We live in a time of rampant distrust, and overcoming this deficit is possibly the greatest challenge of our times. Many Americans question the reliability of the things we are told by science and health care professionals, from global warming to the safety of vaccines, and a significant number of people in our culture are suspicious of public servants that once held high social status, like police officers and educators. This train of distrust is led by two of the most low-rated professionals in matters of trustworthiness: politicians and journalists.
Underlying the pattern of suspicion that saturates our society is a fundamental lack of trust in the institutions that have helped to create and maintain our “common good,” providing structures for living together as one people with many differences. When it comes to political and governmental institutions, to the organizations supporting our culture’s work in education, media, commerce, health care, and religion, it seems most Americans have lost faith. An increasing number of people are even suspicious of the fundamental institution of marriage.
This epidemic of distrust is particularly visible in the Millennial generation (aged 18-35), which comprises 75.4 million people and is now the largest living generation. The Millennials are slowly assuming their dominant role in American culture, and there are now as many of them eligible to vote as Baby Boomers (aged 53-71). Yet, the Millennials have such historically low trust in the possibility of institutions to foment positive change that it leaves the future of the United States in question. The 2015 Harvard survey, Young Americans’ Attitudes Toward Politics and Public Life, found that only 11% of Millennials believed what they heard in the media, and the percentage trusting in the federal government, Congress, the United Nations, and the office of the U.S. presidency is all well below 50%. More alarmingly, the study noted that 79% of the respondents considered themselves politically disengaged, with a strong majority seeming to hold little hope for changing the dysfunctional systems that regulate our common life.
When political, social, commercial and religious institutions failed us in the past, humans have organized at the community level, creating new institutions to force changes in other institutional structures. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference; Mahatma Gandhi’s organization to eradicate “untouchability” in India, Harijan Sevak Sangh; Jane Addams’, Hull House, which welcomed and settled American immigrants; Dorothy Day’s, Catholic Worker, a community-based organization created to live with and for the poor, are all examples of social activists creating their own institutions to inspire cultural and societal transformation. But, it seems many Millennials do not even have faith in this historic strategy of changing society from below, with 59% of the generation believing that grass roots organizations, like Black Lives Matter, are unlikely to result in any “meaningful” change politically and socially, and 66% of the generation admitting they are not engaged in community service of any kind.
I have a nephew who models the deep suspicion showing up in the Millennial generation. Our family system is filled with staunch liberals and diehard conservatives. Some of us like to debate the issues facing the world, and our beliefs in what will make it better, and some of us re-fill our drinks and go and sit in another room. My nephew, who considers himself an Anarcho-Capitalist, likes to have long, passionate debates about politics, the role of government and the importance, or (in his view) the lack of importance of society’s primary institutions. I almost always take the bait. If he discovers I’ve written about him, for instance, he will almost certainly demand a rebuttal.
As the world seems to move toward another cycle of degeneration in the primary values necessary fora democracy, I find myself thinking of my nephew a great deal. I wonder about the experiences and thinkers who have shaped his political and social attitudes. I think about what kind of world he will inherit, and how he will react to it, especially if it gets as bad as it has in some past ages. At a more fundamental level, I wonder if he will one day see what I see: that institutions are critically important to creating a culture that maximizes peace and minimizes injustice, and that every generation must try to build better institutions, or face the consequences.
Ironically, I have deep soul moments when I am tempted to agree with my nephew’s ideas about institutions. I know institutions can break our hearts and split our world apart. Too often they disappoint, scandalize and disillusion us. They can also make disastrous decisions that rain down suffering on those who are innocently on the receiving end of institutional choices. Institutions can destroy our world, and if we allow it, they can destroy our faith in each other.
I have experienced the toxicity of such institutions while working in poor neighborhoods where changes in federal law in the 1980s had grievous impacts on poor children and their families. For two years in post-Katrina New Orleans, I also witnessed the devastation of bad choices by local, state, and federal institutions on the vulnerable populations of one of America’s most famous cities. I also watched (and fought with) many commercial institutions – from banks and telephone companies to contractors and so-called crisis management organizations – as they squandered government recovery program funds or tried to bilk money from a stressed out population of people just trying to survive.
Yes, I have my problems with institutions, too, and on some days I would love to trade them in for something else. But, I also know another side of institutions. They give us hope. In perilous times, they hold our world together, and raise up from their ranks people and movements that inspire us to believe once again that we can make a better world. Here is another important lesson I have learned: institutions are inevitable. Their imperfections are a shadowy reflection of our own inconsistencies as humans, and although institutions can become creators of chaos and inhumanity, they are also bastions against it. Every generation inherits and creates institutions and must decide if their generation will draw the best from these structures or the worst. As storms of dysfunction gather on our horizon in our present times, it remains our choice once more.
On a recent long flight, I saw a movie that reminded me of the importance of every generation’s choice to engage the institutions around it. The film, Anthropoid, is based on the largely forgotten story of the Czech resistance fighters who killed the primary architect of the Third Reich’s “Final Solution,” SS Officer Reinhold Heydrich. Heydrich chaired the Wannsee Conference in 1942, the infamous meeting creating the template for the systematic extermination of the Jewish race in Europe. This Gestapo officer held the third highest position in the German government, and developed the nickname, the “Butcher of Prague,” for his brutality in dealing with the Czech people.
Anthropoid is the story that only makes sense in light of a little background history. As part of the unfinished business of World War I, many of the nations in Europe signed the Munich Agreement, which allowed Germany to annex a significant part of the nation of Czechoslovakia without international repercussions. The Nazis invaded the rest of the nation the following year and began controlling the Czech population with an iron fist. Anthropoid is the story of a military operation conducted by a group of seven Czech soldiers who parachuted into Czechoslovakia in late December, 1941, and spent five months hiding in and around Prague as they planned the assassination of Heydrich. The movie concentrates on the lives of two of the paratroopers – Josef Gabik and Jan Kubis – who are presented as normal young men, meeting and falling in love with two Czech women during the planning phase, and doing what they did because the times and an evil institution demanded a dramatic response, not because they did not want a normal life like everyone else. Although Heydrich was assassinated, it came at a high cost. The Nazis murdered 5,000 Czechs in retaliation, imprisoned thousands, and massacred two villages, wiping one – Lidice – literally from existence. The film captures the moral ambiguity of the situation, and the humanness of those required to do inhumane things that will result in the death of others, and eventually their own.
I found Anthropoid intriguing for lots of reasons, but perhaps mostly because the story of the parachutists hugely influenced the soul of Vaclav Havel, a famous playwright, peace activist, and passionate advocate for humanitarianism and environmental sustainability. Havel warned of the dangers of consumerism long before it became obvious to others. He also rose to prominence as a dissident during the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia, and spent four years in jail at one point (1978-1983), only later to become the last president of Czechoslovakia, and the first of the Czech Republic. He helped to lead the so-called “Velvet Revolution,” the peaceful transition of power from Soviet rule to Czech independence during the weeks between November 17 and December 29, 1989. Somewhat surprisingly, Havel the man of peace was shaped to respond to the complexity of institutional realities in his nation by the role-modeling of the parachutists.
In 1995, he gave a speech in the city of Vlaardingen, Holland, and noted to the audience that the Czech resistance “was a phenomenon that time and again restored standards, pointed out values that are worth fighting for under any circumstances, maintained the continuity of respect for those values and carried the torch of good through the dark night, so that those who lived to see the dawn would have something to turn to, something on which they could build a new life in freedom. Resistance fighters were first and foremost bearers of light, founding fathers of a better future.”
If we need institutions and cannot avoid them, at some point we have to pick the ones we will commit our life energy to support or change. Some years ago, I decided to cast my lot with religious institutions, a decisively unlikely decision given my disinterest in religion as a young person. I chose religious institutions, among other reasons, because I came to realize that these structures carried the most potent inspirational resources of all the human institutions. From sacred readings, mythologies and stories, rituals and community life to noble personalities and a long range vision that goes well beyond a single lifespan, I could not find a stronger source of motivational material than from within the heritage of religious traditions. Of course, I had to learn to take the bad with the good when it comes to the organizations associated with faith communities. Profoundly petty things occur in religious circles; some people have enormous gaps in their human development and there is plenty of poor decision-making. There are thinly-veiled demonstrations of self-serving action, presented as an act of piety, and occasionally even dishonesty and reprehensible actions. But, you also find within religious traditions saints, sages, and seers, and a wisdom that is born of a life in service to institutional ideals. The kind of ideals that inspire and call us to acts of empathy and courage and charity, virtues our own institutions, at any given time, may not even have the ability to achieve.
I cast my lot with religious institutions because within these organizations heroic individuals found pathways to the essence of authenticity. As the institutions molded their personalities, it they also gave them a platform to transform others, including the very institutions that had first shaped them. Finally, through the agency of those saints, sages and seers, those religious institutions changed the world for the better. Havel believed in institutions, too, and the most formative structure for him was the theater, which he saw as an incubator of spiritual energy in the world. But, all of our institutions have the potential to teach us lessons about life and character, if we allow ourselves to be formed in their best, lofty intentions, rather than their worst. Police officers, doctors and nurses, business leaders, politicians, titans of entertainment and industry have all emerged from years of dealing with the murky realities of institutional life with their souls purified in fire to become a blessing to the world.
We are largely stuck with our institutions in their brokenness and incompleteness, and each generation has to decide: shall we work to improve them or give up on them and let the next generation pay a heavy debt. The parachutists had to live in the torment of hideous moral choices, because people before them allowed the institutions of the world to erode enough for an Adolf Hitler and a Third Reich to walk into the chasm. Vaclav Havel, the man of peace, faced similar challenges under the communist rule of his nation, and later as a leader in the burgeoning democracy of the Czech Republic.
Ultimately, our flawed institutions are all that stand between us and a world much darker than the one we now inhabit. In every generation, we must ask ourselves if we have the courage and stamina to make our institutions into the best organizations they can become. When the parachutists took their last breath, I’m sure they could not imagine that their sacrifice would help shape the soul of a person of peace like Vaclav Havel. For those of us living in dark and challenging times, perhaps life’s hardest task is learning to trust that the light in our actions will eventually emerge from the dark, whether we are here to see it or not.