We live in a season of history that has stripped humanity of its dignity. The previous century made rapid advances in science and technology, but instead of completely leaving the most destructive nature of humanity gave us holocaust and genocide. Both arose in a climate nurtured by prejudice and economic poverty. Religion was no help in the matter. The Jewish Holocaust happened in the Protestant Reformation’s home of Germany. The Rwanda Genocide happened in the Balokole home of Rwanda.
Seemingly smaller matters abound in our daily lives. Children are abandoned. Poverty is ever with us. Education does not do all we hope. A quick internet search can rapidly show us how humanity’s dignity and beauty is distorted into ugly exploitation. Science, technology, and religion have not had the influence we had hoped.
Economic theorists saw an answer in globalization. In his book The Lexus and the Olive Tree, Thomas L. Friedman observed that no two countries with a McDonald’s franchise had ever gone to war with one another. He noted that when a country has developed a middle class strong enough to support a McDonald’s network, it will not be interested in fighting wars anymore. However, practically the theory failed as the USA invaded Panama, NATO bombed Serbia, and India and Pakistan tangled over the Kashmir border. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golden_Arches.)
Maybe, our theories need to have some room to wiggle under timeless principles? Maybe, even religion in seeking to be contemporary missed the timeless?
One of humanity’s most timeless books is Genesis. We may have different interpretations of its author and authority. However, its first words resonate with timeless truth. During the season of history that Genesis was written slavery abounded and child sacrifice was part of religion. Simple Hebrew herdsmen concluded instead that all men were created with the image of God and their work was a source of great dignity. The ultimate value of humanity was life. Life was expressed and nurtured through the institutions of family and labor (Genesis 1:27-31).
Thousands of years later these Hebrews became the nation of Judah. They were taken into exile for three generations. When they returned to their home land they built institutions. The first task was to build a wall to maintain security and a temple to nurture their spirits (Ezra and Nehemiah.)
Those old Hebrews got it right. Life is what matters. Religion can be a waste of breath. Yet, life is so fleeting that we dare not put all our hope in this world. Thus because of our love for life and human dignity we must build institutions. The key ones keep us safe, nurture our hope, provide for our livelihood, and prepare our children for the future. No earthly institution can provide eternal security, but if we love our children we will build institutions so human dignity remains for generations.
We need a few visionary leaders to make this process happen who can relinquish power at the appropriate time. My friend, Andrew Mwenda once told me over lunch, “Leaders make things happen. Institutions make them last.”
Yet for some institution building is offensive. One strand that finds offense in institution building is the NGO / AID community. “Projects” are the preferred mantra to this crowd. In this genre what you need is a clear goal, budget, and time line. The project only happens if the grant writer succeeds in getting the funding. Nothing is started without an exit plan. As my dad built roads we called this mentality, “side jobs.” At the end of the day if there was some spare tarmac near a business that needed their parking lot paved we did a quick job to dump our tarmac and put a little money in our pocket before the weekend. We quickly moved on. We intended for our roads to endure and later drove on them with pride. However, we never thought twice about the “side job” parking lot. Project mentalities produce short term results and reasoning.
Institutions require long term vision. The good institutions never make an exit plan. They call an exit plan “bankruptcy” which is an unacceptable outcome. A church intends to function until the Lord returns. A school intends to function as long as there are children. Media houses intend to operate as long as people create news and communicate. Businesses intend to operate as long as commerce continues. Governments intend to continue as long as people need leadership. These institutions can be messy and disorderly. Thus when it gets rough their leaders don’t exit. Instead, good institutional leaders become creators.
Then as time passes good leaders relinquish authority to good institutions that use authority to nurture generations. Dignity is built by institution building. Relinquishment teaches that there is always another. We can be replaced. Dignity lives in a new generation of leaders.
The second strand of those offended by institutions typically are evangelicals from western nations. They repeat the historical failures of institutions, but neglect complexity. They may even literally consider the institutions of humanity to be demonic as they retreat into a view of the heavenly that is no earthly good. Like their secular NGO / AID counter parts they focus on short term projects. They are emotionally moved by sights of poverty and distress. They create marketing images of destitution. The answer to the lack of human dignity usually is a retreat into devotion without enduring labor. They frequently live in an imaginary world fantasizing about a future utopia brought on by masses of the devoted. Most will never stay engaged long enough to see that life is more complex.
The few that do stay engaged long enough to see outcomes will return to old documents like Genesis, Ezra, and Nehemiah and become institution builders. Institution building combined with faith has been one of history’s most enduring combinations. The old Hebrews did it. Religious reformers did it. Those who value human dignity today do it.Yes, we live in a season where humanity has been stripped of dignity. The easy answers have not worked. Yet, the timeless endures. Life on this earth is fleeting. We cannot experience all here. Yet, if we love our children and intend to bless future generations we will build institutions. Human dignity requires it.