On the Temptations of Bureaucracy and the Power of Love
In the wee hours of the morning on April 30, 1945, Adolf Hitler dictated his final Private Testament. There was some urgency about this, for he was planning immediately afterward to marry Eva Braun and then, shortly after that, to avoid the earthly consequences of his past actions by putting a bullet through his head.
Most of his final message was simply a rehash of the same old delusional stuff he had been proclaiming since the days of writing Mein Kampf. But in the second part of his dictation, he does something a bit more interesting: he appoints people to the various offices and responsibilities in the already crumbling Third Reich—Grand Admiral Donitz as the new Head of State, Goebbels as the new Chancellor of the Reich, Schorner as the new Commander of the Army, etc. etc. It was a fascinating charade, and all the more so since Hitler then knew that these positions had no abiding reality. The Third Reich, with all its offices, was effectively down the historical drain—which was why Hitler was planning on putting a bullet through his head in the first place. Why then the charade? In a word, because bureaucracy has a life of its own.
This bureaucratic element was deeply woven into the fabric of life in the Third Reich. Down to the end of the war, bureaucracy continued to thrive, with ever more papers and forms and reports needing to be filled out and filed. (The extent of such bureaucracy, which seemed to escalate as the national infrastructure collapsed, is documented by such studies as Ian Kershaw’s The End: The Defiance and Destruction of Hitler’s Germany.) Indeed, bureaucracy seemed to find a natural place in the Third Reich, and most of the Reich’s most terrible criminals (such as Eichmann) were essentially bureaucrats.
What is bureaucracy? One online dictionary defines it as “a system of administration marked by officialism, red tape, and proliferation”. I would characterize it as “power without personalism”, the exercise of power devoid of the personal touch, personal contact—or, to use Biblical terms, “power without love”. As such, it carries within it the seeds of the demonic.
But only the seeds. Bureaucrats are not demonic—although I think it significant that the term “bureaucrat” is culturally tinged with at least some disapproval, so that few people would boast of being a bureaucrat as they might boast of being a teacher or a postal worker. But bureaucracy is not only not demonic, it is vitally necessary to running the infrastructure of any community larger than a small town. It is thanks to bureaucrats that social infrastructure works at all, and as such they deserve gratitude and respect from all of us who benefit from their (frequently thankless) labours. The difficulty comes in because the bureaucrat must make decisions effecting countless people that he (or she) never sees. There is no easy way around this difficulty, but that simply means that the bureaucrat must tread all the more carefully and do everything possible to nurture connections with the people about whom bureaucratic decisions are made.
The temptation inherent in all bureaucracy is to make decisions without regard to people’s actual plight and suffering—to exercise power without love. That is why bureaucracy found such a congenial home in the Third Reich, for National Socialism exulted in the will to power as an end in itself, divorced from love. The extreme historical example of the Third Reich may serve as a cautionary tale for us all, warning us that all power must be exercised in love and in the service of love.
This is especially true of power in the Church. Clergy exercise power (St. Paul talks about presbyters/ bishops as those who rule), but this power must be of a fundamentally different kind than the power exercised in the world. In the world power means getting other people to do what you want them to do, whether they like it or not. It is all about you and your will and your decisions. It is otherwise in the Kingdom, for power there means serving others and meeting their needs. The Lord was quite clear about this revolution in defining the nature of power: “You know that those who are supposed to rule over the Gentiles lord it over them and their great men exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all” (Mk. 10:42-44). In His final earthly hours with His disciples our Lord illustrated what this new kind of authority meant, for He knelt before them and washed their feet: “I have given you an example,” He said, “that you also should do as I have done to you” (Jn. 13:15). Authority in the Church means loving service to others, not forcing them to do your will. Power must be exercised in love, and manifested as love. (Perhaps seminaries should write this over their doors as a constant reminder to their students who want to become priests.)
Exercising power in love can be done by anyone, whether they are clergy or not, for everyone has some degree of power. Take for example the simple act of buying: the buyer has the money and therefore the power. The seller (be it the retail clerk or the girl filling your request for food in McDonalds) responds to your words (sometimes significantly called your “order”), and gives you what you want. It is a simple human interaction, but how often is it informed by personalism? How often do we regard the clerk or the girl taking our fast-food order as a person? Do we smile? Are we polite? We do not require such human personal touches when we feed coins into a Coke machine to get our bottle of Coke—do we treat people like we treat the Coke machine? We may not recognize such retail transactions as exercises of power, but they are. An old proverb tells us “The customer is always right”, and so the retail clerk cannot respond in kind when the customer is rude. This reveals that the customer has the more power. Such power must be exercised with love—in the case of retail transactions, with simple smiling courtesy.
Bureaucrats (let me stress again) are not bad, but they are sometimes in situations that make it difficult to combine power with loving personal connection. Their occasional plight reveals our constant opportunity, as well as the call of the Gospel. When we ourselves come to exercise any power in our relationships, we must take care to do it with sensitivity and courtesy—that is, with the human touch and personal connection known as love.