Destroying Institutions: Warnings from History

The Catholic Church is just one of many institutions that are diminishing before our eyes and being tempted to entertain simplistic ways out of their dilemma.

Nearly 1 in 3 US adults identify their religion as “none,” according to a survey by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. Associated Press

It is very important in a time like ours, when so many institutions are failing us in so many ways, to criticize them in order to renew them.  New ways of doing education and law, jurisprudence and business, economics and agriculture, the media and religion are demanded in order that deeper values might come alive and flow through them.  That is why I wrote my book, The Reinvention of Work, thirty years ago.

Criticizing our institutions is necessary, but it is another thing altogether to deliberately destroy our institutions and pull the rug out from underneath them.  That is what fascists do, for it creates chaos that invites autocrats who believe “only I can fix it” into the vacuum that is created. 

Hitler is driven through an adoring crowd in Eger, in the modern Czech Republic, October 1938. From the German Federal Archives, Wikimedia Commons.

Historian Timothy Snyder warns us of that danger in his iconic book, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons From the Twentieth Centurywhere he says we must Defend institutions….We tend to assume that institutions will automatically maintain themselves against even the most direct attacksbut that is not so.

He says, Today, our political order faces new threats, not unlike the totalitarianism of the twentieth century.  Americans today are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism in the twentieth century.  Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience.

What characterized fascism was that it rejected reason in the name of will, denying objective truth in favor of a glorious myth articulated by leaders who claimed to give voice to the people.  Is it myths that are capturing many American voters these days because it is easier to believe in a myth than to face truth and its demands on us?

Drawing from lessons learned in the 20th century, here are five ways to resist tyranny in the modern age. Adapted from Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny. Signature Views

What can we do about preserving our institutions in times like ours?  Synder urges us to “help” our institutions because they “help us to preserve decency.” 

Do not speak of ‘our institutions’ unless you make them yours by acting on their behalf.  Institutions do not protect themselves.  They fall one after the other unless each is defended from the beginning.  He proposes that one “choose an institution you care about—a court, a newspaper, a law, a labor union—and take its side.”* 

*Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, NY: Tim Duggan Books, 2017), pp. 22, 13 12, 22.

See Matthew Fox, The Reinvention of Work: A New Vision of Livelihood for Our Time.

And Fox, Creativity: Where the Divine and the Human Meet.

And Fox, Sins of the Spirit, Blessings of the Flesh: Transforming Evil in Soul and Society.

Banner Image: St. Peter’s Square, The Vatican, Rome, is dominated by the 25.5-meter obelisk at the center of a circus that was started by Caligula, completed by Nero, and used for chariot races and the public executions of Christians. The circus now lies beneath the square and basilica. Photo by Tim Rawle on Flickr

Queries for Contemplation

Do you find yourself “taking the side” of an institution you care about?  Do you agree that institutions “help us to preserve decency” and yet also need criticism and reinvention?

Recommended Reading

The Reinvention of Work: A New Vision of Livelihood For Our Time

Thomas Aquinas said, “To live well is to work well,” and in this bold call for the revitalization of daily work, Fox shares his vision of a world where our personal and professional lives are celebrated in harmony–a world where the self is not sacrificed for a job but is sanctified by authentic “soul work.”
“Fox approaches the level of poetry in describing the reciprocity that must be present between one’s inner and outer work…[A]n important road map to social change.” ~~ National Catholic Reporter

Creativity: Where the Divine and Human Meet

Because creativity is the key to both our genius and beauty as a species but also to our capacity for evil, we need to teach creativity and to teach ways of steering this God-like power in directions that promote love of life (biophilia) and not love of death (necrophilia). Pushing well beyond the bounds of conventional Christian doctrine, Fox’s focus on creativity attempts nothing less than to shape a new ethic.
“Matt Fox is a pilgrim who seeks a path into the church of tomorrow.  Countless numbers will be happy to follow his lead.” –Bishop John Shelby Spong, author, Rescuing the Bible from FundamentalismLiving in Sin

Sins of the Spirit, Blessings of the Flesh: Transforming Evil in Soul and Society

Visionary theologian and best-selling author Matthew Fox offers a new theology of evil that fundamentally changes the traditional perception of good and evil and points the way to a more enlightened treatment of ourselves, one another, and all of nature. In comparing the Eastern tradition of the 7 chakras to the Western tradition of the 7 capital sins, Fox allows us to think creatively about our capacity for personal and institutional evil and what we can do about them. 
“A scholarly masterpiece embodying a better vision and depth of perception far beyond the grasp of any one single science.  A breath-taking analysis.” — Diarmuid O’Murchu, author of Quantum Theology: Spiritual Implications of the New Physics

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7 thoughts on “Destroying Institutions: Warnings from History”

  1. Avatar

    Yes, reinvent instead of destroy, requires getting ‘the right people on the bus’ who can effect the change and transformation to 2.0 or whatever you want to call it.

    It is astounding to see how many ‘so called leaders’ are not just lying, but double, triple and quadrupling down on them. As soon as they cannot answer direct questions, not by avoiding them, but outright lying about them, I turn it off. Fascism is growing out into the population, ‘thanks’ to these ‘so called leaders’. Being elected or appointed does not by itself make one a forthright and independent thinking leader.

    We need to ‘win back’ the lost and disenfranchised, wake up the indifferent & undecided, whenever and however we can. The time is running out to do so. without which major implications to the health and longevity of democracy will be experienced. — BB.

  2. Avatar
    Sr. Brigid Cannon, OP

    I couldn’t agree with you more Bill, that we need to value our institutions, our church, schools,
    University schools, Post Office, criminal system, voting systems, courts and speak out the truth of what is happening in our world today. Yet, we cannot do this only on our own efforts. We need the help of the Holy Spirit to give us the graces needed to heal our world. We need to pray to the Holy Spirit to guide us and help us to discover the way and means to elect good leaders who have the Common Good in their minds and hearts. They are here and we need to encourage them to come forward and speak out against the false news of some of our leaders. Let us pray for courage that each of us can with the help of the Spirit to transform our world.

  3. Avatar

    It is true that societies need institutions for basic functioning, order, and meeting some of our basic needs, as long as the appointed leaders and employees are keeping those guidelines humane and open to improvement, respectful communication, and constructive criticism by keeping the values of the organizations/institutions democratic and humanly respectful of every individual in serving others. There have been many examples of unhealthy, patriarchal, racist, and unjust institutions that have contributed to societal problems and institutional violence throughout human history.

  4. Avatar
    Rosemary Marusak

    I agree with this mission. But, I have tried to talk to priests and have failed. They don’t listen to just any old parishioner. In the Catholic church, you have to be a “somebody”. In fact, the CC does not even see me.

  5. Avatar
    Happy Go Lucky

    When Harvey Weinstein was destroyed and disgraced because of his sexual predations, I felt a great institution crumble. The Weinstein brothers’ company has made the best movies; the most original movies; the most life-affirming, heroic movies ever. They are heroes in my book. It should have been handled better, and there should have been more sticking up for Mr. Weinstein. There is a lot of low-level movie making filling the void. This is a terrible, terrible loss.

  6. Avatar

    The sin of the world. Global systemic injustice. We all participate in it and the way forward is to participate less and less. The knowledge of the good we can get out of unjust actions for ourselves, institutions, Governments at the expense of others is the dualistic state we are all suffering from. The three signs are our ego of self-importance Secondly this gives us power over others and thirdly the accumulation of wealth in land, property and money. The way forward as many individuals and movements are doing is following the non dualistic Tree of Life, where all matter has individual self importance in an equal and equitable way. This then gives the interdependence of matter too seek the wealth of the fullness and abundance of the Spirit of Life for all.

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