This post is a spin off reflection from my Tales of the Demonic post.
In that post I described how bureaucratic systems tend to dehumanize us. To illustrate this point I used the example of a student on my campus caught up in a inter-office bureaucratic snarl:
I think of that student caught up in the bureaucratic nightmare on my campus. Most of us can identify with her plight, being shuttled from office to office from bureaucrat to bureaucrat with no one being able to help. Each person you face is very nice and would like to help, but policies and procedures have everyone's hands tied. The tragedy of the student is that those policies and procedures come to define the student's relationship with the University. She finds herself up against a "system" that doesn't seem to care. True, the people in the system care. They would love to help. But they don't have the "power" to help. The system has tied their hands.As I pondered this example some more a very reasonable objection came to mind. It sounded like this:
Okay, fine, bureaucracies are inefficient and people can fall through the cracks of the system. But what is your suggested alternative? To just give the keys away? If policies and procedures didn't exist the school couldn't function. We'd go out of business and have to shut the doors.That's a very good point. And it's an observation that not only holds for my institution but for just about every other institution that has a policies and procedures manual. There is a close association between those policies and procedures and the survival of the institution.
This link between the policies and procedures manual and the survival of the institution made me recall William Stringfellow's analysis about the relationship between Death and the principalities and powers. According to Stringfellow, Death sits behind all the powers on earth:
…history discloses that the actual meaning of such human idolatry of nations, institutions, or other principalities is death. Death is the only moral significance that a principality proffers human beings. That is to say, whatever intrinsic moral power is embodied in a principality—for a great corporation, profit, for example; or for a nation, hegemony; or for an ideology, conformity—that is sooner or later suspended by the greater moral power of death. Corporations die. Nations die. Ideologies die. Death survives them all. Death is—apart from God—the greatest moral power in this world, outlasting and subduing all other powers no matter how marvelous they may seem for the time being. This means, theologically speaking, that the object of allegiance and servitude, the real idol secreted within all idolatries, the power above all principalities and powers—the idol of all idols—is death.Now that may seem to be a bit of a stretch, that Death is the power behind, say, America or your church or your place of business. But Stringfellow's analysis seems to be confirmed when we pause to consider the guiding force behind every power: Survival. As Stringfellow notes:
Survival of the institution is the operative ethic of all institutions, in their fallenness.What this means is that, as a servant of the institution, I should do my part to help the institution compete, survive and thrive. This means that, at the end of the day, my efforts are in the service of Death. Death (or, rather, Death's avoidance) is the motive force behind all institutions. Oh, no one ever really says it that crudely, but every institution has a metric of death that it monitors: head counts, attendance, membership, money, sales, market share, web hits, etc. And when this metric starts to flat-line the institution will go into a "death throe," doing whatever it can to survive. In this instance, the ethic governing the institution is revealed to be Darwinian in nature, survival is the highest good. And if you doubt this you've never been a part of an institution that, struggling to survive, has cut people loose. When it comes down to you or the institution the institution will always choose itself.
And this brings me back to the policies and procedures manual. Yes, it is true that if we don't follow the policy and procedure manual the institution can't function, can't survive. And that's sort of my point. Death is the ethic governing the policy and procedure manual.
I think of it this way: the policy and procedure manual is the immune system of the institution. It is the system that identifies "viruses" that might put its life at risk. And like the immune system, the policy and procedure manual has defenses it deploys to destroy these contagions. Oversight. Accountability. Sanctions. Evaluations. Reprimands. Termination. What's it all for? To help the institution survive.
So what am I saying? That institutions are bad? No. I'm only saying that institutions are powers that require service. More, these institutions provide us with routes to self-esteem and significance. They give us money and hand us labels like "successful." These rewards feel good, making us want to serve all the more.
And that's not necessarily a bad thing. The mission statement of your institution might actually be very inspirational. But we need to be clear: Death is the mission statement behind all mission statements. The real mission of the institution is to survive.
In short, it's not that institutions are bad. It's just that they are idols. They are false gods. They seem to offer us the promise of significance and meaning in life. But behind the shiny surface of corporate headquarters and the inspirational mission statement Christians know what sits behind it all: Death. As Stringfellow notes:
Death, after all, is no abstract idea, nor merely a destination in time, nor just an occasional happening, nor only a reality for human beings, but, both biblically and empirically, death names a moral power claiming sovereignty over all people and all things in history. Apart from God, death is a living power greater--because death survives them all--than any other moral power in this world of whatever sort: human beings, nations, corporations, cultures, wealth, knowledge, fame or memory, language, the arts, race, religion.Does that mean I'm telling you to quit? To sabotage your workplace? No. I'm talking about idolatry and serving two masters. I'm just saying this: Pay attention to the ethic at work in the world. Pay attention to who you are really serving. Pay attention to where you are getting your self-esteem.
Discern the spirits.
Even the spirit of the policy and procedure manual.