The Ethic of Death: Reflections on the Policies and Procedures Manual

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.

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10 thoughts on “The Ethic of Death: Reflections on the Policies and Procedures Manual”

  1. There are many facets of this situation. 

    When going against a bureaucracy, my Dad observed: "people tend to exercise whatever authority they are given.  And, for many people, the only authority they have, is the power to say no".  Not all cogs in a bureaucracy really want to help, but it makes it more comfortable to blame the bureaucracy while exercising their power to say no.

    The "rule of law" (which is a good thing) and other changes in our society over many years have given people the illusion that a rule can be written for every circumstance.  Many people truly believe that there can, and should, be a procedure for every event.  But frequently, well-meaning rule-writers create an awful situation.  There was a craze some years ago in which citizens of many states wanted felons to be off the street for a very long time after their third conviction.  But, in many of those states, writing a bad check over a certain amount (sometimes only $50) is a felony.  So, a very well-intended rule, removed courts' discretion to recognize the difference between being broke and robbing banks.

    Processes and Procedures may be essential to the life of a man-made organism.  But, there must be ways to deal with the unexpected.

  2. "Discern the spirits."  Ahh, Ignation spirituality..."What gives me life" and "What robs me of life".

  3. Thank you for this post. It stimulates, and challenges preconceptions: something you're very good at!
    But you make me wonder about the nature of existence where death truly had no such dominion. Would we really welcome it? 

  4. If there is such a thing as a 'fortaste of the kingdom' or a self-dispossessive community what would be its relation to the dynamics of 'institution'. Does it mean anything to institutionalise in order to facilitate cruciform discipleship?

  5. I was recently reading and discussing the issue of poverty and the role of government/nations vs. individuals/churches in promoting social justice.  One commenter used language of "death-dealing" and "life-dealing" that I didn't fully understand, until I read this and the previous few posts put up here on ET.  It is so easy to walk through life unable to see the forest for the trees.  I am grateful for the insights shared here which articulate a whole lot more clearly some of the random, half-formed thoughts that bump around in my head!  Thank you!!

  6. Good thoughts.  I could talk all day on this subject.  By way of extending the line of thought in your post, I think torture is the result of this idol of death and ethic of survival.  This holds for modern nation-states as it did for the Inquisition.  We fear death the most.

    In my mind, I have always (since 9/11) thought of National Security as America's god, because to me (as a Christian) the term "god" has a benevolent connotation.  And National Security (that is, Survival) has been America's chief "good," or highest value, thus "god," for at least 10 years now.  But for many or most cultures historically, a "god" is something to be appeased, not loved.  This is something that I think was true of cultures as distant as the Helenes and the Mayans.  This view of "god," better fits death or lack of survival than it does security and survival.

    All this to echo your sentiment for us as Christians who happen to be power-brokers (i.e. voters), within a modern nation-state to simply pay attention, to be aware of how our servitude to an apparent good may actually be serving something more than we ever imagined.

  7. Policies are one of the most effective ways for people to avoid responsibility when things go wrong.  It's all about risk "management," which in institutional settings inevitably means risk avoidance altogether.  If I can piont to a line in the University Policies manual that says I am justified in doing thus-and-so (mark it well:  in lieu of me using wise discretion), then anyone who is hurt by my actions has to take it up with those policymakers back there in the back.  I'm just doing what the book says I have to do, whether it's ultimately the right thing to do or not.

    Of course we need some of it.  But policy has become the proverbial hammer:  always useful whenever we can imagine that every one of our problems is a nail.

    qb (not David, and not Another David)

  8. I was confronted by an older Pastor one day.  I was talking about the policies that our church was implementing.  He replied - the church does not have policies, it has practices.  It might just be semantics games, but it struck me at the time (and still does) as a profound difference.

  9. Here's a thought on where the line is found between a healthy commitment to an organization and an unhealthy one. 

    Harvard business prof Clayton Christensen gives a lecture at the end of his management theory class that showed up in Reader's Digest last February. The article is titled, "The Bottom Line on Happiness." (I'd just read his The Innovator's Dilemma, so the article piqued my interest.) He made a comment in the article that has stayed with me ever since first reading it:

    "[If] ways of working together succeed over and over, consensus begins to form." He's on his way to making the point that a parent needs to create a successful family culture, just as a manager needs to create a successful business culture ("culture" def: ways of working together that succeed). 

    It's a no brainer that people will bond around successful ways of living, but I had never thought of the point before. And a loving leader will want to create successful ways of living. Also a no brainer. So what's the rub? Why would be ever balk at procedures that help protect our place of work or our state, nation, culture, religion, etc.? 

    Augustine's "incurvatus in se," as a definition of sin, I think, marks the boundary very well between good and bad commitment to a job, institution, etc. "Is this action/policy exclusively self-serving or an essential aspect of serving a broader good?" needs to be asked. If the answer is that it is exclusively self-serving, there is no ethical warrant for calling it a good action/policy.

    A successful culture of service--ways of working together that succeed as acts of service over and over...

  10. Richard,
                'death is a living power' is it just me or has Stringfellow swallowed some continental philosophy here?

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