When Institutions Go Bad

The Rios family has rediscovered the Little House on the Prairie series.  Watching these episodes as an adult is certainly different from watching them as a child, but they are just right for Aja, and bring up several moral dilemmas that are worth discussing.  We just began season 4 after making our way through the last month+ of previous episodes.

Last night we watched the episode, Times of Change, where Pa gets invited to attend The Grange convention (in place of Walnut Grove’s sick rep) in Chicago, where John Jr. (the orphan poet who was adopted by the Edwards’, got a scholarship to attend college in Chicago, and is currently engaged to young Mary Ingalls) is working at a paper in town.  Illusions are about to be shattered, as the nice, telegraphing 70’s music lets us know (let the viewer understand:)!

Pa soon finds out that The Grange is no longer an organization of farmers, but a vipers nest of graft, controlled by the railroads who are sysymatically buying votes for their preferred legislation.  It becomes clear that the nice railroad car Pa and Mary shared from Walnut grove, and the suite they were given, which is triple the size of their farmhouse, is an attempt to get him to vote no on regulation measures.  Even worse, John Jr’s paper is in cahoots with the railroads to not publish “unseemly” material about back room deals and the “desperate women” (care of Simonetta Ciccolini:) that have been brought in to appease the male clientele and curry favor.

This macro commentary on institutions is the backdrop for the withering relationship between Mary and John Jr, as he has fallen prey to the double dealing of the big city, taking another girl to cotillion while still trying to go with Mary.  His scheme falls apart when Pa comes back from an impassioned speech at the convention and finds him kissing another girl.

So, we’ve been reading about the building of the tabernacle, ark of the covenant, table, etc. along with the Gospel of Mark.  Jesus today confronted the Pharaisees who were watching him to see whether he would break the sabbath rules by healing on the day, or obey their rules (ostensibly God’s rules) and do nothing.  Of course, he heals him and the text says, “He was grieved at their hardness of heart.”  How had the people who in Exodus had been lifted up from bondage under Pharaoh, who had witnessed the effects of a powerful monarch/institution “hardening his heart” to God’s cry of freedom, have come to represent the oppression from which they ran?

As a member of an insitution called the Episcopal church, I am aware of the challenges that come when people who have gathered together to do good in greater numbers, have to face the reality that some of their members will seek to exploit that good will.  Most people of my generation or younger have a healthy to neurotic fear of institutions, which many older generations cite as the reason more of us are not in church on Sundays.  It is not hard to understand why.  Governments break their promises to the governed after gaining votes, religious institutions at times seem awfully more interested in maintaining their own rules and structures rather than engaging the daily challenges of peoples’ lives, and it seems inevitable that the more we invest in growing an institution, the more we invest in division, disappointment and deception.  We have seen how corporations remain slaves to the stock market and investors, while playing Pharoah with national economies and regulations.  We have seen environmental degradation continue because politicians do not have the will to stop it, nor mass scale polluters the conscience to quit.  What are we to do?

Institutions are faceless.  They are amorphous conglomerates in which identity is subsumed into “the brand.”  The church has an institutional role to play, but perhaps, as Israel was called to be post-Exodus, and as Jesus called the disciples to be in Mark today, we are called to be first and foremost, a community. I’m sure that is obvious, and seemingly simplistic, but hey, “I’m just a dumb hillbilly from Asheville.”  When the church works, and I have seen it work, otherwise I wouldn’t proudly do what I do now, we can help remind the world just how powerful community action and values can be.  And those values can be shared across faith traditions and ethical traditions other than our own, while we still retain our Christ centeres reasons and motivations.

The hallmarks of community as I see them, are: mutual trust and respect, care for neighbor, truth-telling, and all under the banner of celebrating diverse yet shared experience/destiny.  I am convinced that this can only happen when people know each other on a deep level, because of shared hardship and joys. And it takes time and energy to cultivate, which in an instantaneous world is truly counter-cultural.  However, when we stop caring about our neighbor with a withered hand, or a slave stacking bricks for monuments to “Egypt’s” glory, or the plight of “dumb farmers” in our midst, then we have lost the reason for becoming an institution in the first place.  We have lost our sense of community.

May our churches be know as communities where these sorts of values reign, and  let our denomination/church institution be known as a community of such communities.  What can each of us do to build up the communites we serve and of which we are a part today?  May you have the strength and will to do so dear friend.

Faceless institutions without community conscience and values may be able to dominate the world, but they will never have the power to transform it, nor will they be able to win hearts and minds forever.  That is the promise of God.   Ask Pharaoh and Egypt, ask The Grange in Little House.

Or better yet, ask Pa!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *