Until January, I had spent the past 23 years in New Jersey. Home of The Sopranos. A state with a long reputation (whether deserved or not I really don’t know) for corruption in government and business. A place that is often the butt of jokes related to dishonest and “shady” people and practices.
And I thought I had left all that behind…
Within three weeks of arriving, Alex Cora had been fired as Manager of the Sox for his lead role in a sign stealing scheme while he was a coach with the Houston Astros; the results of a study done at MIT indicated that investment advisors who took and passed a licensing exam which included a now no longer required ethics segment were less likely to commit misconduct related to theft, fraud and deceit than those who weren’t required to take the ethics part; and an article in the Boston Globe titled “Who’s the fairest of them all? It sure isn’t us” discussed the extensive history of less than ethical political, financial and sporting behavior in Boston and Massachusetts in general.
Now I say all of the above with tongue in cheek – but only partly. As the Globe article made sure to point out, that kind of stuff knows no geographic boundaries. But at the same time, that stuff matters. Of course there is never just one single answer for the existence of unethical behavior. But in our time, as Yuval Levin proposes in his coming book, A Time to Build: From Family and Community to Congress and Campus, How Recommitting to Our Institutions Can Revive the American Dream (must be a really big book cover to fit all that), perhaps the most significant is the lack of structure to our social life – the lack of shape, purpose, meaning and identity in our individual and collective lives.
Levin says this is a direct result of the collapse of our confidence in institutions. He says that besides performing important tasks like educating our kids, enforcing the law and providing some service, institutions also (or hopefully, I would say), form the people within it to carry out those tasks responsibly and reliably; shape behavior and character. We have lost faith in our institutions, Levin says, because we no longer believe they do this.
I do not disagree with him. Many institutions now regularly ignore or pretend that ethical living matters, or deny that they have a responsibility to further that interest for all our sake. As a lifelong educator, I know that most schools certainly try to facilitate ethical development, but it is one of only a countless number of tasks which schools are looked to take on now. Which means it may very well be the case that there is only one institution which, despite its undeniable flaws, exists, among other things, for the specific task of helping shape more ethical people and a more ethical society.
The Church. And by “church” I mean religious institutions of many traditions.
Yes, the church has been its own worst enemy in regard to cover-ups of abuse, its history of complicity with slavery and the second class status afforded women, and those who have and continue to use it to enrich themselves materially or politically. But no institution is perfect and none ever will be. Despite all this, churches have been and continue to be an enormous force for good. Those who are active in a spiritual community, including, tend to be more ethical, more generous, more compassionate, and less likely to engage in individual and socially harmful behaviors than those who don’t, including vitally, children and youth. They continue to be the one place in our society whose primary purpose is purpose – the purpose and meaning so many seem to be searching for and that Levin says is so missing and needed.
We just completed a month of Sundays devoted to exploring where we might go as individuals and a spiritual community in 2020. It is a conversation that I hope will continue in the months ahead, if not throughout my entire time here. But there is one role which I hope we will always take as a given, remain steadfastly committed to, and consistently communicate to our community and beyond – our central place in the ethical shaping of each other, our kids, and our society.