faith & family fridays: individual v. institution

I believe in bringing difficult topics “out there” to explore them, grapple with them, size them up and over. It is through being able to freely discuss challenging topics that we come to understand them better, absorb their implications and have meaningful conversations.

Lately, there have been some doozies. In fact, I’d describe some of the discussions in society right now as paradigm-shift-sized.

Throughout the resulting banter, I’ve had a few “aha!” moments, including one I think worth discussing today. Namely, I’ve come to see a propensity toward blaming a disappointment or hurt caused by an individual on a connected institution.

Let’s take, for example, the church, an institution meant to foster a life of faith within a community of common belief. Some former church-goers have been hurt by members of that community. As a result, a tendency emerges to blame the institution and forget that the individual who caused the hurt — the fellow sinner — is really at fault.

We lose our faith in the good of an institution, and sight of why it’s there in the first place, because someone within it has hurt us.

I can see how easily this happens, but I think it’s worth exploring, because in our misdirected anger or hurt, we have the potential to eliminate the very thing meant to enliven or protect us.

Another example might be marriage. For many, the vision they had of marriage didn’t materialize. They feel deceived, in a sense, along with hurt, rejection, disappointment. Marriage can be extremely challenging and not all marriages can remain intact. When we are hurt in this way, it’s easy to overlook the individual who hurt us and blame the institution itself.

I am seeing this happen in discussions regarding the value of traditional marriage, for example. For many, traditional marriage hasn’t lived up to its potential. Therefore, we question whether it’s worthy of protecting and upholding. The individual becomes, to some, representative of the institution.

Again, though I understand how this happens, it seems dangerous to challenge the worth of an institution based on the imperfection of an individual within it.

Yet there are countless examples. A pastor or priest falls out of line and diminishes the entire image of church. The same with marriage — something doesn’t work out and the whole thing is marred.

The night of my husband’s and my wedding rehearsal, a group of us young adults gathered for drinks, and one of our friends, who had married young and divorced, came up to us and said, “Even though it didn’t work out for me, I still believe in the goodness of marriage.”

That has stuck with me all these years. I saw in that her ability to not blame the institution for her failed marriage, and to not give up on the hope that marriage could be a positive again at some point in her future.

It was the relationship that was marred, not the institution itself, just as individuals within a church will make mistakes, but that doesn’t mean the institution has outlived its usefulness.

I bring up the point because I think it’s important to consider as we continue having public discussions about things that concern our institutions, the most recent of which has been the institution of marriage. Just because marriage as it is meant to be has failed many, can we say it’s no longer necessary? What if it’s, in fact, more useful and important than ever?

Maybe we need to work harder on healing the individuals who have been hurt by other individuals rather than dismantling the institutions to which they’ve been connected; to heal those who have been hurt by people within institutions so the institutions can, once again, be the beacon of light they were intended to be.

I’m putting this out there because if we get off course in our hurt, if we lose sight of the true source of our anger, we also stand to lose the institutions that were designed to protect us.

What are your thoughts? Do you see misplaced hurt and anger as a problem as we try to solve the moral questions of the day?