“B-but that’s not allowed!” my friend spluttered, recently, at some minor infringement of some not particularly important rule at work.
I pointed out that it really didn’t matter, this time, for X, Y and Z reasons. But it didn’t make him feel any better. A rule had been broken – and rules are there not to be broken. Even if the rule is obsolete or unnecessary or just plain silly – well, that isn’t the point. It’s a rule.
It got me thinking about how different people are wired differently on this one. Some delight in rule-breaking. They’re the original James Dean rebels-without-causes. They just will NOT keep off the grass. Others, like my friend, find security in the rules, and find it upsetting when the universe is found to be not quite simple.
I probably occupy the rather dull middle ground. No great rebel, I, but I don’t mind a bit of humane rulebook tearing here and there either. Particularly if it makes life happier (and no-one’s going to disapprove of me for it).
But I think I must be slightly to the rebel side of the centre, even if only because I tend to admire iconoclasts and dissenters: the courage they have to stick their heads above the parapet, to declare the emperor naked. That’s probably part of the reason why I joined the Jesus Army.
And I have to admit, I tend to be slightly contemptuous of the rulebook types, my friend notwithstanding. For those who appreciate literary references, I’d like to think of myself as more of a Jean Valjean than a Javert.
But it’s not quite as simple, of course. Radicals and rule-breakers are important, but the quieter, less “sexy” virtues of duty, discipline, obedience and loyalty have their place, too. Let’s face it, we all (rightly) looked askance at MPs who took a “flexible approach” to expenses; we didn’t cheer them for their imagination.
It’s another of those paradoxes that I can only assume God delights in since he’s scattered so many throughout existence.
We need rules; but we must not be afraid to smash them to smithereens when they become soul-killing. We need freedom and humanity, but we must be prepared to have principles – and maybe to let them inconvenience us to the point of... well, dying for them.
After all, Jesus embodies both. Having rescued the adulterous woman from stoning, he tells her “Sin no more”. “Sell all that you have” he says to the rich, young, would-be disciple in Luke 18; a chapter later, half is enough for Zacchaeus. “Give to the poor” he says, but he’s having none of it when someone protests about a prostitute’s “waste” of expensive perfume at a dinner party. As for his famous disputes with the legalistic Pharisees, he also said “Practice and observe whatever they tell you.”
Something like this paradox is explored by author and emergent postmodern guru, Peter Rollins, in his book The Fidelity of Betrayal (if I’ve understood him, at all, which I possibly haven’t in the slightest). Rollins says that true faithfulness to God includes arguing with God and provocatively suggests that Christians ought to wear wristbands inscribed with “WWJD” – standing for “What would Judas do?”
I find this paradox runs through my experience of belonging to a radical church like the Jesus Army. On the one hand, we're very cause-conscious with songs about the Jesus revolution and plenty of holy rebellion against the system in our bloodstream. On the other, we put a high premium on lifestyle and holiness and have a healthy respect for, and need of, rules.
Rebel! Do as you're told!
Confused? Me too.
Isn’t it good to live in such a fascinating universe?