Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Theology and Bureaucracy

Sound theology is rooted in the Bible.  Because the Bible is theologically front-loaded, sound theology needs to take into account what we know about God, about human beings, and about creation.  We begin there:
The first thing we learn about God in Scripture is that He is a communal and articulate Maker.  His very name, Elohim, is a plural word.  In its opening verse, the Bible combines that plural name with a singular verb (“create”), thus demonstrating that God is a plurality in unity.  He is communal; indeed He is Divine Community, something He Himself indicates a few sentences later when He declares His creative intention regarding us in Genesis 1: 26:  “Let us (plural) make (singular) man in our (plural) image (singular).”
Second, when we say that God is an articulate Maker, we mean that He makes worlds by His powerful and creative Word.  All reality emerges from his Word and relies upon it.
Relatedly then, the first thing we learn about human beings is that we are made in God’s image, implying that we, too, are to be communal and articulate makers.  To be in His image means that we are to be both God’s picture and God’s partner.  Like Him, though on a lower level, we are to exercise dominion over the earth; we are to fill it and to subdue it.
To be like God and to do as He did -- communally to bring order out of chaos by our words and to carry out the dominion mandate -- is a high and serious calling.  The burden of this brief essay is to explain the ways in which bureaucracy hinders that high calling, both in its communal and verbal dimensions.  In short, bureaucracy, as do all things, has a theology, in this case a very bad one.  It is our focus.
         “Bureaucracy” is a portmanteau word combining the French word for desk or office (“bureau”) with the ancient Greek word for government or rule (“kratos”).  Thus, bureaucracy is “government from the desk,” or “rule by office.”
Notice that from this conception of governance all living things have effectively been removed.  It posits no identifiable living being, whether divine or human.  No persons are left to speak, to bring order out of chaos, or to do so in communion with others.  More importantly for the desk dweller, no one is left to answer or to blame.  Instead, government is the function of a nondescript, faceless, nameless office -- a deskocracy.
         No doubt a real human person sits behind that desk, but not a person functioning like God in God’s stead, not a person who, by his or her words, brings wisdom, insight, compassion, creativity, and eloquence to bear upon the task at hand, namely bringing order out of political and social chaos and making the best he or she can of the earth’s potential.  That’s not what happens at the DMV, or in any bureaucracy I can imagine.
         Within the organization, within the ruling deskocracy, humanity has been defaced, removed, and exiled.  Those who operate within it find their essentially human characteristics eliminated:  (1) Conscience is gone.  Officials may no longer exercise compassionate judgment or offer creative solutions to the dazzling array of challenges that interaction with real human beings incessantly brings.  They must follow procedures.  They must follow the manual, which replaces conscience.  (2) Discernment is gone.  Bureaucrats may not bring wisdom, creative compassion, or personal insight to bear upon the infinite variety of human circumstances that confronts them; they must do as directed by the manual, a text written and approved by other nameless and faceless apparatchiks inside the system.  (3) Community is gone.  Bureaucrats no longer are human beings dealing with other human beings; they are caseworkers handling cases -- cases with numbers -- and doing so in the sterile and schematic way prescribed by the approved, unresponsive, bureaucratic procedures aimed at nothing so much as getting quickly to closure and moving on to the next case, the next number.  You’ve heard it over the loudspeaker:  “Number 17, please.”
         In other words, what the deskocracy does to its workers, it does also to those for whom it allegedly works:  It makes them non-persons, or tries.
         Consider this scenario:  If you are a bureaucrat, if you occupy a desk, and if you actually tried to treat human beings as individuals by dealing with them not as numbered cases but in accordance with their infinitely unique and unpredictable circumstances, you could never finish your work, or even a significant portion of it.  That failure tells you how distant from human reality, both political and theological, government by desk truly is:  Good deskocracy is, literally, impossible.  Deskocracy simply cannot accommodate the facts about us.  But rather than despairing of its foolishness, rather than bringing the whole wrong-headed misadventure to a merciful end, rather than adjusting itself to human and theological reality, it doubles down.  It marches boldly forward, undaunted even by reality itself.  It aims to do what cannot be done.  It aims to change human nature, to remake it in its own image, to undo what God Himself has done, and to accomplish what only the redemptive grace of God can accomplish, namely to make human nature anew.
But the new you, the one intended by deskocracy, is not a redeemed and better you.  It is a soulless and faceless number, just like those whom the system sends to deal with you.  Of course, soulless and mindless go together.  Having made the deskocrats sacrifice conscience for procedure, the system now finds reason to sacrifice reason as well, and to the same god -- systemic uniformity -- which devours free intellect the way Moloch devoured children.
Where intellect and conscience go, beauty goes too.  No one, I dare say, ever left a government office with the grateful impression that they’d been standing for hours before Rembrandt’s “Night Watch” or listening to Debussy’s “Clair de Lune.”  Deskocracy is the death of beauty, truth, and goodness; the death of their Divine origin; and, therefore, the death of the truly human as well.  The name on the desk before which you sit, and   the departmental name on the door through which you passed when you entered, are the names on your tombstone. 
         Because one of the things that raises us above the animals and makes us like God is the creative speech that brings order out of chaos, one ought to consider the anti-human, anti-reality language of bureaucratese, which is an endless immersion in the passive voice.  Unlike in active and indicative speech -- speech in which doers do deeds -- in the language of deskocracy, even though no one actually does anything, “mistakes were made.”   It’s not that Mr. Jones did wrong.  That is too personal for bureaucratese.  Mr. Jones could do no wrong because “procedures were followed.”   No deskocrat can say, “I goofed,” because in bureaucratese there is no “I,” just desks and procedures to which no effective appeal can be made and to which no accusation of personal failure can stick unless, of course, there is a Congressional hearing and the system has to offer up one of its own as a scapegoat.  Rather than imitating the speech of God, which brings things like human beings into existence, bureaucratese takes them out of it.
         To be true to yourself and to the God Who made you like Him, you must resist the de-personalization of the cumbrous and mechanistic overlord that occupies all the desks.  You must resist it in eloquent, courageous, purposeful concord with other human beings determined to keep the inestimable gift God gave them.  Either you win or it does.  If it wins, you will be folded, spindled, stapled, and mutilated.  That dire end is your only alternative to the freedom and dignity that are yours as God’s picture and partner.
I cannot tell you precisely, step by step, how that victory is accomplished.  Simply for me to try would be to mimic the deskocracy and its arrogant procedures.
But I do know this:  You are a human being.  You and your allies must insist on being treated as children of the King, as royalty.  If you do not win back that respect for yourself, if you do not carve it out by your own will, cunning, courage, eloquence, and excellence, you will never have it again -- not in this life, and not from this deskocratic tyranny.  The deskocracy is not programmed to deal with children of the King.

No comments: