Signs of confusion

Text: Mark 2 (Jesus bends the rules)

One of my work colleagues in the 1990’s was a man named Aubrey from Trinidad. One day at lunch, he compared driving in Trinidad with driving in Toronto. In Trinidad, he said, there were virtually no rules, while in Toronto there seemed to be nothing but rules.

The proliferation of signs on the streets in downtown Toronto exhausted him. How was one to drive, he asked, and also take in all the information conveyed by the signs? “Left lane must exit;” “No parking 7-9 am, Mon-Fri;” “30 KM when lights flashing;” “Seasonal parking ban;” and on and on. Reading all these signs left him with little attention to the task of driving!

Ten years later, I thought of Aubrey when I read about a traffic experiment in Europe. Several towns in Holland and Germany removed all signs and let cars, bicycles, and pedestrians co-exist without rules. The initial reports said that accidents were down as vehicles and people found ways to get along.

I suppose we can’t get rid of all rules. It would be disastrous if we felt free to travel north on Highway 2 on the western lanes as well as the eastern ones. Traffic might be permanently gridlocked if there were no lights at major intersections. But there are probably cases where we could benefit from fewer traffic signs and rules.

Jesus is not keen on rules. In the stories we heard this morning he breaks several of them. He befriends tax collectors and other so-called sinners; he doesn’t fast; and he doesn’t chastise his friends when they gather food on the Sabbath. In all these instances, Jesus turns his back on the religious rules of his time. For Jesus, the path of faith, hope and love is not about maintaining ritual purity. It is about putting the needs of suffering people first.

He does maintain one rule ā€“ to love one’s neighbour as oneself (Mark 12). Jesus suggests that if we focus on Love, the other details will fall into place.

This year, there is a lot of talk about changing rules in relationships between men and women. The #metoo movement is challenging the power balance between men and women, particularly in the workplace. Whereas in the past, women often had to live with sexist comments, harassment, and discrimination at work, they now have a better chance to be heard when they speak against such phenomena and when they try to stop men who abuse their power.

The movement tries to stop sexual assault, harassment, and discrimination. But it goes beyond this. It also challenges the ways in which men and women relate to one another in the private sphere.

One hundred years ago, the rules for men and women were different. Women were not considered legal persons and they could not vote or own property. Children were owned by their fathers and wives were owned by their husbands. The public sphere was for men only. The private sphere was marked by sharp gender roles with many male privileges.

Economic, cultural, and ideological forces have challenged all this; and many of us applaud the changes. But this year, some have raised alarm about the extent of the changes promoted by #metoo activists. Some wonder if there is still room for romance, courtship, and friendliness between men and women.

They worry that a range of gestures and comments used by generations of men when pursuing women are now under threat. They wonder if men will have room to breathe in a #metoo world.

I applaud the discussions opened up by #metoo, #timesup, and other feminist initiatives. Not only do they help make life safer for women. They also help us to create relationships and families that are closer to our values of liberty and love.

It is clear that women gain when family life is less oppressive and more egalitarian. But can men also gain from such relationships?

In a less sexist world, men do more childcare, housework, and emotional labour. In more equal relationships, we focus not only on our own comfort and pleasure but also on those of our partners; and some might consider these to be losses.

But the benefits outweigh any perceived losses, I believe.

Relationships that strive for mutuality, respect, and equality offer more scope to know not only one’s partner but also one’s self. Egalitarian relationships might involve more work for men, but they offer vastly greater possibilities for spiritual growth for both men and women than do traditional ones.

I can understand the appeal of more traditional relationships. It might seem easier to be a follower than a fellow pilgrim. It might seem easier to obey than to create. It might seem easier to be a slave than an independent agent.

Perhaps this is why many people ā€“ both men and women — yearn for the “good old days” where kings were revered and husbands lorded it over wives.

Jesus presents us with a better path. Instead of slavishly following earthly kings, he says God’s kingdom is within us. He calls us to live as though God’s reign was already here on earth as it is in heaven. While this may not be completely true, journeying with fellow pilgrims who see Christ in one another opens us up to God’s eternal Love right here and now.

In a similar way, the #metoo and #timesup movements encourage us to create relationships and families marked by equality and mutual respect. They do so even though the forces that have weakened patriarchy over the last 200 years have not yet eradicated sexism in every heart and workplace.

But even though there is a lot of progress still to be made, living as though patriarchy is a relic of the past helps us to experience more love in families and relationships right here and now.

Critics suggest that a new set of feminist rules is being created that will be as oppressive as patriarchy. But for me, the feminist rule is simple: focus on equality and mutual respect, and let the other details flow from that.

Two thousand years ago, Jesus preached that we should focus on love and let everything else flow from that.

When Jesus proclaimed the cardinal rule of love and disregarded other religious rituals and rules, it upset traditionalists like the Pharisees. But it lead to a spiritual movement that was vastly more appealing to ordinary people than what the traditionalists offered.

Today, more and more people are trying to create families that exhibit equality between the sexes. Some traditionalists are upset by this.

Happily, feminism is helping us create families that are vastly more appealing to many of us, both men and women, than what traditionalists offer.

The Season of Epiphany is almost over. Time’s up. The kingdom of God has come near.

And for this I say, “Thanks be to God.”

Amen.

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