The Theology of Bureaucracy
“What is a case? A case is never a real person. A case is a series of characteristics abstracted from persons; it is a model of those characteristics that a potential client must display in order to qualify for the attention of a bureaucracy.”
Ralph P. Hummel, The Bureaucratic Experience
“By the time this ambulance made its way through miles of downtown rush-hour traffic, the man was dead. He died waiting for a doctor, in a building full of doctors. That is what bureaucracy means.”
Thomas Sowell, Ever Wonder Why?
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, all of which are introduced to us in the first three chapters of Scripture. We begin there, where the Bible itself begins:
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 — a community that works as one. 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, we human beings included.
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 term for desk or office (“bureau”) with the ancient Greek word for government or rule (“kratos”). Thus, bureaucracy is “government from the office,” or “rule by desk.”
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, to subdue the earth, 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. In that system, we all are slaves of the desk, both those who work behind them and those who supplicate before them, as if awaiting a decision from on High.
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. Indeed, in my estimation, to assign the well-being of any citizen or any public project to the workings of this impersonal and inhuman monstrosity is simply to succumb to administrative nihilism and an inescapable do-nothingism.
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 creative, compassionate judgment or offer imaginative solutions to the dazzling array of challenges that interaction with real human beings incessantly brings. Instead, bureaucrats must follow procedures. They must follow the manual, which replaces conscience. A human creature without a conscience is less than human.
(2) Discernment is gone. Bureaucrats may not bring wisdom, creative compassion, or personal insight to bear upon the infinite variety of human circumstances that confront 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. Deskocrats are not 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, frozen, 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.”
(4) Compassion is gone. The rules under which deskocrats operate prevent them from becoming personally involved. That’s not what the manual requires. The manual requires control. Situation specific compassion, wisdom, and discernment cannot be predicted in a manual or controlled by foreordained bureaucratic procedures; and the deskocracy is all about control.
In other words, if it’s a machine, it can’t think of you as anything but a machine. Indeed, it can’t think at all. All it can do is to repeat the decisions and the words selected on its behalf previously and were programmed into its manuals and guidelines later. Now that the decisions and words have been selected, all that is left to do is to apply them mindlessly to the present situation. 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. In order to determine how machine-like the organization has become, simply calculate the extent to which the deskocrats can be, or have been, replaced by computers.
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 to be dispatched according to the manual, but in accordance with their 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: Authentically good deskocracy is, literally, impossible.
Deskocracy is the one-size-fits-all administrative delusion that human differences can be safely ignored; that the path of wisdom, creativity, love, and efficiency can be antecedently known and therefore accurately and efficiently pre-determined; and that the infinite variety and complexities of human life can be reduced to almost zero without loss, confusion, or serious damage. But — and here I state the obvious — human nature cannot be reduced to a formula or to a procedure, no matter how complicated the one or how detailed the other.
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 and overdue end; rather than adjusting itself to human and theological reality; it doubles down. It marches boldly forward, undaunted even by reality itself. It aims doggedly 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 for you and invented by the deskocracy, is not a redeemed and better you. It is a soulless, faceless, dehumanized number, just like those whom the system sends to deal with you. Of course, soulless and mindless go together. Having made its deskocrats sacrifice their conscience for controllable procedures, the system now finds ways and means 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 Da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” 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.
“Bureaucracy replaces the psyche. Psychological functions of knowledge and judgment once owned by the individual are now taken over by parts of the organization. Feeling and emotion are exiled.”
Hummel goes on to remind us, pointedly, that, “psyche was the ancient word for soul” (Hummel, The Bureaucratic Experience, p. 95).
When the inward you is replaced by an outward system, your dehumanization is complete. To borrow a phrase form C. S. Lewis, that is the abolition of man.
Dr. Michael Bauman is Professor of Theology and Culture and is Director of Christian Studies at Hillsdale College, where he has been since 1988. He also is Scholar in Residence for the Summit Semester program of Summit Ministries. He is a former inner city pastor in Chicago, an honorably discharged Marine, and a former cycling world champion.