In his wonderfully creative book, Orbiting the Giant Hairball, Gordon Mackenzie discusses the way organizations mesmerize their workers into becoming like zombies, slaves to the corporate ethic, but devoid of their individual, one-of-a-kind energy, the very energy that the corporation needs to reinvent itself. He illustrates this with a delightful story of his father’s country vacation on his aunt and uncle’s farm in 1904. The aunt and uncle had a son the same age as Mackenzie’s father, and when together, the two of them became real troublemakers. One Sunday morning as the family was preparing to drive their horse-drawn carriage to church, the boys feigned stomach cramps and were told to stay home and rest. As soon as the carriage rounded a bend and disappeared from sight, the ten-year-old boys were out of bed, looking for trouble. Mackenzie takes up the story:
Wanting to impress my father, a city boy, the cousin asked, “Do you know how to mesmerize a chicken?”
“Mesmerize? Uh-uh. What’s that?”
The cousin led the way to a ramshackle chicken coop out behind the farm-house. There he selected a fine white hen. He carried her under his arm to the front of the house, produced a piece of chalk and drew a short line on the porch. He stood the creature over the chalk line and held her beak to it. After a moment or so, the boy slowly removed his hands. The chicken stood motionless, beak to the chalk line, hypnotised. My father hooted with glee.
“Let’s do another one! Let’s do another one!” he pleaded.
The two boys ran back to the hen house for another chicken. And another. And another. Before long the hen house was empty, and the front porch was filled with 70 or so dead-silent, stark-still chickens straddling chalk lines, beaks seemingly glued to the porch.
It’s a charming story of tomfoolery that gets even funnier when the aunt and uncle return home with the Scottish Presbyterian minister, who thought that the boys had missed church because they were ill. Embarrassed by his son’s deception, the father bounded onto the porch and place-kicked chicken after chicken back into consciousness, feathers, clucking, and cursing filling the air. But it’s a subversive story because it challenges us to consider the degree to which we too have been mesmerized by the prevailing culture. Mackenzie makes the point:
The same thing that happened to those chickens can happend to you. When you join an organisation, you are, without fail, taken by the back of the neck and pushed down and down until your beak is on a line—not a chalk line, but a company line. And the company line says things like, “This is our history. This is our philosophy. These are our procedures. These are our policies. This is simply the way we are.”
How easy it is for the church to be pushed down by our host culture—pushed down to the chalk line and made to embrace the philosophies, procedures, and politics of that empire. To continue with Mackenzie’s imagery, the wonderful thing that the dangerous stories of Jesus does is to place-kick us off the porch, to snap us back to consciousness and remind us of reality.
Michael Frost, Exiles: Living Missionally in a Post-Christian Culture, p. 52-53.
It is fascinating not only to see how people come to tow the corporate line, but also how in doing so they can also fail to operate by the very values they are claiming to promote. An org I worked with promoted a program which was designed to create empathy in children. Stories of how children had learned to stick up for the underdog on the playground were proudly told at promotional meetings.
Fast forward – I see an incident in which there is a process to generate feedback in creating a healthy and equitable workplace, and one employee is left out of a significant meeting. I told my supervisor that I did not think this was right, and she told me (and this is the very same supervisor who is in charge of the empathy program) that the woman being left out was perfectly appropriate because her position is casual. The incongruity of it all was totally missed.
I wonder how many times I’ve participated in holding someone down by the back of the neck in my own loyalty to the organization. Gack … that’s depressing.
I just figured out why this story sounded so familiar…
Wendy snagged my copy of Exiles when it arrived last week, and the unwritten but completely lethal rule in our house re: books is — first come, first serve, and don’t touch it till I’m done.
But she told me this story a couple of days ago; I guess great minds notice the same things.
It’s a relief, really. I thought I was having the mother-of-all deja vu’s…