Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

My call to institution-building . . . and ours

Gideon Strauss


May 7, 2010

Studying Benedict XVI’s recent encyclical Caritas in Veritate alongside a roomful of careful readers at the “God and the global economy” conference in Vancouver a few weeks ago, one of my conversations lingered on Benedict’s insistence that “food insecurity needs to be addressed within a long-term perspective, eliminating the structural causes that give rise to it.” Benedict argues that most often “hunger is not so much dependent on lack of material things as on shortage of social resources, the most important of which are institutional. What is missing … is a network of … institutions capable of guaranteeing regular access to sufficient food and water.”

Around the same time a magnificent article by Jonathan Chaplin was published in The Other Journal, with the title “Loving Faithful Institutions: Building Blocks of a Just Global Society.” In this article Jonathan proposes that “a credible twenty-first century Christian voice on the theme of economy and hope needs to affirm loving institutions as building blocks in any constructive response to our current economic and political malaise.”

Christians “need to learn to love institutions again,” exhorts Jonathan. “They will also need to rediscover the deep veins of traditional Christian insight into the nature and purpose of institutions, in order then to critically re-appropriate and rearticulate such insight.”

What would such rediscovery look like? Jonathan writes, “As the Brazos Press strapline puts it, they’ll need to find ways of bringing ‘the tradition alive.’ And ‘the tradition’ must be read to include not just the intellectual tradition but also the legacy of the practical witness of the saints. Here I mean not just those whom the church has officially venerated as such, but all faithful believers from all walks of life and all ages who have left behind durable, concrete institutional embodiments of love—schools, hospitals, political movements, and yes, business enterprises—that can still speak to and inspire us today.”

Jonathan’s article reminded me of one of my favorite David Brooks columns, “What life asks of us” (The New York Times, January 27, 2009), in which Brooks contrasts two ways of life, the individualistic and the institutional, and professes his admiration of and preference for the latter.

“In this way of living,” writes Brooks, “we are not defined by what we ask of life. We are defined by what life asks of us. As we go through life, we travel through institutions—first family and school, then the institutions of a profession or a craft.”

“New generations don’t invent institutional practices. These practices are handed down and evolve. So the institutionalist has a deep reverence for those who came before and built up the rules that he has temporarily taken delivery of.”

Brooks quotes Hugh Heclo from his On Thinking Institutionally (2008): “In taking delivery, institutionalists see themselves as debtors who owe something, not creditors to whom something is owed.”

I am vividly aware of such a debt as I inherit a generation’s worth of work in establishing and nurturing the Center for Public Justice. As I travel around the country and meet with both founders and newfound enthusiasts for our common calling, I am vividly aware and deeply grateful for what has gone into building this network of communities of citizens in places like Pella and Sioux Center, Iowa, in Boston, in Chicago, in Los Angeles, in Grand Rapids, and in Washington DC. This gratitude shapes my sense of calling towards the maintenance and renovation of this institution. I am grateful that I am not alone, but that I share a calling with those of you who read this. The hunger we seek to assuage may not be that which goes along with food insecurity, but it is a very real hunger nonetheless: a hunger for justice. And this hunger, no less, demands a network of institutions.

—Gideon Strauss, CEO
    Center for Public Justice

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”