Forgive them

Tales of the Demonic

By Richard Beck, 6.25.2011

Last year I was sitting in the backyard typing away on my laptop. It was one of those wonderful mornings where I’m working outside with a cup of coffee and the dog running around.

Suddenly, things got very bad. I was surprised to see a man let himself into my backyard. I was startled but saw he was wearing a hard hat, a tool belt and a florescent vest. He was from the electric company and he was looking for our electric box.

Feeling cheerful I said, “Well hello, checking the meter?”

He responded, “Ummm. No sir. I’m here to shut off the power.”

Shocked, I sought clarification, “Turn off the electricity!?”

“Yes sir.”

“But why?”

“Lack of payment.”

Now I’m really alarmed and confused, “Lack of payment? We’re set up on an automatic bank draft. How could there be lack of payment?”

The man looked worried, like I was about to totally go off on him. “Sir, I can’t say. All I know is that I’m supposed to shut off the power. I’m just doing my job.”

I took a deep breath…

Out at the prison where I help with a bible study we get to interact on first name basis with the inmates. But the guards remain strangers. Over time the inmates share stories about guards who are unfair and hostile. My fellow volunteers share stories about guards trying to thwart the bible study, from not turning on the air conditioning for the chapel to claiming they are too understaffed to allow the study to happen.

I come to realize that the guards are ciphers to me. Lacking a personal connection with them, like the one I have with the inmates, I notice how easy feelings can be projected onto them.

Walking to the chapel, Bob, the study leader, makes a comment as we pass scores of guards leaving the prison at the end of their workshift:

“I just feel for these guards,” he says, “It’s hot, hard work. Plus, most of them have a second job just to make ends meet.”

Suddenly, the scales fall from my eyes. I see the guards walking past me in a whole new light. They transform from anonymous and antagonistic agents to very tired mothers and fathers working two jobs to put food on the table.

A student comes into my office. She is hot from walking from office to office all over campus. She is caught up in snarl of university bureaucracy that is preventing her from graduating in a few weeks. She’s visited office after office. And while people are unfailingly nice (this is a Christian campus after all) no one can help her. They just pass her on with a “Sorry, we can’t help you with that. Why don’t you try talking to…” Her life has become the Higher Education version of a Kafkaesque nightmare.

Now here she sits in front of me, as one of our majors, wondering if the Department of Psychology can help. I’m tempted to say “I’m sorry I can’t help. Have you tried talking to…?” to fulfill my role as a cog in the machine.

Tales of the demonic.

I guess that description might seem wildly overblown. But over the last few years, after engaging with the work of people like William Stringfellow, I’ve been thinking a great deal about how the bureaucratic structures of the world dehumanize us.

Consider the stories above. In each of the cases human beings are not interacting directly. We are, rather, interacting through the power structures of the world. I don’t know the name of the man in my backyard about to turn off my electricity. And he doesn’t know my name. Our relationship is, rather, defined by our locations in a bureaucratic power structure. He’s an agent of the electric company. I’m an address on his work order. That is how our relationship is defined. A relationship stripped of its humanity. And as a consequence I have to work mightily to treat this man with respect. He isn’t to blame. But everything about this dehumanized interaction makes me want to yell at him. To direct my anger at him.

As I think about the prison I begin to notice, given my closer association with the inmates, that I need to take care to monitor my feelings toward the guards. Given their anonymity I can let the impressions of the inmates begin to affect my impressions. If I’m not vigilant I slip into the dehumanizing dynamics of prison life, with “guards” on one side and “prisoners” on the other. Again, the relationships become defined by the roles within the power structure.

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. Again, the relationships have been dehumanized. The student is interacting with “offices” on campus.

The point of all this is that I’m coming to the conclusion that one of the demonic forces in modern life is how we are increasingly interacting with each other through bureaucratic systems. When I find myself yelling at the person in front of me it is very likely that I’m not really mad at this particular person. Rather, I’m yelling at an agent of the system. An agent who, after work is over, will go home to his or her family for dinner. And maybe he will stop off at a liquor store to get a drink to take the edge off. It was a bad day after all. Particularly that guy who was yelling and rude because his electricity got turned off…

Everyday we are in a battle to hold on to our humanity within a system that is dehumanizing us. Can we crack through the bureaucratic fog to see the flesh and blood people standing in front of us? The waiter. The manager. The return clerk. The bank teller. The secretary. The umpire/referee. The police officer. The bag boy. The financial aid officer. The tax agent. The coach. The school principal. The church staff member. The guy shutting your electricity off…

On and on it goes. If we are not careful, if we are not vigilant, if we are not prayerful modern life will dehumanize us. It is a demonic force that must be resisted. I keep going back to something William Stringfellow said, we must struggle to live humanely in the midst of the Fall.

To live humanely in the midst of the Fall. Because our battle is not against flesh and blood but against the powers in the heavenly realms. Against those forces of dehumanization that run the show but can never be localized in time or space. I can’t have a heart to heart with the electric company. I’ll only be able to interact with the electric company through its bureaucratic channels and agents. In the meantime, the power behind it all sits unmoved and untouched while I yell at the guy in my backyard.

Last week I ended my part of the prison bible study with these words:

There was this kid who came from a poor family. He had no good options in life so he signed up for the military. After a few years he was deployed to a conflict infested, god-forsaken desert outpost. It was the worst tour of duty he could have been assigned. It was going to be hot and dangerous. Everyday he had to live with a hostile populace who hated his presence and the very sight of his uniform. Plus, the place was swarming with insurgents and terrorists.

Anyhow, one morning the solider goes to work and finds that he’s been assigned that day to a detail that is supposed to oversee the execution of three convicted insurgents. The solider shakes his head. He didn’t sign up for this. His life just totally sucks. “They don’t pay me enough,” he thinks, “for the shit I have to do.”

He doesn’t know he’s going to be executing the Son of God that day. He’s just going to work, punching the time clock, keeping his head down. He’s just trying to stay alive, get through the day, and send some money back home to Rome.

And this is why, I think, Jesus prays, “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

Few of us do.

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