The Sociology of Institutional Repentance

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).

GiddensSir 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, they 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“.

5 thoughts on “The Sociology of Institutional Repentance

  1. A follow up thought:

    This morning I’ve been pondering the form such institutional repentance might follow. I have been part of services (usually mainline) that included phrases like “we have seen those in need and not done what we could” or “we have witnessed oppression and kept silent”. These are great sentiments and connect to Matthew 25 but still focus on our individual (albeit collective) response.

    In Truth Speaks to Power, Brueggemann made a point that the slaves in Israel didn’t actually ask Yahweh for help. Didn’t even mention him. They simply cried out in their plight.

    This makes me think that institutional repentance begins by naming the inequality or injustice without offering pseudo-theories as to causation (which is often correlation anyway). That for which repentance is called for is simply the existence of the issue. It is that a two-tiered society exists hinging on race. It is that women are at risk on an ongoing basis. It is that authority structures allow power to be a dominant motif even in churches where we are a priesthood of believers.

    We don’t have to know WHY in order to repent. We simply name the issue. The more we name it, the more we (as God leads) act to align our structures with Kingdom principles.

  2. here is how i imagine C. S.Lewis “Screwtape” or Machiavelli’s “Prince”might reply;
    As the the domains I use to Acquire “Power” are spiritual, sociological, political & psychological the explanations I use to define these domains will interpret them in ways that maximize my future abundance.
    My actions and motivations are dependent on maintaining the status quo arrangements in which I am embedded.
    As I identify myself w/ the “powers that be” my definition of appropriate/inappropriate behavior reshapes what is “normal.”
    Whatever is expedient to my purpose becomes the “new normal.”
    My “normal” favors my economic and political pursuits of happiness.
    My predatory structural ”pursuits of happiness”
    favors a cultural narrative to explain the presence of social/economic inequality (such as; Because god or whoever favors me I am not trapped by having limited choices that define my relationships.)
    I carry on these outcomes by using (fill in the blank) cultic thought-stopping techniques. when my methods of perpetuating these social/economic inequalities and injustices are critiqued i feel i am being accused of a personal (fill in the blank) attack on my (fill in the blank) to which i take great offense.

    So there is not now and never will be a particular means to address the existing structural inequality I use a (fill in the blank) cultic thought-stopping technique like; “we have seen those in need and not done what we could” or “we have witnessed oppression and kept silent”, “The poor you will have w/you always.”
    To be honest I feel I really don’t have to know WHY or if I should repent. I simply name the issue in order to appear as if i am concerned and aware of (fill in the blank). When pressed for answers the institutions that support my form of satus quo only have to name the inequality or injustice & offer pseudo-theories as to causation.
    Institutional repentance never begins by naming the inequality or injustice or offering pseudo-theories as to causation.
    Institutional repentance never begins.

  3. Sharon: I’m intrigued by your response. I was fully on board with your Screwtape voice (which I took as the long paragraph).

    But I can’t tell if what follows (“So there is not now…”) is still Screwtape or if that’s your reaction. I’m interested in your use of the phrase “appear as if I am concerned” which is different than actually being concerned.

    If the whole comment is in Screwtape’s voice I completely understand and you offer a good critique of our normal practice.

    1. I am writing to you b/c you expressed a wish to have input from those who can help you work through an interesting question that needs exploration;
      the issue of institutional confession and repentance.
      You said you are “interested in [my] use of the phrase “appear as if I am concerned” which is different than actually being concerned.”
      ‘appearance of concern’ is different than actually being concerned b/c it is a tool of manipulators.
      I want to open this discussion w/ a few words about narcissism.
      A life coach on yt posited a theory about narcissists; ‘ask a narcissist what needs to grow or change in himself. The narcissist will become very angry and defensive. A narcissist believes he has achieved perfection. To challenge that belief will bring down his wrath.”
      Narcissists use pseudo-empathy & false sincerity to provide themselves w/ access to other’s trust & confidence while they, the narcissists, actually have ulterior motives & plans to exploit the other’s vulnerabilities and resources.
      People are often fooled into believing that the narcissist holds the same truths as they do when in fact, the narcissist does not. When someone is being disingenuous they fake being in agreement w/ you &/or fake empathy for you b/c they can gain some kind of advantage from you or can control you by pretending to be on your side.
      When the narcissists motives are revealed (usually too late) this can cause you confusion & your feelings to be hurt b/c narcissists can convince you they could be trusted & b/c they came off successfully posing as your friend. Now you feel bad about yourself for being fooled, being ripped off & doubting your own abilities to recognize true friendship.
      W/ that said I want to move to another topic;
      We are born into structural arrangements and the “powers that be” have structured them to benefit themselves.
      We, who are excluded from that macro “powers that be” club, can create fractures in the structures by using our own micro version of critical sociological and political power. We can define ourselves in terms of our relationship to the “powers that be“ & we can understand that they are acting in their own self interest not ours. What the “powers that be“ do does not line up w/ what they say. That is why they “prefer a cultural argument to explain the presence of economic inequality.” The arguments they use are so powerful b/c they owe their potency to thought stopping cultic techniques that offer no particular means to address the existing structural inequalities.
      When we know that the context we are living in is ‘empire business as usual’ we can figure out a way to stop letting it define us & start the process of separating ourselves from it. Our ‘repenting’ will be our acknowledgement in the ways we personally are engaged w/ empire and the ways our conscience is leading us to higher ground.
      This involves a collection of individuals who turn from bad practices & go through a transformation that takes them out of empire & makes them aware of the kingdom of god growing in their souls.

      Elevating loyalty above conscience, protecting religious leaders from accusation and demonize accusers is empire business.
      Systems of expectations, rewards, power maintenance, and ideologies that are woven into our institutions are empire patterns and, i think, can never change they can only be recognized.
      Clusters of individuals can disengage from them b/c they are connecting to a higher power. To imagine new forms that allow us to “go and sin no more“ I need to admit my codepenance on empire, disengage, grieve my loss of alignment w/ the ”powers that be” and follow the new path that is opening up before me.

      When you write;‘The theory revolves around social structures and personal action form a duality. Each reproduces the other.’ I think of ;

      Millennials anger and longing for the church and govrnment to take responsibility for her past insensitivity and judgmentalism may be a spiritual force. The millennials have to live out the consequences of global investors gaming and debauchery of earths resources. They are asking why there is no
      apology for past institutional action related to a number of problems in contemporary society. They may have connected the dots that takes them to the realization that a consortium of narcissists will never apologize.

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