Thursday, August 29, 2019

Rules Were Made to Be...wait...Why Were Rules Made?

Over the summer  my son started riding in the front seat of the car.  "Back in my day," this wasn't a big deal.  I've been riding in the front seat since before I can remember, and I clearly remember the complex restraining system that deployed in case of accident or sudden stop.

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Like this, only no seat belts.
At the time my mom drove a 1969 Charger.  It had lap belts, but we almost never used them.  I also remember some kind of shoulder belt on the inside of the roof over the door, but I never knew how to use it (because I couldn't find anything for that one to clip into).  Those were the days.  They'd toss a crib mattress in the back seat, pile us in on top of it, and head for South Carolina to visit my grandmother.

And I lived to tell the tale.

Child safety equipment has changed a little in the years since.  Car seats (I didn't have one that I can remember).  Booster seats (those were only in restaurants when I was little).  Seatbelt positioners.  Backward facing.  Forward facing.  Latch.  And of course accompanying rules, which include keeping your kids in the back seat as long as possible because it is safer than the front.

So for a number of years prior to this summer we had a "driving Miss Daisy" situation going on.  We talked about things like how school went, but since he was sitting directly behind me we had to talk a little louder than was normal or comfortable.  I never realized during that time how much that served to limit conversation.  No, I didn't realize it until he moved to the front seat when...shall we say, uninhibited conversation...began.  This may come as a shock to you, but I'm something of a talker, and this kid is definitely my son.

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Usually I'm the guy third from the left.
To be fair, most of the time it's not just idle chatter from him and dad jokes from me (which is what you were thinking, I know).  Actually we've had some pretty deep conversations.  Usually they begin with what seems like a simple question, but when you really start trying to answer you find out simple questions with simple answers are few and far between in the world of a middle schooler.

We were on our way to school earlier this week when he asked me, "Dad, why do we follow rules?"  Something in his tone let me know he wasn't going to be ok with the first thing that came to mind, which was, "Because I said so."

"A lot of rules exist to keep you safe."  Seems true enough.  In fact, most of the rules he has experienced to this point in his life in some way or another relate to his safety.  For example, he is just now riding in the front seat because of rules aimed at keeping him safe in the event of an accident.  I felt like I was on pretty solid ground with this until he pointed out that some rules aren't about safety.  Like when they play music in the lunchroom and say you can't talk while the music is playing.

"Well, sure.  That rule is in place so that you'll eat, because if it weren't a rule you'd just talk through lunch, throw your food away, and be worthless for the afternoon because you're hungry."  But he was right.  That rule isn't about safety.  It's about behavior modification.  And we have a lot of rules built around the concept of behavior modification.  We want to encourage a particular set of habits, so we use rules to incentivize the desired behavior...or disincentivize the undesired behavior.  Often rules are combined with consequences for maximum effect.

Some rules exist in the interest of fair play or leveling the playing field.  If someone has a disadvantage, one way to correct it is to create a set of rules that will correct it.  A goodly number of our laws exist for this reason.  Think about the Americans with Disabilities Act, for example.

And sometimes rules serve no other purpose than creating the game itself.  Like when my brother and I were bored when we were younger.  Any floor can be turned into a playing field, and any object can be fashioned into the instruments of a game by the simple addition of rules.  ESPN actually made a funny commercial about this truth years ago.  [Editor's Note: If you go looking for those commercials on YouTube, you'll find hundreds of funny Sportscenter commercials, but you may not find those particular ones...either way you'll waste a lot of time over there.  You've been warned.]

Enjoy.

Of course rules can be used for ill as well.  The laws that supported slavery, or Jim Crow laws, or red line laws, or voter ID laws, all of which serve to tilt the playing field in favor of the already-privileged.

None of which really answers Wesley's question, which wasn't "Why are there rules?" but was actually, "Why do we follow rules?"  And that's an even trickier question.

I'm not one for absolutes, so I can't say for certain, but as I think about it most of the time we follow rules because of the consequences for not following them.  If you talk while the music is playing in the cafeteria you have to go sit at a certain table.  If you quack at the principal, you have to write "I will not quack at the principal." on the chalkboard.  And even if there aren't physical consequences like these, there are nevertheless consequences.  If you violate the rules of honesty, people will no longer trust your character.  This is true even if the rules aren't fair or just.  If you violate the rules of "normal social behavior," you're likely to get laughed at, cast out, or bullied.

There are, of course, times when we choose not to obey rules on principle.  Civil disobedience.  Rosa Parks.  We make this choice when the consequence of breaking the rule is overshadowed by our need to challenge the rule.  That requires a special kind of courage.

The Bible sets out rules too.  Why do we follow them?  Is it because we're afraid of the consequences if we don't?  Sometimes I feel like that's where the legalists are.  If we don't follow the rules as written we will be condemned or lose favor with God.  But if that's true, then the whole exercise of faith is nothing more than celestial fire insurance.  I'm not sure that's what God had in mind.

And then Jesus comes along.  You'd think if following the letter of Biblical law to avoid eternal damnation was the way to go Jesus would have carefully observed every law.  But that's not what happened at all.  Jesus broke laws all the dang time.

Not speeding laws.  I'm sure he kept his donkey under 25mph in the school zones.  He broke laws of exclusion, both religious and societal.  He openly challenged people who would use God's law to marginalize others.  And he told us why.  According to Jesus, all of the laws and prophets can be summed up simply: love God, love neighbor, love self. 

Life isn't a game with a score that determines whether you head upstairs or down.  It's a journey on which we choose to love or not to love.  As a Christian, I seek to follow the simple rules of Jesus.  Not because I'm afraid of hell.  I follow them because I believe the way of love is the way of Christ which is the way of God.


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