I have two magnets on my fridge that I particularly like. One says, "Because I'm the mother ... that's why." and the other is from Alcatraz Island, the site of the infamous maximum security prison, and it says, "Regulation #5. You are entitled to food, clothing, shelter and medical attention. Anything else you get is a privilege." I like these magnets because when I look at them, they make me feel tough and in-charge, and like I'm the boss of the house. They make me think that I'm right to want the kids to have chores, and that I'm right when I want to be stricter with them and impose consequences for every misdemeanour, and that I'm perfectly justified in demanding that they listen to me without question, and do what I say, and obey me at every turn. When I look at these magnets, I feel strong and powerful, and authoritative. These magnets are, in a sense, commandments. They are the rules of our house. You shall obey your mother. You shall be grateful for what you get. You shall work for the things that are extras.
But you know, I struggle sometimes with being this kind of rules person. You see, one of the things that’s come up in the last few months of visiting and talking with people in their 80s and 90s is that there is a distinct difference in quality in the interactions between families where the children grew up in a rules-based house and families where the children grew up in a relationship-based house. Now, I'll explain what I mean by relationship-based house in a minute, but in a rules-based house, children were taught that following the rules was the most important thing. Whether they were house rules or Bible commandments, the rules - well, they ruled. Don't question your parents, don't cause trouble, finish your food, sit up straight at the table, go to church every Sunday, sit up straight in church. We would call these families very strict, and there's no doubt that, in many cases, this way of living was a mode of survival. I know that when families are trying to get through a crisis, and just struggling to survive, that they often have to turn to the reliability and dependability of rules. When things are in chaos, we need stability and predictability. And rules offer that.
But when rules are the only things that a family, or a community, knows, that's when things can get tricky. Because when we rely only on rules, we end up treating those who are supposed to follow the rules, not as people, but as objects. As things. As things which are supposed to follow the rules, but probably aren't. A famous German Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber, called this way of relating to someone as being in an I-It interaction with them. In his original German, he called it Ich-Es. This kind of interaction with people is built solely on rule-following. We don't see the other person as an individual, or as a person like us. We see them as a rule-follower, as an "It." We don't recognize their God-given uniquenesses, we don't have compassion for their frailties, we don't think of the love that they have to share with us, we don’t overlook or forgive their infractions. We think of us, and we think of them. Buber called it an I-It interaction, but we might call it an Us-Them interaction. When we live with only rule-following as the foundation of our live, we divide the world into those who follow the rules - presumably "us" - and those who don't - "them." When my husband and I set down some rule in the house, and the kids break it, my husband and I become "us" and the kids become "them." A divide grows between us adults and them children. We're the parents, they're the kids. And we see this divide in families where the children have long been grown up and living on their own. The gap between the parents and the children that was created by a strict emphasis on rules is evident throughout the life of those families, even though they are now all adults. The parents and the children have strained relationships - everyone is still trying to live by the rules, and still treating each other as "Its" - still living with Us-Them interactions.
So, like I said, I struggle with this rules thing. Because rules clearly have their place - they establish stability, they even - when interpreted correctly - protect society. They protect the weak and vulnerable. The Ten Commandments are great examples of that - “You shall not murder” protects those who are too weak to physically protect themselves. “You shall not commit adultery,” in Israelite times, protected women who would otherwise be cast out by their husbands and made homeless. Today we might say, You shall not abuse women. “You shall not steal” protects those who have to work to support their family. “You shall not bear false witness” protects those who would otherwise be vulnerable to lies about them. “You shall not covet” protects those who can't protect their belongings without help. We can't have no rules at all - anarchy is great for the powerful and hell for the vulnerable. We need rules. But, we can't relate to people through rules alone. We can't create community or family on I-It or Us-Them, rules-based interactions alone.
But I don't think we're supposed to. I just said that the Ten Commandments protect the weak and vulnerable, but more than that, they protect relationships. At the foundation of these commandments is the idea that the reason we don't hurt people is because they are people. They are God's creation, just like we are. We don't bear false witness and lie about others because doing so is destroying the reputation of another person, not a thing, not an It. We don't steal because it would be stealing from another person, like us. We're not stealing from Its, or from things, or from "them." We're stealing from others like us, we're disrupting the relationship. Buber had a name for this relationship, too. Standing against the I-It, Ich-Es, Us-Them interaction is the I-Thou, or I-You, or, in German, the Ich-Du relationship. The I-Thou relationship is built on seeing the other as ourselves. It comes from building on relationship, actually, instead of rules. It take the gap between us and them and turns it into a "we."
This I-Thou, or "we" is the foundation of the relationship-based families that I mentioned earlier. In these families, where the children grew up where relationships were the priority, rather than rules - not that rules were abandoned - but where the love between family members was the guiding principle, these families live as "we." There is no division between the adult children and their parents - there is only love and care. They are kind to one another, and respectful of one another, and compassionate, and merciful, and forgiving. All the things that God calls us to be, when you think about it. I've seen this with my own children, actually. Those moments when I come down with the rules, when I override their feelings and their thoughts by demanding that they submit, those are the moments when I feel that they are the farthest from me. They don't see me as a person, or even as their mother who loves them - they see only a law-giver who doesn't care about them. But those moments when I approach them on the basis of our relationship - out of love and compassion, and an understanding that we all have bad days that make it hard for us to do what we're supposed to do, and with forgiveness and grace - those are the moments when we reach one another and when we live as "we" and when they can see the relationships under the rules and, interestingly, find it easier to follow those very rules.
So how do we move from I-It, Us-Them rules-based interactions to I-Thou, We, relationship-based interactions? How do we change those intrenched behaviours that may have gone on for decades? Well, we don’t. But God does. God gives us rules and commandments in order to provide stability and protect our relationships with one another. But above all, God gives us love. "For I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments." I preached on this verse a couple of months ago, and it's important enough to repeat again. God's relationship with us, God's everlasting covenant with God's people, is based most importantly on steadfast love. God is determined to have an I-Thou relationship with us. Yes, God establishes rules, but God forgives. Through Christ, God forgives us all of our rule-demanding and our rule-breaking, God forgives us when we break the commandments and when we break relationships. And God loves us, and in loving us, transforms I-It, Us-Them interactions into I-Thou relationships, where each person is a dearly loved child of God. When we trust that God’s love outlasts God’s punishments, when we allow ourselves to fall into the I-Thou relationship with God that God already has with us, the power of the love in that relationship spills over into all of our other relationships. When we feel that God loves us as persons, as individuals and not as things or Its, we can love others in the same way. Because we are God’s “Thous” - we can see others as “Thous” and God can work to transform our I-It interactions into I-Thou relationships.
So I have these two magnets on my fridge. “Because I’m the mother ... that’s why.” And “You are entitled to food, clothing, shelter and medical attention. Anything else you get is a privilege.” And they’re kind of funny, and they make me feel powerful and in-charge, but they don’t make me love my children more or make my children love me. So on our fridge I also have pictures of the children, and my husband, and our friends. Pictures of people whom God has put into our lives as living reminders of the I-Thou, I-You relationships, signs of God’s gracious love. Rules and commandments are important, but they only take us so far. Underneath them lies God’s I-Thou relationship with creation, a relationship God is calling us to and that God already shares with us. Thanks be to God. Amen.