Saturday, October 17, 2015

The Institutional Fix

Government should do something. That seems to be the consensus.

Never mind what the issue is. Could be the economy. Could be women’s wages. Maybe aboriginal affairs. Certainly immigration. Definitely climate change. But if only those people we elected would just get to it, things would be better.

People love the institutional fix. Specifically, they love identifying a problem and ranting about it. These days, personal responsibility begins and ends with firing off a critical blog post, Facebook screed or nuclear Tweet. Whatever the problem may be, with any luck someone else will deal with it. Hopefully they’ll start a program.

But institutions and programs rarely provide real answers. They are only as good as the specific individuals you encounter when they intersect with your life.

In the last few years, I and my family spent extended periods in the health care system. I met some very helpful, decent people along the way. Several cheery, competent and caring nurses. An EMT who shared his own struggles with health issues and offered encouragement. An ER doctor who practically oozed compassion.

I came away with good feelings about half a dozen human beings.

But the system itself? A horror show. Dishonesty, unsanitary conditions, expectations created and never met, lost paperwork, inaccurate recording of facts, miscommunication between personnel, mistakes, cover-ups, misdiagnosis after misdiagnosis, failure to take responsibility for any particular part of the process, and so on. In the spaces between the good people, chaos and confusion were the order of the day.

But this is not a rant about the health care system. Any institution or program runs the risk of developing similar problems. We have them in the office where I work. They are rampant in government: in the school system, the taxation system, in the administration of services for disabled and home care for the elderly — and in every bureaucracy everywhere.

When you spread responsibility around, you often diffuse it to the point that it disappears altogether.

The church is not immune to this. If the leadership of your church has taken on bureaucratic qualities over time, it will fail in precisely the same ways.

It is notable that the Lord Jesus consistently addressed the conduct of individuals rather than institutions.

There are behaviors to embrace:

“Let your light shine before others.”
“Give to the one who begs from you.”
“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
“You therefore must be perfect.”
“Ask, and it will be given to you.”
“Whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them.”

And there are behaviors to avoid:

“Do not take an oath at all.”
“Do not resist the one who is evil.”
“You must not be like the hypocrites.”
“When you fast, do not look gloomy.”
“Judge not, that you be not judged.”
“Beware of false prophets.”

You notice the pattern. Everything focuses on personal responsibility, not system reform. Despite the injustices just as common in his day as in ours, the Lord seems entirely uninterested in addressing the failures of the governing Romans. Even the sins of the Jewish Pharisees, Sadducees and lawyers are addressed at the individual level. He details specific offences, abuses and wrongs when he declares his woes against them, and the remedies he offers are individual in nature rather than geared to addressing systemic abuse: “Clean the inside of the cup and plate, that the outside also may be clean” and “These you ought to have done without neglecting the others”.

It’s very, very personal.

He doesn’t call for committees, investigations, reports or new methods. There is a total absence of declamations against “the system”. There is no attempt at the institutional fix. Instead, he commands personal repentance and a change of behavior.

One of my favourite pundits is not a believer, but he says:
“The government has no feelings, it has no remorse, it has no grief and no responsibility ... but we do.”
— Bill Whittle
It’s good advice to us today. Sure, the system fails. The question is, have you and I contributed to its failure in any personal way? Have we lacked courage to speak up? Have we avoided making difficult but moral decisions because we were acting under orders? Have we accepted the status quo even when it’s wrong because everyone else is doing it? Have we taken the easy way out because it’s considered acceptable practice?

Most bureaucratic systems are frustratingly inept. Some are outright corrupt. But before we cry out for the institutional fix, it may be prudent to make a careful and realistic examination of the little corner of the world for which each of us is responsible.

1 comment :

  1. What you're talking about, Tom, is also nicely captured by the current phrase, "Social Justice." For while many people mistake "Social Justice" for real justice, it's not.

    Real justice means everybody gets treated fairly. In contrast, the "social" part of "Social Justice" means that instead of any one person being responsible to make justice happen, government is to be forced to obey SJ wishes, and then government itself is to institutionalize the SJ agenda and to enforce SJ preferences on everyone. And if this creates actual injustice for some, well, the SJ crowd is not concerned about that. They're not about real justice, just about getting society shaped the way they want it. They're drunk with political ambition and indifferent to their personal moral failings.

    This does not mean that Christians shouldn't vote, or shouldn't join social-help efforts. But it does mean they must not delude themselves that an SJ push for some concept of the "good society" can be substituted for their personal duty to obey Christ.

    As Christians, we won't have a truly just society until the King of that society reigns over the whole world. Until then, injustices will happen, and we must fight them wherever we find them...but not so that some SJ utopia will follow, but because justice is what the King asks of us personally.