This idea has been kicking around in my head for about half a year. I first raised the question of institutional or structural apologies in a post last October I called Sorry About That . I wrote:
This got me wondering if our inability to apologize for past institutional action is related to a number of problems in contemporary society. Is it possible that the disaffection of millennials from the established church is, at least in part, because they are longing for the church to take responsibility for her past insensitivity and judgmentalism? Is the anger of the Tea Party due, at least in part, to an inability of the Congress over the last 30 years to take responsibility for its lack of long-range thinking? Is our economic crisis in part a reaction to the inability of the mortgage lenders to own up to the fact that they gamed the system and almost destroyed the economy?
I’ve raised the issue of institutional confession and repentance with several theology or biblical studies colleagues. In general, people have said that it’s an interesting question that needs exploration. I look forward to hearing from those who can help me work through the question.
For now, I’ll simply use some sociological tools to explore why the idea of institutional repentance is so important. This week has provided four critical examples where institutional repentance is the only feasible response: Ta-Neisi Coates’ Atlantic article, the unfolding saga at Sovereign Grace Ministries (#IStandwithSGMVictims), new revelations about “normal life” at Mars Hill in Seattle, and the aftermath of the UCSB mass shooting (#YesAllWomen).
Sir Anthony Giddens is one of my favorite sociological theorists. I was struck by his insights the first time I heard him in 1983. Shortly thereafter, he wrote The Constitution of Society, the first overarching explication of his theoretical perspective. The theory revolves around a remarkable idea — social structures and personal action form a duality. Each reproduces the other.
The structures that we live within impact the way we think and how we talk about our options. When we discuss potential actions and motivations, we react to the structural arrangements in which we’re located. But our actions also create fractures in the structures. The choices we make and the explanations we use can shape the structures for the future. But that depends upon a critical sociological and political variable: Power.
One of the ways power is exercised is in the definition of appropriate behavior and, by contrast, inappropriate behavior. As the “powers that be” define behavior, they can reshape understandings away from structural power toward individual choice.
This is the primary takeaway from Ta-Neisi Coates’ excellent article. While it is titled “The Case for Reparations“, it really makes the argument that structural arrangements favored an array of economic and political relationships that defined African Americans as not only having limited choices, but as feeling trapped by those choices. The legitimate structural arrangements of society shaped outcomes for individuals. Those same structural arrangements prefer a cultural argument to explain the presence of economic inequality. Coates argues, using both historic and modern examples, that the myriad ways in which African American outcomes are shaped is a direct result from the structural dynamics of the society. After a detailed description of confiscatory practices of redlining, predatory contract practices, and subprime mortgages, he suggests that there was a conscious attempt to deny African Americans of the assets associated with home ownership. And the pattern continues:
In 2009, half the properties in Baltimore whose owners had been granted loans by Wells Fargo between 2005 and 2008 were vacant; 71 percent of these properties were in predominantly black neighborhoods.
Too many commentators simultaneously do two things that perpetuate these outcomes. First, the decry claims of racism by assuming that “the race card” is an accusation of personal bigotry to which they take great offense. Then, the claim that we shouldn’t pay attention to race (as recent Supreme Court decisions attest). So there is no particular means to address the existing structural inequality.
In his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, Martin Luther King talks of being given a check marked “insufficient funds“. The reference is fascinating: the promises made in the Declaration of Independence were not fulfilled. There are echoes of reparations in that very speech. For us to focus only on the visionary closing of the speech is to perpetuate the structural inequality. Where were the people who would say, “that’s right, we did that“. Who calls out intentional practices of segregation? (Incidentally, Randall Balmer had a fascinating piece in Politico today about the relationship between segregation and rise of the religious right.)
Somewhere, we need to acknowledge the sinfulness of the structural arrangements. We need to find ways of structurally repenting. This may not be reparations, but it must be something. At the very least, it is to tell the truth about wrongs (dare I say sins?).
It’s hard for us to think about collective repentance. It’s so ingrained in religious culture to focus on personal responsibility, individual appropriation of Christ’s sacrifice, and personal reordering of priorities. But since reading the Brueggemann book I referenced in my last post, I’ve been focused more on the history of Ancient Israel. I have come to realize that the instructions given to the people from the prophets or from The Lord are societal instructions. Repentance isn’t just a matter of a collection of individuals who turn from bad practices. It’s the fabric of society — not that they were very good at it, which is actually part of my point.
What’s disturbing about the Sovereign Grace story is the idea that we would protect religious leaders from accusation and demonize accusers. What is problematic about Mars Hill is the elevation of loyalty above conscience. What’s upsetting about the UCSB shootings is the twin assumptions of male acquisition and female vulnerability within the broader society.
These patterns are not simply the poor choices of bad actors. They reflect the systems of expectations, rewards, power maintenance, and ideologies that are woven into our institutional patterns. We can isolate the bad actor but that doesn’t bring about institutional repentance.
Institutional Repentance will require us to name our practices, to turn from our past patterns (especially if we feel individually blameless), and to imagine new forms that allow us to “go and sin no more“.