Bureaucratic Hell



He has shown you, O man, what is good; And what does the Lord require of you But to do justly, To love mercy, And to walk humbly with your God? — Micah 6:8

I received a call from the hospital from a dear friend of Dorothy and mine one evening. Her family had been in our church for years and although I was retired she still considered me her Pastor and I felt the same. She had heart issues. I told her we would be there as soon as possible. That’s what Pastors do (even retired ones)!

I decided I better call first to see what the ground rules were because we were being told that we were in a “Pandemic” and so many churches were being declared “non-essential.” This is what I got:

“Sorry sir,” we only allow one visitor a day and that has to be a family member.”

“But I am her Pastor,” I replied.

“Sorry sir, those are our instructions. Thank you for calling.”

“Whoa,” I jumped in, “Slow down sweet lady on the other end of this call. I have never in 45 years of ministry been denied access to one of my church members—especially one who is in the hospital. Can you direct me to the person up the chain who made that decision?”

“You can call our Hospital Chaplain,” she replied.” I did. He was just as frustrated.

I wish I could say that I got the result I was seeking that day. But I did finally get a sympathetic nurse on my friend’s floor of the hospital to take her personal phone to her bedside so I could pray with her. I say best because no one would let me up the chain of command to the person who made that decision. It’s like peeling away the layers of an onion with these large corporations. The ghost authority—it appears— is always fully tucked away somewhere under his or her desk and remains anonymous and unreachable to the public. How convenient!

I had almost forgotten that conversation two years ago until last week when I went for a blood test with my wife and they didn’t like the color of our yellow masks upon entry. I told them that two days ago they were acceptable. They agreed but now the acceptable color was blue. I ask the nice man if he could tell me who made that decision? He said it came from a high-up but his name he didn’t know (of course)! Poor guy, he didn’t like having to explain it to people like me because he was just doing what he was told—but he didn’t like the dubious change either.

Who are these people who make asinine decisions for the rest of us but are afraid to put their names on them? And why can’t they be reached by the people who support their organizations?

C.S. Lewis, the great apologist, author and theological giant of the last century called this “Bureaucratic Hell” (and this was all the way back in the 60’s)! This is his description of the folks who make those decisions—whom you and I will never get a response from because they don’t answer their mail (right Governor)?

“We must picture Hell as a state where everyone is perpetually concerned about his own dignity and advancement, where everyone has a grievance, and where everyone lives the deadly serious passions of envy, self-importance, and resentment. This, to begin with. For the rest, my own choice of symbols depended, I suppose, on temperament and on the age. I like bats much better than bureaucrats. I live in the Managerial Age, in a world of “Admin.” The greatest evil is not now done in sordid “dens of crime.” It is not done even in concentration camps and labor camps. In those we see its final result. But it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted (recorded) in clean, carpeted, warmed, and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with collars and cut fingernails and smoot-shaven cheeks, who do not need to raise their voice. Hence, naturally enough, my symbol for Hell is something like the bureaucracy of a police state or the office of a thoroughly nasty business concern . . .” — C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters.

What do you think of Lewis using a particular kind of bureaucracy as a symbol for Hell? While the bureaucracies we encounter at work, business, government, and even churches, are presumably nowhere near as dark as the ones Lewis had in mind, can you think off any “hellish” aspects of ones you are familiar with. Whatever the nature of the bureaucracies your encounter, are their ways in which we could bring the light of Christ into them? — Reflections, September 2021. Maranatha!

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