I have to give credit to my son’s school. I have a suspicion that I am not going to be the most compliant parent they have ever had to deal with. The “problem” is that I do not see education as something that I pay the school to impose upon my child; I see us as working in partnership towards realising Nathan’s academic and affective goals, which means that I have a responsibility to ensure that the partnership is operating as effectively as is possible and to speak up when I think the outcomes are being jeopardised. Which is what I did last week.
I felt that the system being used to monitor discipline was deeply problematic. My contention is this: if the measure of the efficacy of the system is compliant behaviour, then the system is bound to fail at least some of its children. If the discipline system is aimed (as it should be) at nurturing loving relatedness – in other words, if one accepts that discipline ultimately stems from the heart – then one cannot use behavior as its measure. There is a famous story of a small boy who, having been commanded by his teacher to sit down, and threatened with all manner of unpleasant consequences should he refuse, responded: “I am sitting down, but inside I am standing up”. While impeccable behavior might very well be indicative of a good heart, it is also entirely possible for a child to act in socially acceptable ways but lack any understanding of why such behavior is desirable, to be an angel when adults are watching but a bully when she knows they are not. Similarly, it is possible for a young boy with a beautiful and sensitive heart but who has sensory processing issues and who thus finds himself in trouble a lot (like Nathan, which is why I was there), to come to believe he is “bad” because the system is incapable of recognising and rewarding his good heart despite the busyness that the system labels as poor discipline. The behavior a system rewards will determine what behavior is repeated, and as long as what is rewarded is mere obedience, children will measure goodness only in terms of right actions.
But good actions are not enough. Jesus spent a lot of his ministry explaining that right actions were not always indicative of a heart right with God, that one could be a “whitewashed tomb” – looking perfect on the outside but rotten within. How you relate, Jesus’s preaching suggests, and not how you behave is the measure of righteousness. In Colossians 2 and 3, Paul puts it like this:
“20 Since you died with Christ to the elemental spiritual forces of this world, why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its rules: 21 “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? 22 These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings. 23 Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.
Instead, Paul argues, we need to clothe ourselves in love and forgiveness:
“Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. 13 Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. 14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.
15 Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. 16 Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. 17 And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him”.
A code of conduct that focuses on behaviour is always susceptible to neglecting compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience, even when those who defend the system possess these noble and Christlike characteristics, simply because such a system cannot but simultaneously promote (even if inadvertently) piety, competition, disdain, and pride. When the ultimate “win” for the system is measured by behaviour modification, ultimately the system does not care whether or not there is any evidence of Christlike character (which is relational, not behavioural) at all. And we really ought to have learnt that lesson by now. History is rife with atrocities committed by Christians in the name of upholding their understanding of what God’s holy standard is. In much of the Western world we have societies torn apart by racism, homophobia, sexism, child abuse, and all manner of intolerance and cruelty – all practised under the banner of maintaining Christian values.
We need to rethink the way we understand the concept of sin. If sin is a disease, then behaviour is merely a symptom. But we have become obsessed with symptoms. And because we have made the primary indicator of sin our behaviour, we have – over the centuries since Jesus’s physical ministry – evolved a brand of Christianity that has managed to more or less completely set aside Jesus’s actual teachings on enemy love, reconciliation and forgiveness, so that now when we try to make sense of the cross theologically, we have to make the problem one of crime and punishment. “It is finished”, for most Christians today, holds no further meaning than that God’s wrath has been averted. No consideration is given to the necessity for changed hearts. It would seem blasphemous, indeed, to most Christians anyway, to suggest that what Jesus considered to have been accomplished on the cross had nothing to do with the propitiation of an angry deity and everything to do with the exposure of the injustices inherent in our violent religious and political systems, the possibility of the reconciliation of God to humanity not through violent retribution but through sacrificial forgiveness.
For Jesus, sin was not a crime that required punishment, it was a rift in a relationship between God and ourselves, and between people and other people, that needed to be restored. For Jesus, justice would not be realised through people getting what they deserved, but through the reconciliation of all to all. He contended that anybody could love the people who loved them back, but the mark of a godly person would be the love they showed towards those who they would consider their enemies, and in that way be perfect as God was perfect (Matthew 5:46-47). And so it would not be their pious behaviour that would distinguish his own disciples from the followers of other teachers, according to Jesus, but their loving relatedness. Look at how Paul – one of Jesus’s most influential followers – describes what Christian discipline looks like in the Colossians passage I quoted earlier: a heart characterised by peace, by compassion, by humility, by gentleness and kindness. By ways of relating, in other words. Not by observance of a morality code.
So it is sad to me that when we consider what it means to be righteous as Christians in the modern church, we tend to describe that righteousness in terms of right actions – adherence to man-made rules (is it not interesting that Paul, in Colossians 2, categorically denies any claim to the divine origins of these regulations?), rather than to the hearts of peace that Paul advocates. When we reduce what we think God desires of us to rigid adherence to a sometimes incomprehensible behavioural code, we make God out to be a petty, egotistical, Janus-faced tyrant: God cannot simultaneously be both the peace-loving, enemy-loving Jesus and the wrathful avenger who dashes the infants of Israel’s enemies against the rocks.
But if we dare to believe that God ‘s grand design for us goes far beyond mere obedience to a set of arbitrary laws, that Hen wishes to nurture in us hearts that love, that understand the ultimate expression of justice to be forgiveness and reconciliation, not retributive bloodshed; when we dare to believe in a God who can see that the formation of a society characterised by healthy and functional relationships requires more than simply a change in behaviour but a change in hearts – even and especially towards those whom we could and would rightfully disown – then we will begin to see how far short of God’s glory we actually fall. We will perhaps begin to comprehend how terribly insulting a picture of God our theology has painted when it depicts sin simply as bad behaviour and God’s solution at the cross as a mere matter of crude blood-justice.
I need to give credit to the management at Nathan’s school. When I made this case for reconceptualising their discipline system, much to my surprise, they heard me. I went in armed with a quite formidable array of papers from psychological and educational journals that supported my case. But I never needed to use them. I went into the meeting expecting to have to fight to make myself heard, because – much as I respect the professionalism of the school leadership – sometimes the things we defend most vehemently are the things we do because we have always done them that way. Maybe, because of how so much of my thinking tends to bring out the worst in my fellow Christians, I have come to expect opposition whenever I voice an opinion. But I misjudged them, to my shame. They heard me and I look forward to the changes they have undertaken to make.
And now I am making the same kind of case to you, dear reader, only it is not school discipline I am asking you to reconsider; it is how you think about sin and holiness. I am asking that you have the courage to imagine that God’s ultimate vision for humanity might not be for a nation of obedient servants, but instead , of a fully functional family, engaged in the altogether messy business of relating in love. It is a big ask, because it will mean that you will need to see that the theological framework you have inherited simply does not function adequately to meet that end. It is – I know because I have been there – not an easy thing to hear. But please try. Because like the discipline system at Nathan’s school, Evangelical theology might seem to work if you are the equivalent of the mild-mannered, reasonably compliant girl. But if you are like Nathan, like me, you may have already learnt that the theological vision of the modern church values behaviour modification over genuine love; it tends to value you only to the extent to which you can assimilate – hold its views, leave its doctrines unchallenged. It will leave you alone as long as you are sitting down, even if you are standing on the inside. But when you are different, it will leave you feeling like you are dirty, tainted, broken. I am standing up on behalf of the Nathans in the system, to say that it is time we reworked Christian theology so that it is better able to bring about the Kingdom Jesus envisaged, which was never intended to be an exclusive club.