It seems that every group I am involved in is working for social change. Things like:
- changing the justice system
- changing the church
- changing the educational system
Yeah. Those kind of changes. Things that are hard and cranky and slow and O.M.G. resistant.
I expect resistance from the structures we are working with but I am often caught by surprise by the resistance within my own people regarding ideas of change. It all fell into place for me recently upon reading The Idea of Justice by Amartya Sen. Now, Sen has some major problems, but he was able to sum up the previous thinking on justice with the term transcendental institutionalism. This is the idea that we can create an institution that is somehow perfected. That it transcends the muck of daily humanity. And that just by being in this perfected institution, we are made to be better people. Sen thinks this is not a good idea. Sen takes apart the work of John Rawls and others to illustrate how this idea has been operating in our systems and thinking since the days of Locke (b. 1632) and then Kant (b. 1724). John Rawls wrote his book, A Theory of Justice, in 1971. 1971. Sen’s book came out in 2009.
That is a lot of years built on the idea of perfection contained within the institution.
This works in two ways. The ideas rooted in our society causes those within institutions to view it as overly good. It causes those on the outside looking in and desiring change to think that they can change the institution to a perfected set of rules and then the institution will be overly good.
Does that make sense? The insiders have an overinflated view of the thing that has been built. The outsiders have an overinflated view of the thing that they want to build.
Harsh, I am.
So I am working with people that are outsiders. I often straddle a line of inside/outside which is awkward. There is always a sub-group that wants to somehow zip out the existing institution and zip in something new and shiny. They never ever ever want to do incremental change. When the topic of incremental change comes up, they flame out. They have bought the story of transcendental institutionalism.
And I don’t know what to do about that. They are people I greatly care for, admire, and respect. But they are more than willing to sacrifice the good on the altar of perfection. And by sacrificing the good, I mean they are willing to burn people, break relationships, and become the enemy of the good. Sigh. And I get it. I really do. The question can honestly be asked, “While we are implementing incremental change, who is dying? Who are we sacrificing?“
My prayer for all of us is that we will not let perfection become the enemy of the good and that we will remember that no matter what, we will always be sacrificing someone on the margins and our job is to remember them.