I derived some real profit from this James K. A. Smith editorial and the entire issue of Comment in which it appeared. Read the issue on a single flight; very convenient. I’m not quite on Smith’s theological page—I’ve not read enough to discern exactly what page he’s on. But his comments about societal institutions were wise and, most importantly I think, biblical. Here’s a sample:
If you’re really passionate about fostering the common good, then you should resist anti-institutionalism. Because institutions are ways to love our neighbours. Institutions are durable, concrete structures that—when functioning well—cultivate all of creation’s potential toward what God desires: shalom, peace, goodness, justice, flourishing, delight. Institutions are the way we get a handle on concrete realities and address different aspects of creaturely existence. Institutions will sometimes be scaffolds to support the weak; sometimes they function as fences to protect the vulnerable; in other cases, institutions are the springboards that enable us to pursue new innovation. Even though they can become corrupt and stand in need of reform, institutions themselves are not the enemy.
Indeed, injustice is often bound up with the erosion of societal institutions. For example, Nicholas Kristof’s reporting from Africa constantly observes that tyrants and warlords flourish precisely in those places where their rogue armies are the only durable institutions, preying upon the absence of any other institutions that might resist.
The destruction of institutions actually makes room for injustice. You might say that the devil also believes in institutions, which is precisely why his minions are often so deviously patient and persistent in their goal of eroding them. You can imagine Screwtape writing to Wormwood with a key piece of advice: “Evil triumphs in just such a vacuum, so patiently chip away at the institutions of civil society. We’ll reap the rewards later.”
So we believe in institutions because we oppose injustice. But we fundamentally believe in institutions because we believe in the Scriptures and the cultural commission given to humanity in the Garden. To be fruitful and multiply is to begin—and inherit—the institution of the family. To cultivate creation is to fill the earth with institutional life that was begging to be unfurled—in museums and schools, in legislatures and libraries, in universities and unions. Institutions are durable, communal ways that we can act in concert with our neighbours to achieve penultimate goods. So instead of thinking about institutions as big, hulking, static behemoths, think of institutions as dynamic, social enactments. Try to imagine “institutions” as spheres of action. Institutions are not just something that we build; they’re something that we do.