I am beginning to lose track of them, writes Rev Sydney Maitland. Sex scandals in the church – and then the BBC; probity in Parliament, and the police; incompetence in social work departments and then pathological incompetence in the development of national policy on energy. Then there is the press telephone hacking and other forms of personal intrusion by the press – and by the security services. Virtually every national institution has been undermined by shortcomings of one kind or another, and we look on with tut-tutting disapproval.
But there is a flaw in all this: it is that we expect institutions to be better than we are ourselves. It is rationalised by saying that xxxx should be held to a higher standard of morality than others or bodies elsewhere: and certainly ourselves. So that lets us off then: or does it? Possibly in the sight of our own self-image – but in the sight of God?
A theologian called Martin Buber wrote of our tendency to treat people as things. Genuine relationships were called “I and Thou” in which the other person was honoured and respected whereas relationships with objects were classified as “I and it”. The trouble began when human relationships ceased to be “I and Thou” and became as personal as our relationships with our toasters. In this sense, institutions lost their humanity and became “it” relationships, to be abused freely.
Not only were they morality-free zones to be abused at will, but their members were also dehumanised. Yet we still expected our personal needs to be met by these dehumanised institutions and complained bitterly when they did not come up to our expectations. But a soulless machine never can or will, and we are not made to be satisfied by the purely material and functional.
None of this is new. Jesus also encountered it before His ministry started, and said that “Man cannot live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” To look for identity, forgiveness, purpose, love, fulfilment or any other attribute that comes from a human relationship from any institution that is not wholly rooted and grounded in the gospel is to look for the wrong thing in the wrong place. It is not why we are here and it can lead only to frustration and bitterness.
No social or political or economic institution can possibly satisfy the deepest desires of our hearts. If it ceases to be defined and animated by Jesus Christ and inspired by the Holy Spirit, even the church will fail. On the other hand, it is when we see our beginning and life and end in Jesus Christ that we can come together as forgiven sinners and see each other as “I and Thou”. Eventually, we will be able to see all in this way and even the most remote office will cease to be an “It” with all the personality of that proverbial toaster.
It also means that we need to be ready to confess our sins before Jesus, and ready to forgive the sins of others. Jesus had already pointed that one out as well: “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”
Every blessing anyway.