Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Remaining Mindful that Institutions Tip from Good to Evil

Generally, organized social groups begin when several individuals believe they can accomplish greater good by working together than by continuing to struggle separately. The good accomplished by the group initially outweighs the demands made on each individual. Eventually, however, comes the tipping point. After that, the organization parasitically makes increasingly destructive demands on the individuals participating in it.

In his book, An Historian’s Approach to Religion (1956), English historian Arnold Toynbee (1889-1975) notes that this pattern was true of even a municipal state as great as Athens at the beginning and end of its golden age.

In the histories of most civilizations in their first chapters, parochial states have done more to enrich their members’ lives by fostering the arts than they have done to impoverish them by taking a toll of blood and treasure. For example, the rise of the Athenian city-state made life richer for its citizens by creating the Attic drama out of a primitive fertility-ritual before life was made intolerable for them by a series of ever more devastating wars between Athens and her rivals. The earlier Athens that had been ‘the education of Hellas’ won and held the allegiance of Athenian men and women, over whom she had cast her spell, for the benefit of the later Athens that was a ‘tyrant power’ [Thucydides] (36).

Toynbee rightly refers to the richness of Attic drama. The world’s first, and still some of its greatest, tragedies were written by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. Aristophanes created dramatic comedy. Herodotus and Thucydides gave us history based on a critical analysis of sources. Athens also benefitted in medicine with Hippocrates, statesmanship with Pericles, architecture with the Parthenon, and philosophy with Plato and Aristotle. Fifth-century (BC) Athens remains the world’s greatest experience of direct democracy. Stunning achievements. No wonder it was called “the education of Hellas” and won the loyalty of its citizens.

Even glorious Athens, however, reached a tipping point in 431 with the beginning of the ultimately suicidal Peloponnesian War. It lost the war in 404, executed Socrates in 399, lost its independence in 338, and slipped back into obscurity with the exile of Aristotle in 322.

Institutions reach their tipping points, as Athens did, when power corrupts their original purpose to the point that they become more evil than good.

Jesus noticed this about the Sabbath as an institution. The purpose of the Sabbath was to give us a break from the daily grind and its anxieties. Its purpose was to free us, one day in seven, for devotion to God and company with one another. By the time of Jesus, Sabbath had tipped to mean conformity to a moral code and its enforcement officers even if that meant refusing to heal someone in desperate need. Jesus freed us from this corruption of a good institution by revealing to us that “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath. 28 So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27-28, New American Standard Version).

Today we find many examples of this same corruption by power. The technological intention which characterized Western Christendom after 1648 initially led to many important societal improvements. Eventually, however, the technological phenomenon which followed led to today’s Global Technological System (GTS) which is systematically destroying societies, cultures, personalities, and ecosystems around the world.

Because of the GTS, today’s governments—municipal, state, and national—exert increasingly harmful control over citizens even in what were once democracies.

Schools—from kindergartens to universities—increasingly subordinate teachers, students, and learning to the administrative demands of a burgeoning bureaucracy.

Corporations increasingly exploit consumers. Even that portion of the GTS committed to medical technologies does this.

Churches also suffer from this institutional corruption. An excellent example is Vacation Bible School (VBS). When it started in 1894, VBS served the purpose of providing children with Christian education during summer months in a meaningful way. Today, powerful individuals within churches demand VBS even though this particular method of Christian education is meaningful to few if any children, parents, and adult volunteers whose participation, as a result, must be coerced.

Copyright © 2018 by Steven Farsaci.
All rights reserved. Fair use encouraged.