becoming like them

I chanted these lines during prayer yesterday:

The idols of the nations are silver and gold, the work of men's hands.
They have mouths, but they speak not, they have eyes, but they see not,
they have ears, but they hear not, nor is there any breath in their mouths.
Those who make them and all who trust them shall become like them. (Ps 135.15-18)
And they stuck with me, since I've been thinking about idolatry lately. So what does this mean in our modern forms of idolatry?

One of the main things I've noticed about the idolatry of our institutions and organizations is that we try to imagine them as new beings, with lives of their own. I've heard someone describe an organization just like that, that it's natural for it to be born and grow and then weaken and die. As if it's a person. And I mentioned how Walter Wink emphasized "redeeming" our institutions, as if, like a human being, it had a soul. Institutions do not have souls. They are human creations (or imaginings) and we do not create living beings with souls; only God does that. Our organizations are not persons, they do not feel, they do not love.

There does exist one (and only one) corporate being that is living, that is a person. That is the body of Christ. Perhaps it's our longing for this that leads us to imagine our humanly constructed corporate structures as living beings. But these have no life, and can only falsely substitute for the real thing.

I think this impersonalism of our organizations, our institutional idols, is then passed on to those who believe in them. "Those who make them and all who trust them shall become like them."

I've seen this in effect in many ways, for example: In organizations, the usual way of handling differences or disputes between people is to make rules. The personal way to handle problems between people would be reconciliation, having the two get together and let each other know what behavior is a problem and then making adjustments because of the mutual concern they have for each other. But institutions prefer impersonal rules. If a certain behavior is a problem, then from now on there is a rule, that behavior (in general) is not allowed, or from now on everyone will do it this way, etc. And if someone breaks the rule then it's no longer an interpersonal problem, it is a problem of someone disobeying a rule. It's between that person and the rules (and whoever enforces the rules). The personal aspects—forgiveness and reconciliation, very important parts of our relationships—have been removed.

Another form of this impersonalizing is the creation of institutional roles or "positions." Instead of a community made up of a web of interpersonal relationships, each person committed to the others by their love for that unique person, we substitute organizational "relationships." This is easily seen in organizations with clear hierarchies, but it's a part of all organizations. For example, when we join an organization (even membership in a church) we make commitments, not to the actual persons involved, but to the institution. We promise to support the institution. We accept the institutional leaders. In any organization, the actual persons who make up the organization change over time, leaders change, the roles and positions remain but the people who fill them don't stay the same. Does this change our commitment though? It should, if the community was based on actual personal relationships. But in institutions there's a tendency to see people less as persons and more as the office they hold; our relationship (to leaders or other members) is established by membership, not by any particular personal connection we have with them.

As we give ourselves more and more to this, we become more and more depersonalized. More and more like our institutions. "Those who make them and all who trust them shall become like them."

Actually, this morning's Dilbert helped get me on this topic...