Realistically, what do we expect?

Realistically, what do we expect?

Reform is in the air.

Reconsideration of police forces. Renaming of buildings, colleges, airports, and more. Revising of policies and procedures. Re-education of the recalcitrant.

Some of this reaction is commendable and long overdue. Some of it, to be sure, is excessive. Statues are being pulled down that likely ought to stay up. Names are being erased that probably ought to stay. And promises are being made that surely must not be taken seriously.

In particular, promises that we will eradicate deep social ills—racism, sexism, income disparity, inequality of opportunity—are being made by people who ought to know better . . . which would be anyone old enough to vote.

Christians are informed by our Bibles that sin is rooted in the human heart, not just in our social structures. Rooting it out takes such fundamentally deep work that the Scripture likens it to being born again, to dying and rising from the grave. No amount of well-intended policy change will suffice to usher in a sin-free zone.

Still, there is much we can do, and should do, to make a bad situation better.

Christians will want to share the good news of God’s great offer of spiritual rebirth, and we should press on with that basic calling of the Church. But that’s not all that can and should be done.

Made realistic by the Bible’s realism about the pervasiveness and persistence of evil in our hearts, lives, and work, we will expect wickedness to keep showing up. So we will plan for it—much better than we currently do.

What do I mean by that?

Two suggestions in particular.

First, let’s stop constructing systems that cannot help but fail. And one such system is any regime that proclaims “zero tolerance.” This extreme policy is the kind of reaction typical of leadership that has been publicly embarrassed about X and is now rushing to assure its constituencies that, by golly, we’re serious about X!

Aside from gross misbehaviour, of course, for which there should be zero tolerance indeed, such a policy virtually guarantees at least two dysfunctions: (1) people over-censoring themselves for fear of saying the wrong thing, thus stifling the natural conversation necessary for both creativity and courteous critique, and (2) people refusing to report small, but important, transgressions for fear of provoking disproportionate retribution: “I didn’t want him fired, I just wanted him to find a better way of saying that.”

We need systems that take for granted that people will be . . . people. And that means that we should plan on people stumbling as they learn and practice better ways of cooperating. Good coaches, teachers, and therapists don’t expect perfection. They expect good will and steady improvement, even as they insist on certain minimum standards of compliance.

Good auto racing pit crews, for that matter, simply expect that stress will cause parts of their excellent cars to fail. So they stock extra parts and they train in repairing their machines with the greatest speed and the least trouble. They don’t simply yank their cars out of the race at the first sign of trouble.

So we should design systems of accountability and responsibility that take for granted not only human wickedness but sheer human frailty. That means lots of transparency and oversight. That means multiple channels of communication, not just one or a few controlled by the CEO or the governing board.

That means systematic fact-checking—without anyone getting miffed and invoking “trust” and “faith” and other dubious legitimations for hiding things. And it means disciplinary responses that are measured, fair, and calm when people get into trouble—as people can simply be expected to do.

Second, let’s assume not only that we won’t always succeed at what we intend, but that we may well produce outcomes we definitely don’t intend. The best-laid plans, etc.

So, again, let’s not think utopianly, but realistically. Let’s aim at inspiring goals, yes, but also expect to exceed some of them, miss others, fail badly at still others, and actually generate new problems along the way. Regular, honest, charitable, and realistic monitoring, evaluating, and adjusting will help keep things moving in the right direction.

We thus will avoid the giddy over-promising at the front end and then the inevitable rage when budgets are exceeded, and targets aren’t met, and new difficulties arise. Of course things didn’t work out as we hoped. What world do you live in?

As we consider both which leaders to support in various sectors of our society and how we ourselves will participate in this or that organization, let’s be wise. Let’s practice a hopeful realism, rather than perpetuating what our Bibles keep reminding us is an optimism surely doomed to disappointment . . .

. . . at least until that Day when everything finally does come out right.

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