Envisioning the Common Good from Broken Institutions

Menorah” (1993) by Roger Wagner depicts the Didcot nuclear power station in front of three crosses and a field of genocide survivors. The painting is on display in the sanctuary of St. Giles Church in Oxford.

How can Christians reach for excellence and the common good in a broken world whose brokenness we are also part of?

I often asked myself this question as a postdoc at Princeton University, whose third president was the influential Protestant leader Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758). By all counts, Edwards achieved a rare level of influence in American Christianity through his ministry, scholarship, and leadership. Yet his contributions were only possible because he owned slaves, a practice he promoted and defended in his lifetime (Marsden 2004).

When we read the sermons and books of Jonathan Edwards, we are reading the fruit of slavery. Slave-owning in the 18th century increased a minister’s status, provided income when ministers rented out slaves, and freed up time for research and ministry. Edwards was not unique. Slavery and colonization under-wrote many Christian ministries in the Americas for hundreds of years.

Many of our academic institutions are also built on a foundation of cruelty. In 2017, researchers published the Princeton and Slavery project, documenting the many ways that leaders like Edwards personally enslaved other humans while also building the institution’s wealth from the profits of slavery. Reading that report, I wondered how to think about my role at a university that continues to accrue wealth and power from past injustices.

As a Guatemalan-American with mixed indigenous and European ancestry, my answers aren’t always the same as my White colleagues. When people from a marginalized group achieve excellence, that success itself can represent a meaningful change. And it’s already two full-time jobs to pry open closed doors, be visible, and disproportionately face opposition due to that visibility. But mestizaje like me also have a history of ignoring the convenient injustices behind our own success. No one has an excuse to look away.

Six Ways to Understand the Common Good in Broken Institutions

How can we even think about the common good when we stand on the shoulders of enduring sin?

The 20th century German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer asked this question again and again throughout his life as a pastor and member of the German resistance to Hitler. This theme repeats throughout his Meditations on Psalms, edited by Edwin H. Robertson. Throughout these meditations and other writings, Bonhoeffer considered six ways to understand Christian life in broken institutions:

1. Pursue the Common Good With Excellence

In a 1926 sermon to fellow students, Bonhoeffer praises people who “put their life and their working strength” into scientific discovery, entrepreneurship and government service. Watching Germany rebuild after the First World War, Bonhoeffer urges his fellow university students to “work toward building the future… hear the word, loud and clear: build!”

Bonhoeffer also describes the idea that Christians who pursue excellence with “piety and goodwill” can accomplish God’s purposes in the world. Preaching from Psalm 127, he argues that when the people of God work for the common good, we are sometimes instruments of God’s goodness to the world.

2. Don’t Mistake Human Excellence for God’s Work

It’s convenient to pursue excellence as God’s chief calling. As a professor, I could easily claim each new discovery, every grant, and each new graduating class as God’s work. But when success is defined by broken institutions, those victories are unreliable.

In his 1926 sermon, Bonhoeffer urged his fellow students to “see that all our work always carries the scars of the past.” While it’s nice to imagine our work as part of God’s grand purpose, we can easily delude ourselves.

“Are we really agreeing with those who say that when we build with our very best endeavor, it is the same as if the Lord builds? … Are we so blind that we do not see that all our work always carries the scars of the past, the signs of sinfulness? Do we no longer see that we are in the world and remain only with our own ideas, even the most pious of us?

— Bonhoeffer, 1926

The scars of the past run deep. Our beautiful university offices might have been built on the land of indigenous communities destroyed by colonization. Our endowments might have come from slaveholders or from people who profited from war, famine, and addiction. Our disciplines have been founded explicitly to violently create and enshrine inequality. Even our ideas of what counts as knowledge could be a product of the quest to dominate and subjugate others. These human creations often endure for generations thanks to their foundation in injustice, not despite it.

Bonhoeffer argues that visible success cannot reveal whether God is at work. He quotes Jesus in Matthew 5, reminding his fellow students that God “sends rain on the just and the unjust.” Over the next 19 years, as his fellow German Christians followed Hitler, Bonhoeffer personally observed this mismatch between outward success and the work of God.

3. Protect Those Affected by Injustice

As we pursue excellence, how should Christians conduct ourselves within non-religious institutions? In notes for a book on Ethics that were pieced together after his death, Bonhoeffer summarizes an important starting point:

Practise love and charity within the given worldly institutions, i.e., to inspire these institutions so far as possible with a new outlook, to mitigate hardships, to care for the victims of these institutions.

— Bonhoeffer, Ethics

Bonhoeffer argues that Christians should model loving, principled behavior within institutions, inspiring others to behave similarly. In this view, the Christian faith is what Tim Keller calls a “compass for work” — a guide to personal conduct within institutions.

According to Bonhoeffer, this love depends on acknowledging the injustice endemic to our institutions so we can help the people who are harmed by them. Writing about institutions as machines, he encouraged Christians to “gather up those whom the wheel has crushed.”

4. Prevent Injustice

Is caring for individuals enough? The second half of Bonhoeffer’s famous metaphor asks just this question:

Has the Church merely to gather up those whom the wheel has crushed or has she to prevent the wheel from crushing them?

— Bonhoeffer, Ethics

In these notes, Bonhoeffer rejects two common ideas about the role for Christians in institutions. First he rejects the idea that Christians should limit ourselves to protecting those affected by injustice. He also rejects the idea of addressing injustice by replacing secular institutions with Christian ones.

What’s the alternative? Christians should participate in broken institutions to set ourselves and others free, says Bonhoeffer. Describing “a Christian responsibility for secular institutions,” Bonhoeffer explains that this responsibility “is not to make the worldly order godly or to subordinate it to the Church but to set it free for true worldliness.” He encourages Christians to contribute to collective efforts at changing institutions to (a) prevent harm and (b) uphold people’s rights to speak and shape our institutions together.

5. Take the View from Below

How can we recognize problems and imagine change when fundamental injustices are the very things that constitute our organizations?

I believe that Bonhoeffer held one important piece of an answer. In his reflection on ten years under Nazi rule, Bonhoeffer encouraged Christians to “see the great events of world history from below, from the perspective of the outcasts, the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless, the oppressed and reviled” (“After Ten Years”).

As a middle-class, university-educated German religious leader, Boenhoffer rightly recognized that he was not in the category of outcast. Yet his writings have encouraged many who aren’t part of dominant groups. Those words should also inspire more privileged people to open institutional doors to those who have been crushed by the wheel.

6. Seek Mercy

Bonhoeffer knew that the choice to seek justice in broken institutions does not absolve us of responsibility. Reflecting on his wartime writings, the historian Victoria Barnett observed his emphasis on “what happens to the soul, the human sense of morality and responsibility, when evil has become so embedded in a political culture that it is part of the very fabric of daily life” (Barnett 2017).

How can we reckon with our complicity in our own institutions? A starting point for all Christians is to acknowledge our guilt — recognizing the spiritual reality of that complicity. In Bonhoeffer’s 1926 message to his fellow students, he urges them to seek forgiveness for their essential work to contribute to the common good: “So long as God looks upon us and our work and has compassion upon the godless, so surely will he himself build his house, the eternal kingdom.” I’m pretty sure “the godless” referred to himself and his fellow students.

By acknowledging wrongs, we stay honest before God, protect our capacity to imagine better, and position ourselves for considered steps toward change

Putting it together

As strange as it might sound, I can’t see a clear-headed way to participate in broken institutions without an ongoing appeal to God’s mercy.

I believe this appeal for mercy to be a powerful source of courage and imagination. When confronted with the past and present wrongs of our institutions, we could choose to accept things that seem like they cannot be changed. We could distance ourselves from systems that we ourselves continue to uphold. Or we could continue to acknowledge those wrongs and our part in them. By doing so, we stay honest before God, protect our capacity to imagine better, and position ourselves for considered steps toward change.

Acknowledgements & References

Dr. Javier Garcia, (1987–2021)

I am grateful to my dear friend from graduate school Dr. Javier Garcia, who specialized in Bonhoeffer. In recent years, Javier wrote about ways that American Christians have appropriated Bonhoeffer’s words to rationalize many of the things Bonhoeffer deplored. In a final public message before his death in June 2021 Javier encouraged his students to reflect on Bonhoeffer’s writings about the Psalms. This summer, I took that advice. Especially because I’m not a Bonhoeffer scholar, I wish Javier and I had found the time to discuss these questions while he was with us. ❤

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J. Nathan Matias

J. Nathan Matias

Citizen social science to improve digital life & hold tech accountable. Assistant Prof, Cornell. citizensandtech.org Prev: Princeton, MIT. Guatemalan-American