In his memoir, “Surprised by Joy,” C. S. Lewis tells the story of his experience as a boy at boarding school. It was the ordinary practice of his teachers to take turns monitoring behavior during recesses. But, at some point, the teachers asked the headmaster to try an experiment, to let the boys self-monitor on the playground. It was reasoned that the boys would work out their own ways of dealing with each other justly and fairly without the oversight of their teachers. After all, the boys were training to be good English gentlemen.
Anyone who has read William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies” or George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” will know that the experiment was doomed from the outset. Indeed, any of us could predict precisely what did happen. C. S. Lewis himself reports, “the bullies took over the playground” and the headmaster had to suspend the experiment and reinstate oversight by the teachers.
Human beings aren’t angels. And even some angels are fallen, I might add.
That’s why, of course, we have the U. S. Constitution we do as Americans. It is based on the assumption that, given the opportunity and without appropriate boundaries and countervailing forces, many human beings will act in their own short term private interests rather than for the common good. And, of course, there are some whose disruptive and even violent acts have nothing to do with the pursuit of anyone’s interests, but are purely irrational. In other words, our founders believed in the persistence of sin in creation, otherwise called “original sin.”
The similarities between the Constitution and Presbyterian polity are not just a coincidence. I don’t know if it is historically true, but, it is said, this is why some of the English called our American Revolutionary War, the Presbyterian Rebellion.
If society is to work well, there have to be agreed upon standards of behavior, predictable and fairly adjudicated consequences for bad behavior, and public officers whose vocation it is to act with integrity, courage and virtue, to stand by these standards and to insure they are appropriately and consistently applied to all. Otherwise, as C. S. Lewis observed, the bullies will take over the playground.
John Calvin, in his “Institutes of the Christian Religion” (1559), taught that the law of God is given to humanity for a threefold purpose: to show us the true path of the good in this world; to restrain the evil; and to aid the godly in their attempts to live as God wishes them to live.
Like a lot of young rebels, I once flirted with antinomianism, the idea that if we love God enough we don’t have to bother with law. I suppose that’s typical of young ministers, at least of my era. But I have played now on far too many unruly and downright dangerous playgrounds to think that the teachers can retire to their faculty break-room for tea and biscuits just yet. The bullies are always ready to take over unless constrained.
And, frankly, I’ve had it with bullies taking over the playground.
The weaponized employment of cruel and demeaning language, the ugly habit of stereotyping and name-calling especially on social media, the vulgar innuendoes that cover a multitude of sins and only encourage more brutish behavior, and the excuses given for roughing-up those who offer even the slightest opposition to whatever bully is holding forth: it isn’t right. And we know it.
Whether they come out of left field or right, whether spewing forth their self-righteous condemnation like a tent revivalist on a hot Friday night, or they’re just mad as hell and envious of everyone who has the stuff they want: none of this gives anyone permission to beat up on anyone else.
I suppose the whole pandemic thing is contributing to it. I’m worried about folks getting sick and dying. Most of us are. I’m concerned about the wives and husbands, sisters and brothers, the children, and grandchildren, who have lost and may yet lose someone precious and irreplaceable in their families. You know exactly what I am talking about. In the midst of a pandemic, the numbers aren’t just numbers, they represent human beings, human lives, human souls.
Therefore, I find myself genuinely frustrated when someone teases or taunts a person for wearing a face mask or keeping their distance, whether that someone is a professional politician ridiculing a reporter for acting “politically correct” or a group of men on a sidewalk sneering at and threatening a young woman who, herself, is unlikely to become dangerously ill, but is wearing a face mask to protect others who may be vulnerable.
Just today I learned of the experience of a private school nurse with twenty-five years of service in her school who attempted to offer medical advice to safeguard the health of the students in the school’s summer camp. In the meeting of administrators and staff to discuss reopening, each time she raised a concern about best practices and offered scientific data in support of these practices, she found herself quickly sidelined until members of the group began to jeer at her each time she spoke. She said later, “I found myself feeling smaller and smaller.”
This sort of behavior only begets more of the same, as we have all seen.
Saint Paul once observed that we Christians are free to do all sorts of things. Indeed our freedom as Christians goes way beyond the freedoms any Bill of Rights gives American citizens, although I’m pleased as punch that our U. S. Constitution was successfully amended to include ours. Saint Paul also tells us, however, that our freedom as Christians operates under the most sacred of constraints, the love of Jesus Christ.
Christianity isn’t a club (especially not the sort to beat others over the head with). It is a movement of people following Jesus of Nazareth who summarized the law of God like this: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your strength, and your neighbor as yourself.” He took that little summary right out of the holy scriptures he grew up with.
I have no intention to add to the playground maelstrom with a fist fight about the importance of the love of God. So I want to say in closing just this.
- Those of us who are called through the waters of baptism to follow Jesus Christ are responsible to live by the law of God. First and foremost, we shouldn’t be part of the problem on the playground, but part of the solution.
- We also have a duty, as Christians and as responsible members of this society, to support the rule of law that applies to everyone (yes, everyone!) and to insure that the structures (the checks and balances and legal processes) of our democratic society are not eroded by graft, greed or factionalism.
- Finally, as Christians, we have a wonderful opportunity to demonstrate what it looks like when the law of God becomes a living, active, joyful path of love, rather than just a list of do’s and don’ts.
Leonard Cohen was so right when he said that love is not a victory march, it’s a slow and very painful hallelujah. Well, hallelujah.