Swallowed by Life’s Trials

It’s been a while since I read Kafka’s The Trial; but I was in a court house as recently as four days ago to offer support to a friend.

The first census in the Bible is recorded in Numbers 1. Moses is responding to the command of God  to “take a census” of the men 20 years old and older – all those in Israel who were “able to go to war”. But bureaucracy predates that census by a generation or so – back in Exodus 18 when the days of the slavery from which they had escaped could still be seen in their rear view mirror. There were disputes among and between the people and they came to Moses to have their day in court, so to speak. There were so many cases that, upon the advice of Counsel, Moses set up a system – “officers” over the people. Alas … bureaucracy had come to Israel as they were divided into tens, fifties, hundreds and thousands – all done to serve the cause of justice and keep one man from burning out.

“K.” – the character in The Trial -is arrested, but he has no idea what he has done wrong, and they won’t divulge the charges.

It was Tuesday – a beautiful afternoon as we drove along the edge of the White Mountain National Park, when suddenly there were blue lights flashing behind me and a siren roared. The police, coming up fast. Was I speeding I suddenly wondered to myself. Where is my license? Do I have the current proof of insurance? Maybe you know the feeling – when you slow down, pull over and the police go screaming by. Whoever they are after, at least it wasn’t me! Your heart begins to regain its normal rhythm and you decide that, as soon as you stop, you are going to make sure you have the required documents in the glove compartment.

K. is desperately trying to find his identification papers. With two policemen waiting, he rifles through his drawer and all he can find is a permit for his bicycle … Wait … Oh, there it is – my birth certificate!

Once I got through Security (You don’t have to take your handkerchief out of your pocket!) I proceeded to the Second Floor of the courthouse. No one was on the floor except for way down at the other end. Where are the signs? What floor am I supposed to be on?  When I got down to the other end a man with a security wand came rushing toward me. How did you get in here, he said, frowning and clearly upset. I was sent back downstairs to the clerk. I was assured she would know where I needed to be.

While not an official “census”, there was certainly plenty of reckoning in the book of Joshua as the land was parceled out to the tribes of Israel. Then, in Joshua 12, someone thought it was important to list the names of the kings who had been defeated by Israel’s army. I wonder … Who kept track of the list? And for whose benefit?

While K. begins to defend his innocence, one of the arresting officers put him in his place. “Our authorities as far as I know, and I only know the lowest grades, don’t go out looking for guilt among the public; it’s the guilt that draws them out, like it says in the law, and they have to send us police officers out.” Then – K. makes the classic mistake: I don’t know the law, he says, as if ignorance is a shield against bureaucracy.

The clerk sent me to the third floor, so back up I went. I couldn’t help but notice that every floor had an eerie resemblance to the other floors – not exactly alike, but similar enough so as to be confusing. Haven’t I already checked this floor, I was wondering.  I was also aware of a strange emptiness – no one seemed to be around except a few stragglers.

It’s King David who finally gets into trouble. He decides to take a census, and the Bible is wonderfully contradictory as to who – or what – instigated the decision. II Samuel 24 seems to clearly indicated it was God who told David to count the people. I Chronicles 21 says quite clearly: Satan incited David to count the people of Israel.

“Counting the people” – for what purpose? To see who is old enough to fight? Or, as was presumably the case in Luke 2, was it to insure people were sufficiently taxed? Ah, the sordid task of the “assessor”! The unhappy work of the police! The paperwork; the corridors that all look alike; the laws that no one understand; the clerk who sends us from this floor to that.

I never found the courtroom; so I left. No worry – I wasn’t the one on trial. Satan or God – whoever or whatever it was that made David do it, the people paid the price of a three-day plague with seventy thousand of them dying. Isn’t that often the case, that the innocent pay the highest price for the mistakes of the powerful? It should give us pause: What is our bureaucracy trying to accomplish? Who does it protect? Who is lost or swallowed up in it?

And then, there’s the United Methodist Church and our “General Conference” – the “Global Connection” in which some 850 people make laws for the whole world for the next four years. I know some people revel in it. And many – perhaps too many – actually make their living from it. But that is precisely the problem with bureaucracy – it is attractive to just enough people so as to perpetuate itself (as if it were “God-ordained”), swallowing up participant, spectator and innocent bystander along the way (as if the Devil were in charge).

Mark Demers

Want to talk about sex, politics, spirituality? So do I. I grew up in a religious home in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Our country was reeling from assassinations and the devastation of the Viet Nam War. Looking for something beautiful, I got a degree in music, married the love of my life and had children. Looking for God, I then went to seminary. Looking for something that might transform the world, I became a local church pastor. Now, I’m always looking for people who want to talk about important things. I cherish conversations with emerging leaders, people who are antsy to try an idea they believe would change the world for the better. I’d would love to hear from you.