Giving, Institutions and Working for Justice

Photo by Eduardo Rodriguez from

A sermon I heard Sunday got me thinking about a 12-Step friend, Ralph, who would say to me frequently: “Tom, give up, give in, just give.” Ralph was quite a bit older than me, and I dismissed this saying the same way I did when he told me, “Everything is just the way it is supposed to be.” I concluded his was a point of view that came with age and declining aspirations. Yet, I am growing into an understanding of this idea, but more from a sense of acceptance than the loss of capacity to imagine.

A Jesuit priest gave the sermon. He is also a medical doctor who leads a nonprofit in Boston committed to serving those who are underserved.  In his talk, he was clear about the challenge of distinguishing the institution of any church or religious organization from the values that undergird it. He pointed out that too much attention is given by institutional leaders to the care, feeding, beliefs and rituals of the institution and not enough to its mission and purpose.

The priest elaborated on how the family values of first-century Judaism shaped Jesus and his beliefs. He spoke of the poignant moment when Jesus was twelve and went to the temple to learn without telling his parents. He was already aware and eager to understand the context of his mission. At the same time, he was open to learning and being shaped by those values.

As he matured, Jesus rejected the institutional leaders of his faith and time. He called them hypocrites as he demonstrated his preference for serving those without social status or material wealth.

As a Christian and a Catholic, I have spent considerable energy wrestling with whether the Catholic institution is a good spiritual home for me. Often, I am tempted to give up on the Catholic Church despite my deep family roots there. I am saddened and angered by the chronic inability of the Catholic Church to fully live out its values.  Indeed, the Church leaders constantly demonstrate their collective inability to let mercy, compassion and equity guide their positions as they make moral decisions. The “either/or” paradigms with which they frame so many issues don’t lead to creative solutions of any kind, moral or otherwise. And the amount of energy and money spent fighting to win “either/or” battles does enormous harm to the very people that Jesus spent his life serving.

In my friend Ralph’s words to me, I wonder if it’s not time to consider “giving up” on the question of what faith tradition does the most good or least harm. Instead, maybe it’s time to fully “give in” and “give” to the powerful and simple values of love, justice, and compassion that undergird both the Catholic faith and other faiths.

As we explore the question of the connection between faith and justice, are we able to look past the religious, political, and educational institutions where leadership has failed us? If that leadership is not there, can we instead look to the values, the moral compass, embedded in every heart? If we “gave” ourselves to a life lived looking for opportunities to expand justice and equity, how might our families and communities change? If we “give up” on magical solutions and relying on our institutions to resolve our current community and societal rupture, what small voice inside us might we give in to that could lead us to actions of kindness and compassion?  Could those actions give voice and power to those left behind and contribute to a more equitable world?

Certainly, there is a need to fight against oppressive institutions and institutional decisions. But does righteous indignation over the failure of institutions bring any real change? I think Ralph would advise that we consider “giving up, giving in, and just giving.” What actions might each of us take in the coming year to give equity and justice more of a chance?


  • Tom Adams

    Tom Adams writes and speaks on topics vital to the intersection of our personal lives with our community and global lives. He has for decades been engaged in and written about nonprofit leadership and transitions, spirituality and spiritual growth, how we each contribute to a more just and equitable world and recovery from addictions and the Twelve Step recovery movement.


  1. Frank DeBernardo

    Great post, Tom! In this post-Christmas season, I always end up reflecting on one of my favorite Scripture quotes: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. (1 John 1: 1-2). This passage, which is a liturgical reading for December 27th reminds me that true religion does not come from a church’s institution or its leaders, but from a very intense and intimate experience of God in one’s life. And as the passage explains, that experience can be so powerful that it is sensory–something we see, hear, and touch. When institutional church leaders disappoint or anger me, I always try to remember that my faith doesn’t come from them, but from my own life experiences and relationships. I don’t claim to be able to remember that all the time, but when I do remember it, I find that it centers me.

    • Tom Adams

      Thanks Frank, I appreciate the concrete way you use Scripture and pausing and praying to remind yourself to focus on the God who connects us all and shows us the way.

      Peace, Tom

  2. Shirin McArthur

    Thank you, Tom. I had a conversation just yesterday about differentiating between the institutions and their frail and fallible human leaders and the God who calls us into leadership…and into love and service. Yes, we often need to remember the difference, because all Christian denominations are fallible, each in their own grievous ways. And we each, in our fallible and yet faithful ways, are called by God to make a difference in the lives of those around us–hopefully for the better!

    • Tom Adams

      Thanks Shirin, I need regular reminders to separate the institutions from the leaders. Thanks for reminding me why! As did Frank DiBernardo in his comment. Peace, Tom

  3. Joy Jones

    I’m reminded of Alan Watt’s statement – All religion is a finger pointing to the moon – it is not the moon.

    • Tom Adams

      That hits i precisely, Joy. Thanks for reminiding us of Alan’s wisdom. Peace, Tom


    Thank you, Tom and may your blessings continue in 2022. This is an important perspective especially when “leaders” at so many levels seem to be so miserable at leading. I’ll be sharing this.

    Happy New Year!

    • Tom Adams

      Thanks Pat, always good to get your perspective. I appreciate your sharing it where useful. Peace, Tom

  5. sally mac

    Oh, my! How timely as I prepare for a group conscience of my home group tonight. Home group meaning human beings who are finding their path toward recovery….
    When these topics come up ,I recall a parish priest quoting Dorothy Day to me over 30 yrs. ago,” Holy Mother Church is a whore, yet the only Mother I have.” I apologize for the graphic nature, yet it keeps me grounded in the Real vs. the superficial trappings of ANY institution.
    Back to Joy and her post–if Church is the telescope that helps me better understand the Moon, then I’m willing to accept its guidance!