No metrics exist to measure life without institutions, because they’ve been around as long as humankind. The first institution was the first family. The tribe was the first community. The first tribe’s leader was the first politician, and its elders were the first legislature. Its guards, the first police force. Its storyteller, a teacher. Humans are coded to create communities, and communities beget institutions.
So what institutions are being created now?
When the present disaster is over, what institutions will have been created? Something is happening. CBS Sunday Morning suggested it might be created by robots. Gwen and I suggested it might be creating more anxiety and depression, the life disorders that can be associated with severe self-interest, a turning in on oneself, the mental illnesses of being alone.
Social prophets keep talking about chaos syndrome as the trickle down contribution of our present elites. In general, the idea identifies a chronic decline in a system’s capacity for self-organization, especially the political system. It begins with the weakening of the institutions and brokers—political parties, career politicians, and congressional leaders and committees—that have historically held politicians accountable to one another and prevented everyone in the system from pursuing naked self-interest all the time. As these intermediaries’ influence fades, politicians, activists, and voters all become more individualistic and unaccountable (and anxious and depressed!). The system atomizes. Chaos becomes the new normal—both in campaigns like Donald Trump’s and in government actions like the House of Representatives considering healthcare.
Government is all most people think we have for an institution, but there are a lot more disintegrating before our eyes. There are four ex-Catholics for every new one in the United States, for instance. Local schools cope with chaos every day. We had people deployed to pray on the steps of our governments last night in honor of Jesus doing the same; it was very hard to find any radicals to believe in prayer, to believe in extravagant gestures of prophecy, or to believe they should even think about what disintegrating institutions are creating.
What is the solution to disintegrating institutions?
Frustrated people are trying to fill the vacuum left by disintegration. We don’t trust any news outlets, so like-minded “followers” and “friends” feed us news online. People sometimes barter on eBay, even start local businesses rather than bow to Amazon. Parents increasingly homeschool their children rather than expose them to under-supported public schools. But most of that is coping, not creating nourishing institutions. Any Sociology 1 student can tell you we need the organizing institutions provide; it’s how things get done. But by Sociology 2 they can probably cite a study that shows how many people despise all institutions; they even hate their church if they think it is institutional, since they don’t like “institutionalized” religion.
When people trust their institutions (you may not remember such a time), they’re better able to solve common problems. Research shows that school principals are much more likely to improve struggling schools where people have a history of working together and getting involved in their children’s education. Communities bonded by friendships formed at church are more likely to vote, volunteer, and perform everyday good deeds like helping someone find a job. And governments find it easier to persuade the public to make sacrifices for the common good when people trust that their political leaders have the community’s best interests at heart. Institutions — even dysfunctional ones — are why we don’t experience common chaos.
At least for a while we may not experience total chaos. I pray chaos does not engulf us. Which brings me to praying during this holy week. Some people probably saw Jesus riding into Jerusalem yesterday as the perfect agent of much-needed, anti-institutional fervor. They will follow his movement all week as he upends retail business on Monday, invades higher learning on Tuesday, subverts family and social norms on Wednesday, performs alternative religious rites on Thursday with his subversive cell, defies government authority on Friday and undermines the supposed laws of nature on Sunday. They see him as a big ball of chaos. I agree that he is the great disrupter.
But all through this holy week Jesus is doing a lot more than being an amazing individual who can stand against all forces, alone and in control. Much deeper, what is happening all week is this: Jesus is God, again brooding over the chaos and exercising his redemptive creative touch. What Jesus is doing, for anyone with eyes to see, is creating something new in the chaos of the fallen institutions. The main new institution he is creating is the church. One will not be able to summarize what he is doing in a sociology book; he is not institutionalizing something alongside all the other institutions. He is the metric by which life is measured — and his grace is new every morning, like this one. He is happening no matter what happens.
Last night our reps in Washington DC, Harrisburg, Trenton and Philadelphia prayed a common liturgy that restated the heart of our revelation in these troubling times. It ended with:
It all happens on a cross
it all happens at a state execution
where the governor did not commute the sentence
it all happens at the hands of an empire
that has captured our imagination
it all happens through blood
not through a power grab by the sovereign one
it all happens in embraced pain
for the sake of others
it all happens on a cross
arms outstretched in embrace
and this is the image of the invisible God
this is the body of Christ.
But can anyone still be part of the body of Christ? Are we so reduced we can’t connect? can’t covenant? can’t marry? can’t build anything together? Our church is living proof that is not so. We are doing it. But the chaos does not stop undermining us. Each Holy Week is a test of our capacity for living. If there are no holy people to experience the Holy Week, if no one makes the connection between what Jesus did and what He is creating through us, our institution isn’t the body of Christ, it is just one more thing we mistrust and destroy.