I have an interesting relationship with rules. By my nature, I am not adversarial or oppositional. I am basically a nice, lovable nerd. But I also dislike the nature of rules…especially when rules are used as a proxy for power. I will willingly adhere to rules that make sense and keep my personal, communal, or societal life running smoothly. I would admittedly prefer for no one to be in my business about the aforementioned rules, simply allowing me the respect of good citizenship. If rules are arbitrary, ill conceived, or meant to create or maintain the power and privilege of any group or person over another…well, that is an entirely different story. That is when my relationship with rules tends to shift. I become a rule breaker, a rule shaker, and someone who will, in a heartbeat, follow her own unruly rules first. I would rather ask forgiveness than permission.
Given that this is who I am, and that I am curating media along this theme for this week’s Who is My Neighbor blog for my faith community, there are more than a few stories that come to mind. Today, I will reflect on two simultaneous events where leaving some rules in the dust provided me unexpected sustenance for my lifelong journey.
I was studying as a pre-med student at a conservative Christian College that I first attended after high school. I was following the academic rules, taking a series of required courses in my major, along with core courses that included “Biblical Literature” and “Christian Ethics.” My first year, I went to mandatory chapel every day, like a good rule follower. I had an assigned seat, which I sat in, and attendance taking was loosely enforced by a woman a few years older than I was who also turned a blind eye when I occasionally read a book or wrote a letter when the topic or sermon of the day was less appealing. I was still a good girl that year, with a steadily growing inner frustration related to the wielding of power and privilege between groups both in that community and in the larger world around me.
It was the first semester of my sophomore year when things began to change. I had shifted my major from pre-med to social work. I had finished my first year pre-reqs in biblical history and moved on to Christian Ethics. I was sitting in the dining hall with people who started the amnesty international chapter and squished up garbanzo beans from the salad bar to make hummus on days where there wasn’t a vegetarian option. We were radicals in that world. I had an assigned seat in chapel in front of the Dean for Academic Affairs who took attendance on a clipboard. Every day.
In retrospect, I would soon have a profound parting of ways with my Christian faith tradition, although I was completely unaware of that in the moment I am writing about today. What is even more radical and grace-filled is the fact that eventually I came back.
I was assigned Carol Gilligan’s In a Different Voice in my social work class. This seeped into my core and hit a place of resonance as I struggled during this formative time of emerging adulthood as a strong woman with tendencies toward leadership but no self-confidence. The book set me off into the library stacks where I sat one afternoon with a pile of feminist classics around me just seeping in a different kind of learning, steeping like a tea bag in the words of the women who would come to feel like my feminist mothers. In the stacks, I picked up Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza’s In Memory of Her which was only a few years post-publication at that time. I teared up as she named something I had felt since my youth in the exclusively male God-language in which I had been raised. I suddenly knew what I would be writing about for my upcoming Christian Ethics term paper. My typewriter and I had a busy and enlightening semester together.
Two things happened in fairly close proximity to each other relevant to my relationship with “the rules.” The first was that my ethics paper was returned to me with an “A” grade along with a personal note from the instructor that he disagreed with my position but could not fault my logic; I had given him reason to think differently. The ink on that grade was barely dried when my instructor called me out. “Ms. Kye, would you open today’s class in prayer for us, please.” He tossed me bait, and I took it. I opened the class in prayer using full on inclusive God-language even though my voice was trembling and my stomach was filled with butterflies. The class debate centered on the role of women in the Christian church and I realized that while my logical arguments were rock-solid and my spirit felt free for the first time, I was clearly in the minority amid my assertions that gender inclusive God-language was essential to contemporary Christian theology. In fact, a couple loud and powerful men in the class literally told me to sit down and mind my place when the words of my prayer made them uncomfortable. They chuckled in a way that I now recognize people with social power do when they feel like the status quo might shift against them if they don’t choke down on the rules. I continued to voice the logical arguments set forth in my paper. They guys decided to let their inner 19 year olds rule the day by reverting to “fat” insults aimed indirectly at me when they didn’t have a logical point left to argue. There was no point in responding to something without any intellectual merit and my instructor wisely closed down the discussion and moved on to the day’s lecture. After class, I slumped off to chapel to take my assigned seat.
I flipped down my assigned auditorium seat, near the front of the John and Charles Wesley Chapel, and was dutifully marked present. Rule follower. I whipped open my Schüssler Fiorenza book and read for a few minutes before the service began. My shoulder was tapped, “No reading during chapel,” reminded my administrative chapel monitor. I sighed and put it away. Rule follower. We sang a hymn, we prayed, and some other white man whose name I still cannot recall stood up to preach a sermon that probably made the guys in my Ethics class grin from ear to ear. It was a message against the ordination of women. At one point, there was a theological misattribution of scripture regarding the role of women in the church, misattributing references to prove a position steeped in male privilege. The speaker concluded that in the bible Jesus said, “women have a role in the church but it is to be seen and not heard.” Apparently, I had steeped myself in the tea of feminism long enough to have gotten it under my skin and into my backbone. The quiet, round, nerdy sophomore had had enough, and particularly when scholarly mistakes were tossed about as truth in order to preserve privilege. I stood up and announced, clearly and looking directly at the Academic Dean, “Well, that isn’t actually anything Jesus said, but this woman has seen and heard enough.” And I walked out.
This act of grandiosity and my subsequent refusal to attend chapel in my assigned seat landed me on academic probation all year. I actually went to chapel of my own intention sometimes, but would sit in the visitor section in the back rather than in my assigned seat. This was not a popular stand, and I secured myself outcast status, except sometimes among my hummus-making dining hall companions. Even my dorm mates shunned me, preferring not to upset an angry, male version of divine authority. I spent lots of time in the library stacks with my feminist mothers. I also learned about civil disobedience. I took on the role of social worker, advocate and feminist and embraced both my body image and my academic nerd status. I learned how to be unassuming, but inwardly powerful. I learned to follow different rules, and I follow them with integrity to this day.
And so, when I spend time reflecting on today’s gospel lesson and media, I think Jesus has something to say about all this. Advancing oneself by means of dishonest wealth may be seen as the way in which we build (or retain) power by aligning ourselves with privilege and comfort. Serving the divine in all persons means making choices to follow the “unruly rules” that speak to the heart of justice, inclusion, and radical compassion towards all the children of God, including ourselves. If we can learn to see our neighbors through the same lens as we are seen and loved by God, we would have very little need for rigid rules, dogma, or policies that control. Try the thought of that world on for size. It will give you a glimpse into the Realm of God.
Written in response to Week 11 of Who is My Neighbor which I curate for St. Thomas Episcopal Church.