Can institutions repent?

May 9, 2011 | 21 comments
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commentary-column-tower-bg-imageA recent news story about the beatification of John Paul II mentioned that the late Pope had led the Catholic Church to “repent” for its anti-semitism. The use of the word “repent” stuck out in my mind, and made me wonder, “Can an institution, such as a Church, repent?”

What separates an institution from a simple group of individuals are things like leadership, norms of action or conduct and culture. If an institution does something wrong, it is either because its leadership chose to do something wrong, or because it established some standard way of acting that led to doing wrong, or because its culture somehow encouraged wrongdoing. [There could be other ways, these are just what occur to me].

I don’t think the idea that an institution could do wrong ever occurred to the writers of our scriptures, so I wasn’t surprised after a cursory look through the topical guide didn’t yield any clear guidance. There are scriptures in which groups of people are told to repent, but nothing that clearly refers to an institution repenting for things that the institution’s policies, leadership or culture caused to happen. But does that mean institutions can’t repent?

Before we can answer that, I think we have to ask what we mean by the word “repent.”

In LDS doctrine, we usually mean “repentance unto salvation” when we say the word “repent;” i.e., we mean making changes and restitution for sins so that we will gain salvation in the next life. Since I doubt very much that any institution, including the Church, continues into the next life, I can’t see any reason why an institution would need to “repent” in the same sense that we need to repent.

But, on the other end of what is probably a spectrum of meanings, the word “repent” can also mean simply changing from one thing to another. Even the scriptures use this meaning, for there are a places in the scriptures that talk about the Lord repenting of what he did (see, for example, Amos 7:3 and Genesis 6:6). Clearly, the Lord isn’t repenting of sin, or repenting unto salvation, but instead simply changing a course of action or thought. [This still may be problematic theologically, but the alternate meaning of “repent” is still there.]

Something more like this latter meaning of “repent” is much easier to apply to an institution. We know institutions make errors, and even sin, when their leaders or rules or cultures lead them to do wrong. A company dumping toxic waste into a river, for example, has done something wrong, sinful even, although it may be more difficult to say that individual workers have done something wrong to the same degree that the company has. Has the hourly worker grateful to have any employment at all and ignorant of what was in the materials dumped in the river even done something wrong? A lot depends on the circumstances and what that employee knew.

In practice, it is exactly this distinction between individuals that are part of an institution and the institution itself that makes the idea of repentance by an institution difficult. No institution has total control over its employees, leaders and volunteers, so the possibility of an individual using an institution to do wrong is a real possibility. Conversely, the feeling that individuals have that they didn’t know or aren’t themselves responsible for wrongdoing sometimes gets translated into their assumption that the institution also did no wrong.

Thinking about it, I believe the same steps of repentance that we are taught to use can, for the most part, also be used by institutions, at least in theory. I don’t see any reason that an institution can’t recognize and acknowledge that it has done wrong, express remorse for that wrongdoing, seek forgiveness and make restitution for the wrongdoing, and make restitution.

And, not too surprisingly, the hurdles that prevent institutions from repenting are also similar: Pride doesn’t allow institutions to admit wrongdoing. Restitution requires giving up assets—something institutions are as loath to do as individuals are. And perhaps worse, acknowledging wrongdoing often means that others no longer trust us or, in the case of companies, stop purchasing company goods and services.

Apologies from institutions are often controversial. I think its kind of hard to sort out when the institution is really at fault, and when a few individuals are. Emotionally, victims often blame the institution, not knowing whether or not individuals were involved. But while institutions can’t repent the same way that individuals should, when they have done something wrong, I think there is a place for institutions to repent.

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21 Responses to Can institutions repent?

  1. NJensen on May 9, 2011 at 9:11 am

    Well if the US Supreme Court says that a corporation is a person, than I guess an institution can repent (tongue firmly in cheek).

  2. ji on May 9, 2011 at 9:33 am

    At the last day, everything man-made will be done away — all promises, covenants, agreements, and so forth — and all institutions, too — so an institution has no permanent life, and no soul.

    No, I prefer to see that individuals repent and change. An institution is only a temporary assemblage of individual persons. Those individual persons can change — and then, the institution will represent the collective will of those persons.

    We err today when we look at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as an institution. Rather, it is an assemblage of individual persons.

  3. Bob on May 9, 2011 at 10:18 am

    @ #2: I feel an institution can repent. An institution is more than just a group of people_it has it’s own values. I see the Mormon Church as an institution. I think the Mormon Church see “traditional marriage” as an institution, and wishes to protect it(?)

  4. Aaron R. on May 9, 2011 at 10:52 am

    ji, although I think I see where you are going, I suspect that your focus neglects that some assemblages are far more stable than others. Moreover some assemblages can actually persist regardless of the individual. The Prophet, for example, is not so much an individual as he is the cumulative effect of past prophets and current (and to some extent past) rhetoric about that office. I think it is naive to miss hugely important way in which the Church speaks about itself as an institution. In this sense repentance is, and should be, of a different kind for the individuals that temporarily inhabit those specific institutional spaces than for us who are not.

    Re: the actual post. I like what the Archbishop of Canterbury once said: “The Body of Christ is not just a body that exists at any one time; it exists across history and we therefore share the shame and the sinfulness of our predecessors and part of what we can do, with them and for them in the Body of Christ, is prayerful acknowledgement of the failure that is part of us not just of some distant ‘them’.”

  5. Dave on May 9, 2011 at 11:02 am

    A fine topic for reflection, Kent. In philosophical ethics, there is a category of evil termed institutional or structural evil (complementing moral evil, bad acts purposefully chosen by humans, and natural evil, bad acts that happen through the operation of nature). Economic or social structures, corporations, churches, or governments might cause or perpetuate bad acts or outcomes — even without those running those structures or organizations knowing it. To minimize or eliminate institutional evil requires actors and leaders to assert responsibility for bad institutional consequences and change how the institution works.

    I suppose repentance for an institution makes some sense if you start from the possibility of institutional evil, but what really matters is that individuals involved with the organization assert responsibility and want to make changes. Even when there is institutional evil occurring, it is people that have to act to change the status quo. “Hey, I just work here,” or “I am just following orders,” or “I am just doing what the handbook says” are attitudes that perpetuate institutional evil.

  6. Julie on May 9, 2011 at 4:33 pm

    Hmmm, I like the topic, but I do take issue with this sentence: “I don’t think the idea that an institution could do wrong ever occurred to the writers of our scripture.”

    Within seconds off the top of my head, I can think of 1st Nephi’s “great and abominable church,” Isaiah’s Babylon, even Revelation’s beasts. All to me are very much depictions of organizations, systems & societies (rather than just individuals) gone wrong. And all seem to be typical (i.e., to be used as a type for all cases fitting the description) at least as much as they are specifically referential.

    Perhaps I am misjudging your definition of “institution”?

  7. Julie on May 9, 2011 at 4:33 pm

    Or perhaps there is even some prophetic insight here about the true nature of societal forces, superceding any need to bow to current ideas about the status of corporations (which granted is not, if narrowly defined, a pre-modern concept)?

    While we live in a society where courts have sometimes chosen to grant corporations “rights” as if they were individuals, surely Latter-day Saints cannot believe institutions have the same moral agency as God’s divine children.

    To place blame on an institution is on a certain level to deny individual guilt. Institutional patterns are powerful and may require changing (change that interestingly, will require individuals to take action). But in the end, it will be all the individual people, and not the institution, brought to stand before the judgment bar.

  8. Last Lemming on May 9, 2011 at 6:21 pm

    I’m pretty much with Dave on this one. In fact, I think the scriptures (and, more explicitly, the temple ceremony) support the notion. Sticking with just the scriptural examples, consider D&C 88:138:

    And ye shall not receive any among you into this school save he is clean from the blood of this generation;

    It sounds like somebody who is innocent of personal sin could not be admitted unless he is also cleansed of the collective guilt of the “generation.” Perhaps that includes the kind of stuff Dave was talking about. The process even has an ordinance associated with it, but it is not the same as individual repentance and baptism. Those lead to personal salvation; the process I am talking about leads to the establishment of Zion and collective exaltation.

  9. ji on May 9, 2011 at 7:27 pm

    If a Sunday School teacher is released by proper authority and a new Sunday School teacher is called by proper authority and sustained by the ward, there is no need for the new teacher to apologize for or repudiate any actions or statements of the previous teacher — the new teacher just accepts the mantle and begins to magnify the calling.

    Similarly, if a bishop or stake president is released by proper authority and a new bishop or stake president is called by proper authority and sustained by the ward or stake, there is no need for the new bishop or stake president to apologize for or repudiate any actions or statements of the previous bishop or stake president — the new bishop or stake president just accepts the mantle and begins to magnify the calling.

    And at the top, if a President of the Church is released and a new President of the Church is called by proper authority and sustained by the general conference of the Church, there is no need for the new President of the Church to apologize for or repudiate any actions or statements of the previous President of the Church — the new president just accepts the mantle and begins the magnify the calling.

    A new President of the Church does not need to repent for (or lead the Church as a whole in repenting for) the perceived error of a predecessor. The Church cannot sin. It cannot repent. Individual persons sin and individual persons repent, and that for their own sins and not another’s.

  10. jsg on May 9, 2011 at 7:41 pm

    Your image says it all, Kent–so your thesis is the Hoover Institution (and by extension the entire conservative movement) is in need of repentance. I know how to read between the lines. The political bias on this blog is sometimes SO overt.

  11. Cameron N. on May 10, 2011 at 12:13 am

    “I don’t think the idea that an institution could do wrong ever occurred to the writers of our scriptures”

    I don’t think we understand the scriptures the same way. Captain Moroni is one example that comes immediately to mind. The dozens of prophets who chronicled the ‘state of the church’ as its’ members rose and fell in terms of an average collective faithfulness.

    I do agree that institutions can repent, but I would say that involves a shared decision by a group of like-minded individuals who individually changed for the better (EG the church being under condemnation for treating the Book of Mormon lightly), or the Lord specifying at one point in the D&C that he was pleased with the church collectively.

  12. Jim F on May 10, 2011 at 12:30 am

    As I mentioned in a recent discussion of a similar topic, if institutions cannot repent, then what’s the point of the sacrifice described in Leviticus 4:13ff?

  13. Geoff-A on May 10, 2011 at 1:03 am

    Ji 9. I would agree until you get to the President of the Church, because he could (though rarely would) change a policy. He is responsible for church policy the other leaders are only implimenting those poloicies.

    An example could be the priesthood to all worthy males, perhaps it would have been apropriate to apologise to those hurt by the previous policy.

    Were a new President to announce that the priesthood be available to all worthy members perhaps the institution (policy controlled by the president) might feel to repent, on behalf of the institution for past injustices to the women denied previously.

    Were a new president to renounce modesty as a policy/doctrine and replace it with an emphasis on sex education, self esteem, and assertiveness training, the president might want to apoligise on behalf of the church/institution and ask forgiveness of all those hurt by the previous policy.

    That would seem to me to be the institution repenting. Recognising its wrong, apologising for it, and changing its behaviour.

  14. Warren on May 10, 2011 at 4:59 am

    What about President Benson and the call for the church to repent with respect to the Book of Mormon? Was that a call for the institution (i.e. the church) to repent?

  15. Stephen Hardy on May 10, 2011 at 7:06 am

    A few thoughts:

    First, in reponse to this:

    “Your image says it all, Kent–so your thesis is the Hoover Institution (and by extension the entire conservative movement) is in need of repentance. I know how to read between the lines. The political bias on this blog is sometimes SO overt.”

    I plead “Huh?.” Kent, can you enlighten us? What is the photograph of? Why was it included?

    Now for more substantial thoughts:

    Do institutions need to repent? Can they repent? I have a hard time concluding that they don’t need to, or can’t repent beause they aren’t individuals and therefore won’t be ressurected or judged. Institutions do need to respond to horrific things that they do. The list is virtually endless:

    We can start with Nestle Corporation which was the focus of a world-wide boycott based on their practice of providing just enough free formula to poor women in developing country so as to cause their milk supply to dry up, and therefore trap them into using formula, which they can’t afford. (Was that a run-on sentence?) Nestle first denied any wrong doing. Then promised not do do it anymore (Kind of like when Al Gore, in response to certain fund-raising activites that appeared to be illegal, said in essence: “I didn’t do anything wrong, and I’ll never do it again.” Eventually Nestle apologized.

    There is that little accident by BP last year, resulting in the death of workers, and the environmental catastrophe that followed. It was nice to see that the BP executives recieved a safety bonus this year for their exemplary performance in that particular area.

    On we can go to the Bhopal disaster in India; corporate negligence led to the death of thousands.

    There are the ongoing quetions about America apologizing for slavery, (So here we have two definitions of “institution” as either the U.S. government, or slavery itself. The American economy and country as a whole appears to have benefited greatly from slave-labor, and our efforts to fix that wrong may or may not have been properly exhaustive, according to your point of view. (Obvioiusly I have mine!)

    Of course even our church may have need to “repent”; meaning to change our ways: The Mountain Meadows Massacre, which has resulted in an institutional response. There is our policy of “blacks” or “negros” or “darked skinned peoples” and the priesthood. And there was the whole polygamy thing, which continues to be either a disaster or at least an on-going annoyance for church members. Here in France, polygamy appears to be the only word associated with mormonsim to this day.

    Each of these “institutions” have caused injury or hurt or loss-of-life through negligence, drive for profit, promotion of harmful sterotypes, etc. It may get back to how you define “repentance” as Ken already posted. But people do, apparently, find solace and peace through the corrective actions that institutions take, just as they may find some peace through the process of another’s repentance.

  16. Kent Larsen on May 10, 2011 at 12:54 pm

    Julie (6) wrote: “Perhaps I am misjudging your definition of “institution”?”

    No, you just discovered what I apparently couldn’t — that there are examples in the scriptures of institutions in need of repentance. You are correct, and my statement wasn’t as well informed as it should be.

  17. Kent Larsen on May 10, 2011 at 1:02 pm

    Julie (7):

    To place blame on an institution is on a certain level to deny individual guilt. Institutional patterns are powerful and may require changing (change that interestingly, will require individuals to take action). But in the end, it will be all the individual people, and not the institution, brought to stand before the judgment bar.

    I get yor point that blaming an institution might deny individual guilt, but I’m not sure that it has to.

    Who is responsible for slavery? The slaveholders or the culture that taught that slavery is OK?

    Or perhaps is it both?

    Yes I agree that in the end individuals stand before the judgment bar, but, as I discussed in the op, there is more than one thing meant by the word “repent.” Only individuals must “repent” in the doctrinal sense, “unto salvation.” But at the other end of the spectrum is simply change, (perhaps we should call it change for moral reasons?) I don’t know about you, but I DO want institutions to change, and change in a way that is similar to repentance, complete with apologies and restitution.

  18. Kent Larsen on May 10, 2011 at 1:04 pm

    Stephen Hardy (15): “Kent, can you enlighten us? What is the photograph of? Why was it included?”

    I did a google search in google images on “institution” and selected an image that looked like an “institution.” It could well be the Hoover Institution. I didn’t pay too much attention.

    And, for what its worth, I don’t pay enough attention to these think tanks to know which ones are conservative and which ones are liberal.

  19. Jax on May 10, 2011 at 1:13 pm

    Kent,

    I use the same term to define both of your definitions of repent – To have a change of heart. King Benjamins people had their hearts changed when the repented unto salvation. But you can have a change of heart that leads you away from God as well.

    Institutions only have a change of heart because an individual had one. It may be the CEO who alters the course of the company or the people behind the desks that allow certain variances from corporate policy. For some institutions it takes many people, many individuals to have a change of heart, to decide to do differently. For instance, for a government to change it could require the changing of many thousands or millions of people. In that sense I think institutions can repent, but only after the individuals involved do.

  20. Kent Larsen on May 10, 2011 at 1:30 pm

    Jax (19): “In that sense I think institutions can repent, but only after the individuals involved do.”

    I think that’s about what I thought also.

    But, the more I think about it, I think it is important that institutions DO repent.

  21. Jacob on May 10, 2011 at 3:00 pm

    I believe that an institutions are not only wrong and in that case its a good argument that they need to return cause they can develope some people that with out institutions couldn’t make it.