Category: evil

On bureaucracy and evil

By , 27 March 2009 7:43 pm

First of all, thank you all for writing in; the messages still keep coming and I value them. A good friend in church made the point that this is a biased sample of people who have read and enjoyed my books. He is, of course, right but frankly I don’t know how to poll those who haven’t read and enjoyed the books. Secondly, nothing much has happened at work to do with jobs and reorganisation. But I’m sure there will be news in the week before we break up for Easter.

So let me tell you about something that happened to me this week which I’m afraid is symptomatic of the New Britain. A week ago I had a letter from the local doctor’s surgery which included what was claimed to be the form for my annual test for fasting glycaemia. Very nice of them, you say; yes, but the problem is I have never had such a test. I politely wrote back pointing out that 20 years ago I had been diagnosed with blood sugar problems for a matter of a week before a thyroid issue was diagnosed but that had been 20 years ago and that I have had no such problem since despite a fairly regular battery of blood tests.

On Monday I had a phone call from the surgery. The insistent and unapologetic woman said that the reason for the letter was that they had noticed I had had a marginal result in 1991 and felt a retest was in order. I’m afraid to say I was very cynical about this; anyone who knows the British Health Service will realise that the idea of people sitting around saying ‘We’ve got nothing to do this afternoon so let’s look at 18-year-old test results’ is ludicrous. I mentioned this to a surgeon in our Bible study the following day and was told with that thin, weary smile that our healthcare professionals now bear, that doctors are now being paid for every screening they carry out. So they trawl through the records looking for likely candidates and once found, send them to be tested for no other purpose than financial. So, in the pursuit of spurious statistics and dubious gain, genuine issues of patient health are completely overlooked. I was not terribly surprised; we generate all sorts of figures in order for fundraising and quite a lot have nothing to do with our prime purpose which is (I still believe against all the odds) educating people.

This has led me onto a further meditation about the nature of evil. I always thought when I looked at those 20th-century mass killings of Stalin’s Russia and Hitler’s Germany that their awesome administration (all those names, those interminable lists, the sheer organisation) was merely an incidental feature. My logic had been something like the following: you decide to eliminate people so you are forced to create a bureaucracy which enables such a killing to take place. The murderous hatred comes first, the paperwork is second. I am now beginning to revise my opinion. I wonder if there isn’t something about the very nature of administrative systems that actually facilitates evil. All these forms, targets and goals actually create a fertile soil in which other evils, including mass murder, can grow. I am a long way from fully understanding how this works but I suspect that first of all it is to do with the dehumanisation of individuals. The very nature of bureaucracy is to render us faceless ciphers and turn us into impersonal and distant objects that can easily be moved around. In such a virtual world we have no more permanence than this sentence I am writing on the computer screen. A few keystrokes and we are changed; a few more and we are gone.

A secondary feature of this bureaucratisation is the substitution of human good (which ought to be the goal of all our efforts) by statistical achievement. In the beginning, no doubt statistical achievements represent no more than the necessary quantification of human good but all too soon they become not the means to the end but the end itself. It is all analogous to how the idol starts off as an aid to worship but soon becomes the worshipped object itself. So, slowly and insidiously, administration replaces humanity. On this view the tyrant does not so much create a bureaucracy of evil as divert an existing bureaucracy into flowing along an evil path. But I fear that such a diversion is easier than we may imagine. While bureaucracy may not be evil, it clearly lends itself to evil.

I have no idea what the solution is. The anarchist remedy of smashing all machines and systems is beyond credibility. Perhaps, at the very least, we need constantly to be reminded that human beings are in the image of God and that – however disguised by numbers and ciphers – we remain beings of extraordinary value.

Have a good week.

Figures in a darkened landscape

By , 21 March 2008 9:32 pm

It’s been a busy week. I have been desperately trying to finish off all the critical teaching before the Easter break and doing various other things too. I also wrote – in some haste – my monthly blog for Speculative Faith; called Clarke’s Blind Spot it addressed the late (and genuinely lamented by me) death of science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke. The blind spot, I said, was his failure to recognize the propensity of the human race to sin. In the course of writing the blog the following sentence came to me. “To make a Holy Week link, there is far more of the range and diversity of human sin in the few chapters of the passion story (think Caiaphas, Judas, Peter, Pilate, the crowd, the unrepentant thief, the callous soldiers) than there is in the hundred plus books that Clarke wrote.”

Thinking about this subsequently I have come to the conclusion that this is actually a very remarkable feature of the passion narratives. It is not just that here one or two people do things that are disastrously and tragically evil. It is that, with the exception of Jesus, almost everybody does evil but in different ways and from different motives. I feel I could write a book of seven chapters on the different but wrong (albeit to varying degrees) reactions of the protagonists. Let me then, as part of an Easter contribution, briefly sketch some of them here.

  • To me, Caiaphas represents religion gone wrong. He is a man who is so zealous for the externals of a faith that he is prepared to rip out its moral core. If you don’t take this in the wrong way, I can honestly say as an elder in Baptist Church I now have a much greater understanding of Caiaphas’ decisions. The system must survive…
  • About the motives of Judas much has been written and much of that is contradictory. I almost wonder whether his real motivation is deliberately left blank lest we pat ourselves on the back and say that we have avoided his sin. Whatever the precise trigger for his betrayal I think we can be fairly confident about the soil in which the betrayal sprouted; he was disaffected and disappointed and any spiritual affection he had for Jesus had clearly grown cold.
  • Peter’s near fatal over-confidence is surely that of a man who sees courage and dedication in himself but fails to recognise that it is only a thin veneer over a great hole.
  • In Pilate, I sense a weariness with things that ultimately dulls any scruples. He is out of his depth and in survival mode. I see him going back to the villa and smashing a bitter fist down on the table in sheer frustration at the way things have frustrated him.
  • Time does not allow me to treat the jaded, bitter crowd, the brutally efficient soldiery and the snarling unrepentant thief. But I – and you – recognise them.

Three thoughts:

  1. If the gospels are the human invention that some claim, then to have this menagerie of human evil so briefly yet finely drawn is one of the wonders of ancient writing.
  2. The failings here are all too scarily human. Let us pray, reader, that neither you nor I ever see them in the mirror.
  3. In the almost total moral gloom of the crucifixion there are small flickering lights, notably the women and John, but all around the scene is darkness. The state of the human heart portrayed here serves not just to point up the nature of mankind but to highlight the Jesus who is at the centre of it all. Nowhere in the Gospels does the Light of the World shine more brightly than when the darkness in deepest.

On issues of progress and ugliness

By , 22 June 2007 6:43 pm

It’s all supposed to be downhill at this point in writing a book. Writers are supposed to surge forwards on a great, liberating rush of words to the finish and enjoy the satisfaction of seeing the loose ends tied up and right restored to the world(s). Well, I’m not sure that I have ever found it to be so, and certainly not with The Infinite Day. It’s a little bit like when you drive a long distance and finally, you can see your destination and rejoice because it is so close. Then suddenly the road bends and you realise there are many turns and diversions before you really reach where you are going. Anyway, we will get there, but it’s a long tiring haul.

One other thing is that this week I have posted again on the Speculative Faith website, which frequently has some very interesting articles; not all mine I have to say.

The one I have done this week includes one of the few discussions that I am aware of as to which parts of Lord of the Rings Adolf Hitler would have liked. It also raises the vexed issue of why we tend to link evil and ugliness. This is actually a tricky one because here the atheistic evolutionists have a neat explanation. They say that it is an essential part of evolution that we seek out mates who are in good shape. In other words, beauty is good and to be sought because it indicates good genes. Ugliness is to be shunned, because it indicates suspect genetic material. I feel there should be a good knockdown argument against this but it eludes me. There are certainly a lot of pretty women married to some jolly ugly men.

Anyway, so the argument goes, it is only a short step for the boundary to be blurred between the physically good and the morally good. You know the devastatingly simple equation: good people are pretty; bad people are ugly. What is more worrying (and really does deserve an act of Parliament to ban it but no one dare propose it), is to assume that all pretty people are good and all ugly people are evil.

One observation here would simply be that this is not an argument the Bible makes. The only real indications we have of Satan’s form are that he can appear as an angel of light. There are no references to Christ’s physical form, only the prophetic hint in Isaiah that he would be disfigured by suffering. God, we are reliably informed, looks on the inside. Would that popular culture did the same.

And now back to The Infinite Day.

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