Yale University professor, Dr. Timothy Snyder, has written a book, On Tyranny, in which he describes lessons the United States can learn from historical fascist movements. He believes there is a current movement in our national politics towards authoritarianism and I wholeheartedly agree. It is frightening in many ways.
Sounding the alarm, my friend David Hilfiker has an excellent blog and in one post he wrote recently, “The primary political issue now is democracy. Unless our failing democracy becomes our primary political concern, we will have lost our capacity to act as a country against the pandemic, the inequality of our economics, the foreign policy dangers abroad, the existential crisis of climate change or the scourge of racism.” Amen.
In one of his lessons Dr. Snyder describes that one way to fight against authoritarianism is to “defend institutions.” This makes sense in that we have seen especially over the last 5+ years a steady erosion of democratic institutions that bind the country together. The right to vote, the rule of law for all people regardless of economic or political status, and the efficacy of government to benefit people – all of which have been constantly undermined or attacked. The results have been devastating: people are being stripped of their voting rights by state laws, there is decreasing respect for or adherence to science in regards to COVID, and the January 6 insurrectionists are being looked upon as heroes by some. These are just a few examples.
Yet, in our defense of institutions necessary to the continuance of democracy I hope we do not make the mistake of simply accepting or looking past institutional flaws or even failure. Defending institutions should not cancel out our call to do better and work for a better world with more effective institutions that provide for the common good.
I have seen this national dynamic play out in the United Methodist Church in which I served in multiple positions for most of my life. Extreme conservatives attacked church structures without end while moderates and progressives defended those structures, but rarely if ever, stopped to ask if those structures really effectively worked for the people in the church or for society at large. Though I abhorred the relentless and misdirected rage of the extreme right in the church, I for one was not convinced the institutions in the church were more committed to justice than they were to the people who ran them. The culture wars often distracts us from the transformative work to which we are all called.
In what has become one of my favorite books, Servant Leaders, Servant Structures, Elizabeth O’Connor describes one of the classes taught by Gordon Cosby, who along with his wife Mary, founded Church of the Saviour. In this lesson, Gordon says,
…the Church of Jesus Christ ought to be creating literally countless alternative institutions of power incarnating some portion of a Kingdom vision and corporately embodying a more human way of ordering life. There are very few of these radical alternative structures pointing the way to a new society, and saying this is how as a biblical people we live…This is why the Christian church in so many areas of our diseased society has little impact on the quality of life in America. These mini institutions must grow out of the biblical vision. And if they grow out of that vision they will dramatically proclaim a solidarity with the poor, with those who suffer most deeply at the margins of society. (p. 86)
In what I hope is a friendly addendum to Dr. Snyder’s lesson on defending institutions I believe we must also create institutions, as Gordon teaches us. While destructive forces in society want to tear down, our call is to imagine, create, construct, reform, and build up.
You will hear more about the mini institutions we are building at the Festival Center in the months to come: the Center for Spiritual Formation, a center dedicated to bring liberation from authoritarianism, an arts space focused on celebrating the creations of those at society’s margins, a kitchen space that will enable people in need of jobs to take culinary arts and food handling classes, and so much more.
At the Festival Center we work in partnership with faith communities and justice seeking organizations to imagine a just city and a just world and we then work to implement those dreams into reality. The possibilities are endless and that is why I love being a part of this call. We need to do more than defend institutions – though we certainly will continue to do that. We also are called to redemptively utilize all of our resources to create institutions that will serve others and work alongside those on the margins for justice.
This is what we are building.
This is who we are.
This is what we do.
Bill Mefford is the Executive Director of The Festival Center. He is a connector, innovator, and visionary. From living and serving in poor communities in Waco, TX, Lexington, KY, Cleveland, and Chicago to working for national non-profits on Capitol Hill in Washington DC, Bill has always sought to creatively bring together people and organizations from all walks of life to work together to achieve real and lasting change. Bill has led experiential-learning simulations on poverty and has created a national network of United Methodists passionate about immigration reform and ending mass incarceration.