In high school, I was rejected from National Honor Society. There were two of us that didn’t make it that year, at our small international school in Nairobi and it was embarrassing because everyone knew it. One by one we were called in by the lead teacher advisors, and I don’t think either of us were expecting a no after the tenuous application process of service hours, references, grades, and clear records. There was no actual reason we didn’t get in; it was handled as a very private club at that particular institution and I suppose the exclusionary tendencies of that chapter added to the prestige. The initial shame and the awkward feeling subsided but I didn’t reapply the next year. I was surprised to find out upon my return to the United States for college that NHS was somewhat of a joke. Everything was so serious in my small, first-born-heavy, competitive school in Kenya but NHS, evidently, was a given line on most anyone’s high school resume that cared in the US. And what is a high school resume anyway? And how did we have NHS is Kenya? As a college freshmen, I learned the system here was completely different from what I had experienced and I was glad I hadn’t dedicated more energy to becoming an NHS inductee. Today it’s a funny story.
I have since experienced a few other more stinging rejections. With the pain has been the grace to see an idolatry of rules and my naive confidence in the powers that be. There always seems to be an invitation in the hurt.
A year ago today, I was fired for breaking a rule. It is an ill-advised rule in the non-profit world, but nonetheless it was a rule. I thought I had acted within the bounds of this particular rule but it turns out that the rule makers decide both the rules and their application in this mini-world. And when a rule is written from fear or to preserve privilege, those boundaries are very snug.
Had I still been employed by them, I would’ve added a lot of value to the organization this past year and had some exciting plans to do so. I did my best to still hold my head up and contribute to our shared community but my time was split with my new job. And my name is a trigger for some people. (What a unique growing opportunity to run into people who fired you on a regular basis!) I did add a lot of value to the organization the 11 years leading up to my abrupt termination. But fear didn’t take that into account. Fear is a reflex and it is often well-cushioned by rule-followers. When a group of remote men felt threatened, armed with a springy rule, their cushion delivered.
I am a rule-follower by nature but, in that case, I was following different rules, and I didn’t anticipate the adversarial nature of them; I thought our rule books were all overlapping to some degree. I found out that a whole new manual was in play, and no one was ready to challenge it. Even going through that personal blow, I still underestimate the muscle memory of the obedient cushion–obedience through silence or enforcement. I still am startled by the unexamined rule-following, in myself and others.
Today, on this one-year anniversary of my little drama in this little organization, the idolatry of the rules continues to terrorize on a much larger scale.
Rules are very easily written by those with power and privilege. In our country, I think it would be more apt if the affluent were to say on their money (because nearly all of it is theirs) “In Rules We Trust,” because they wrote them. With their money. And for the most part, the white majority, whether they are affluent or not, enjoy their privilege through a naivety that lends itself to a wonderful trust and elevation of the rules, thereby becoming the cushion: a very important part of the rule book.
I grew up identifying with the “white” majority. My friends and I would laugh about forgetting that I was adopted from Korea and thus look quite Korean. I have to grapple with the shame, fragility, and responsibility that I recognize and look for in my white peers because, if I am truthful, I was raised white and was afforded many of the privileges that white culture enjoys. And much of the absence of an ethnic identity that white people suffer.
As the cushion to the rules, there is an automatic inherited blindness to the biases and lack of nuances in the rule book. There is incredible faith put into the design of the rules because they have never caused the majority group harm, and a lack of nuance or a presence of bias hasn’t ever been deprecating, only affirming. There is no felt need to examine the rules, to call their roots suspect, because the system works for the cushion and the powers that be reassure the cushion that they know best and respect of the rules and the rule makers is respect of God.
Power corrupts but relationships agitate the arrangement. Relationships have the power to replace myth with truth. And we love a God of relationship and truth; that nature is in our being. We are a people designed for relationship, capable of relationship. While our country’s history has organized relationship around whiteness or non-whiteness, simply in order to create a white majority, this was never part of human identity and certainly not part of our fundamental human social experience. Our man-made system is rooted in a quest for hierarchy, which might bother us if we’ve spent time reading about Jesus. When our relationship with Jesus has agitated our arrangement with whiteness.
If this American type of organizational system looks strange for a moment under the light of that relationship, we can look at the rule system differently. We think, why have the rules been made by affluent white men? And why is the cushion made up of so many white people that aren’t necessarily benefiting from the rule book? Why are so many people not at the table? What myths am I carrying and why? Why am I part of the cushion if I don’t even fundamentally, theologically agree with the way the system was set up?
If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality. -Desmond Tutu
Relationships are easier and harder than ever. But if not us, if not people who believe in a relational God, who is up the task? We claim to interpret and know a text that is thousands of years old but then we act in the public square as though we are incapable of nuance, social patience, contextualization, and history. For too long the white Christian has sustained the white power. For too long the white Christian has bowed at the alter of a rule book, accepting an ordination of being a law-abiding, privilege-wielding cushion. Our job, whatever ethnicity we are but especially those of us who have identified with the one that’s held the mic, is not to propel rules that separate and preach the gospel of the Rule but to call to the forefront a Gospel of Love, even when, no, especially when it is in contradiction to the Rule. We have been ordained not with a doctrine of rules but of relationship. Of every knee, of every child, of every bowed head.
Relationships will wreck our idolatry of rules. Relationships with people who survived extreme peril to come to a foreign land with nothing, promised a job under the table, who dutifully pay their taxes, and bear the stigma because of their personal code of surviving, of giving their children a life without explicit death threats. Relationships with people who pay tickets they don’t deserve, endure unjust searching and trauma, not called for a job interview until they change their name into a more white-sounding name, and don’t cross into certain neighborhoods for fear of their lives. Relationships with people who have completely different standards of parenting, diet, church and finances but are void of the negative associations of all those differences you’ve carried all your life. The implicit biases get shaken, and the explicit rules get reexamined. This is the salvation of relationships. We are so lost, clinging to our tattered, old rule books. Our arms are to be filled with each other.
Sometimes the rules don’t serve relationship in any fashion but protect the privilege of the powerful, the corruption of the system. Sometimes the problem isn’t breaking the rules but the rules themselves. Sometimes we forget in our autopilot faith in the rules that there is no neutral, and we live by a different code. We forget a faithful vigilance to the rule of Love. I believe in our designed ability to discern this. I believe in the power of relationships to overturn fear, to deflate cushions, and to rewrite right rules. I believe they are us and we are them, and the rules and the system have terrorized our relationships enough.
Love and strength to all those in these holy trenches of discernment… for what it’s worth from an NHS benchwarmer and a Christian org reject, a recovering rule follower.