of having a relationship with them. Similarly, and more seriously, we might have a list of policy improvements we hope the state makes regarding immigration, but that won’t erase the fear of the other that compounds the problems we face now.

We might think of institutional responses as imperfect tools to help get us moving in the right direction. Too much focus on them makes it seem like our work is done when we impose them. So for Paul, he might have institutionalized a lack of circumcision and missed an opportunity with Timothy. We might think we’ll be heading in the right direction if we have the right policies that represent us. It’s not that those things aren’t important, they just aren’t complete. They aren’t the end. We don’t solve the problem when we’ve codified a solution. It takes more work than that.

Institutionalized Christianity cheapens faith and grace

I spoke about the doctrine of the Trinity last Sunday and it reminded me again about how institutional solutions are incomplete. The doctrine of the Trinity holds that God is three consubstantial persons —the Father, the Son (Jesus Christ), and the Holy Spirit—as “one God in three Divine Persons.” The three persons are distinct, yet are one “substance, essence or nature.” In this context, a “nature” is what one is, whereas a “person” is who one is. They are “consubstantial.”

Miroslav Volf make practical this idea when he says, “God came into the world so as to make human beings, created in the image of God, live with one another and with God in the kind of communion in which divine persons live with each other.”

The argument I made on Sunday, if you want an analogy for the Trinity, is the church. We need to be of the same substance and treat each other that way. Distinct persons, but the same substance (and thus mission). We are one with all of creation. We incarnate the otherwise institutional.

The Doctrine of the Trinity offers inadequate language to describe an ontology we can’t comprehend. It’s only supposed to help us, in my opinion. And specific language is helpful. On Sunday, I argued that is why offering ontological language, however imperfect it is, is a way to describe ourselves as we live in the world. The marginalized especially benefit from this. We are moving toward the single essence of the Trinity, but still distinct persons. Using our culture’s ontological categories is an OK concession missionaries make.

We are trying to understand something that is probably a little beyond our comprehension, even human ontology is. Our existence and essence are complex enough. It would be good if the dominant understood that about the language used to describe them.

So the institutions can’t help us, as the custodians they are, as the anterooms to grace that they are. But they won’t save us, because faith and grace prevail personally and relationally. That is to say, they prevail in you.

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