“In a cynical age that tends to glorify ‘startups’ and celebrate anti-institutional suspicion, faith in institutions will sound dated, stodgy, old-fashioned, even (gasp) ‘conservative.’,” says James K.A. Smith. “Christians who are eager to be progressive, hip, relevant, and creative tend to buy into such anti-institutionalism, thus mirroring and mimicking wider cultural trends. . . And yet those same Christians are rightly concerned about “the common good.”
But here’s the thing: 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.”