Can You Love An Institution?

A word of caution: the thoughts are not fully baked on this post. The toothpick does not come out clean. I'm hoping for some back and forth.

Rob Bell did an amazing series on forgiveness two summers ago, and one of the things he said repeatedly is that you can't forgive an institution. You can't forgive the company that fired you. You can't forgive The Church. You can forgive the people who wronged you, and that can include people within that institution---possibly even most of the people in that institution, either for wrongs done or complicity through silence. I think what he's getting at is that forgiveness is a relational thing. Forgiveness requires a face.

What do you think?

Some of our Reformed theologians talk about societal-level sin, the "isms" and idolatries that pervade an entire people, that are built into unjust structures. I resonate with this, and yet I am intrigued by Bell's assertion about forgiveness being personal. Do you think these two thoughts are mutually exclusive?

There was a short but interesting discussion on Twitter yesterday about whether it is possible to love an institution. I know (and love) people who say, "I love the PCUSA." I feel like that needs some unpacking. Is "love" the right word? And what is meant by "the PCUSA"? Its connectional structure? Its history? Its theology? Its people?

I do love the people. And I think our theology is rich. Our history is complex, instructive. And our connectionalism is pretty rad as a guiding structure. Or some might say, "connectionalism is the worst system of church government, except for all the others."

But something in me stops short of saying that I love the PCUSA. That, to me, is like saying I love capitalism, or representative democracy. Does love, like forgiveness, require a face? Does love presuppose at least the possibility of being loved back? The institution has been good to me. But the institution does not love me. People within the institution love me.

There's a lot of anxiety in some quarters about the future of the denomination. The impetus behind our proposed new, smaller, more flexible Form of Government is in part an acknowledgement that the bureaucracy that has been built up since the 1950s no longer serves us. Some find that shift necessary. Others find it simply scary. Some find it scary AND necessary.

Will the PCUSA as we know it cease to exist? It's worth remembering that the PCUSA is younger than I am. As I said yesterday on Twitter, our history, our theology, will live on in this Reformed branch of the tree. I don't worry about that.

Anyway. If it is possible to love an institution, how does that love play out with an institution that needs to (and will) change, or maybe even cease to exist in its current form? It could be a positive or negative effect.

On the positive side, love requires attentiveness, intentionality. Real love is not blind. Real love calls forth our best selves, not to get too Oprah-ish. So maybe that love of the PCUSA could call forth something really exciting.

But on the negative side, loving an institution is fundamentally different than loving a person or a pet, who have a finite life cycle. At some point, the object of our love must die. Institutions, on the other hand, can theoretically be immortal. So love could also compel us to keep the denomination on life support way beyond what is helpful or faithful.