After yesterday’s bouquet-throwing, I’ve got a brickbat in hand today for Christian denominations. Thanks to a tip from Doug Pagitt yesterday, I tuned into an hour on Minnesota Public Radio News. The Penn State child sexual abuse scandal was being discussed, more specifically, the ethics thereof.
One of the guests was Daryl Koehn, Professor in the ethics and business law department at St. Thomas University, and author of The Nature of Evil.
One after the other, callers to the show proclaimed that they would have called 911 immediately if they had seen what Mike McQueary saw. The online chat during the show, archived on the show’s page, shows the same thing. Here’s an example:
But Professor Koehn repeatedly rebuffed those sentiments. People in big, bureaucratic systems do not report unethical behavior. At a subconscious level, she said, people in those systems convince themselves that the system will root out the bad guys. That what systems are for right?
But, in fact, a bureaucracy takes on a life of its own. Bureaucracies operate by rules, and they develop personalities, as it were. And one thing that a bureaucracy does not care about is the well-being of a 10-year-old boy, even if he is (allegedly) being raped in a shower. A bureaucracy cares about one thing: It’s own survival. And to survive, a bureaucracy plays tricks on the minds of the otherwise ethically sound individuals within.
When I am expressing doubts and reservations about Christian denominational bureaucracies — or about some emergent churches’ hesitancy to join them — denominationalists often argue with me. They say that the denomination provides accountability and a support network. But those who study modern bureaucracies have found just the opposite. Bureaucracies operate by laws, like:
- Moore’s Law: Large bureaucracies cannot possibly achieve their goals.
- Parkinson’s Law: In a bureaucracies, work expands so as to fill the time available to complete it.
- Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy: In any bureaucratic organization there will be two kinds of people: those who work to further the actual goals of the organization, and those who work for the organization itself.
Sadly, those who are in denominational bureaucracies are the least able to see the forest for the trees in this regard. But the systemic failure at Penn State should frighten anyone who’s part of a large bureaucratic system.