Lesson 13: Obedience

The Man Behind the CurtainHow in the world do you handle obedience in today’s world? Supposedly, freedom means we respect no person’s authority to tell us what to do. Yet we are continually forced to comply with the demands of the system. And we all suspect there are some Wizards of Oz back there manipulating the whole thing, even though they do not seem to be at all sure how it works. At least, there are some oligarchs making an obscene amount of money. We, however, are forced to fall in line and obey because things happen too fast and are too big for us to do otherwise.

After rather quickly writing that paragraph, a number of interactions took place that convinced me to let it stand. Assuming your forgiveness for my being so self-centered and acknowledging my friends might not be a good standard for evaluating what is going on, let me report the effect of those interactions.

I found myself exclaiming in a large group of learned friends, “It’s all fantasy. The whole economic conversation is pure fantasy. Modern technology has completely destroyed the old system that served us fairly well in the past. There is no market control, no risk for the real players, no commitment to the common good, and no moral virtue. The only conclusion I can make is that we are either on the brink of a total cultural collapse or in transition to a new kind of society.”

Chittister claims the way to that better society lies in moving from system to community. I liked the way she described this, although I had some trouble understanding what this has to do with authority. It sounded more like just basic decent decision-making to me.

I especially resonated with her statement that community implies an “unremitting readiness to admit you may be wrong.” We are back to Jesus calling for repentance in terms of rethinking all of that on which we based our lives.

She wanted to say the Benedictine Rule gives voice to leaders only when they speak for the will of God in the community. At least she wrote that we are Gospel people who should resist anything that does not sound like Gospel, even if the words are spoken by respected leaders or sacred institutions. She illustrated this with a warning that failure to do this led to the Holocaust and Inquisition. We are back to remembering the basic distrust found throughout the Bible for political and ecclesiastical leadership. After all, they executed the Son of God as an enemy of humanity.

Her bottom line seemed to be that authority resides in true community that forces me to open myself to other people and to God. It calls on me to give others a part in the decisions I make in my own life. She sees acknowledging this as a way to restore accountability and responsibility that will lead to serving one of another.

I think I am going to report the interactions I received in the past few days. They were at least enlightening for me. Most of our readers are old fashioned and direct e-mails to me personally. I am going to take the liberty to post parts of them as I assume they are sent in the spirit of participating in a conversation.

For the time being, let me note two themes that reoccur. The first is a call for decision-making being made from bottom up rather than top down. There is a general recognition that the latter has led to the entitlement and exploitation we see all around us.

The second is that the system has so entrapped the young that they have no time for coming together to share knowledge. In the drive to accumulate more and more information, the wisdom to use it well has been lost. A new responsibility falls on the elderly who have time to share their wisdom. Hmmm!

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7 Enlightened Replies

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  1. John Myers says:

    Wow, there is so much in there. As an American who morally survived the recent tumult of politics, but coming away with a sense of horror in observing the car crash, it became clear to me that answers to true issues in our society do not come from DC. They come from our local communities. Yes, we must solve issues such caring for the poor and the downtrodden, helping our brothers and sisters in need, and creating a better community. It is argued that a central government is the greater community and better positioned to do more good. History has proven this horribly wrong. We are now to a next step. In many ways, our greater society has become addicts that are blinded to the truth. I agree, this is how good people became party to the holocaust. We must look to our neighbors, the person beside us in the church pew, the man sitting on the curb as we drive by. Bottom up, not top down. This is how we serve, not rooting for a winner and assuming they’ll do it. When we serve in this way, we lay ourselves bare as described above.

    Speaking to the system that has evolved in our society and the impacts on our young, I feel we have failed them in so many ways. We have taught them the how, but not the why. The how means nothing without understanding the why. We have not taught them what this is all about, they lead empty lives and make poor choices and we just don’t do enough to change it – again, we shrug our shoulders and assume the top down will fix it. We must break our trance, we must do better.

    • paul wildman says:

      John I very much agree history has proved us horribly wrong. So what do we do about it individually and collectively? My two bob’s worth is we have to work out how to do governance differently i.e different to political majoritarian democracy etc. I very much take your point that it is a horrible mistake to believe central government is the solution. In Australia we have an ‘American’ism’ when we are talking to communities about local/country/rural/bush issues (usually jobs) ‘bring in/waiting for the cavalry’ for bring in ‘T’he Central Governments solution.

  2. Rita Yeasted says:

    I grew up in a German-American home with a father who was far more his German father than his Irish mother. He was strict, and obedience was the top virtue to be observed in our home as children. Moving into the religious community of the Sisters of Divine Providence in ’59 was an easy move in some respects. It was also German, and obedience was high on the list of preferred virtues in its Sisters. It was hard, but I did it for 25 years. Then I evolved through Vatican II and its emphasis on consensus as a mode of decision-making in community into transferring into the Sisters for Christian Community, a non-canonical community (as you know well). It was liberating and healthy for me to make the switch.

    We do not take the same vows as I did in 1960. Here is how the SFCC profile identifies our Vatican II approach to a vowed life.

    Our Commitment, Our Values
    We commit our lives to live poverty as Serving, chastity as Loving and obedience as Listening. We witness to poverty in simplicity and recognition of equality of all before God. We witness to chastity through celibate love. We witness to obedience in listening to the guidance of the Spirit. In our diverse ministries and freedom of lifestyle we are united by commitment to the Gospel values of Love, Justice, Reverence, Forgiveness, Nonviolence, Equality, Diversity, Integrity and Care for Creation.

    So I now live in a community without superiors. I am the International Communication Coordinator with another Sister from Pittsburgh, but we are never thought of as “superiors.” We are equals with a different task in the community. It was the new interpretation of obedience that I think I was most drawn to. The root of the word obey, as you probably know, is to listen:

    obey – Online Etymology Dictionary

    Online Etymology Dictionary. late 13c., from Old French obeir “obey, be obedient, do one’s duty” (12c.), from Latin obedire, oboedire “obey, be subject, serve; pay attention to, give ear,” literally “listen to,” from ob “to” (see ob-) + audire “listen, hear” (see audience).

    The hard part for me has been, How do I know that I am listening to “God” when I hear. So, after 25+ years in SFCC and more than 25 in a traditional community, I have to say that I listen to the world around me, and that is how I find God. If we believe that Jesus lives in each of us and is manifest in human relations, then I need to listen to what everyone says to me, and sort out what I can lay next to those Gospel quotations (red or black) and decide what I need to do to love and serve that person. Thus, fulfilling my vows is harder than simply asking for permission to do something or waiting for someone else to decide my life choices. It is an adult Christian mode of being in the world. It probably helps to justify my reading so many different forms of world and national news each day. I need to “listen” to that “bible” as well, what Rustum called the last book of the Bible (the daily newspaper). That we are losing them daily is worrisome. So I subscribe to five (just signed up for the Guardian yesterday).

    And that’s a very long answer to a short question: How do we practice obedience in the modern world? Whom do we obey? I guess if I am tuned to the Spirit, I’ll know whom to listen to. At least I hope so. Love, Rita

    • paul wildman says:

      Thank you Sister Rita, as a personal aside when i read Fritz’s introduction at first i read it as ‘the wow her modern order takes’!! and reading above (with no Superiors etc. I do say ‘wow what a vow’) thx for the explanation. All the best with your Guardian. ciao paul

  3. Paul Wildman says:

    At 67 I find myself (along with my wife) as having left all ‘fraternal organisations’ in the past year that we had been involved in for a decade or so. All in all I have left a half dozen of these. And the surprising thing is that so have basically all of our friends. This makes a challenge for me to find out why? Yet These folks are all committed to social justice as you say below. So how come? I don’t have all the answers I can respond from my perspective. For my generation (now retired), its not the radical individuality of technology although for younger folks this is an issue, rather it’s the lack of sophistication in governance of formal NGO’s

    For us it was the difficulty of the default governance structure they all adopted – hierarchical majoritarian democracy i.e. top-down non equalitarian participation. For me they have not stepped beyond the sort of politics we see in the US elections and so forth – writ small of course. I have been unable to have ‘governance’ as an agenda item included in any of the groups I have left. We need a better form of governance community groups are ever to re-attract, capable, intelligent, committed, strategically capable, middle class people otherwise we just leave in droves as we get older as we have lived with top down decision-making for all our lives.

    Where Putman comes in I reckon is that there are no ‘feeder lanes’s’ for membership left. The young folks who would have become members are into this ‘radical individuality’ that he speaks of from technology. In Australia this basically has killed off the mainstream churches and left them as massive welfare corporations.

    Putman must have considered this issue as for me it is a, if not ‘T’he, underlying issue to the decline in membership of NGO’s that he speaks of. Certainly for my wife and I and several of our friends it is. (we have made a task to ask all of them over the past year how come i.e. how come they have left these NGO/Community Groups – as we realised they all had once we had so to speak – we didn’t ‘see’ it till then).

    Ciao paul
    PS for me a system of governance that I sought, unsuccessfully, to bring in to the local Men’s Shed is Sociocracy http://www.sociocracy.info/about-sociocracy/what-is-sociocracy/ ; I have studied and practiced this for some years + there are many other options demarchy, direct democracy and so forth

  4. Concordia Hoffmann says:

    What about the authority of each gift that every member of a community supposedly has?

    • paul wildman says:

      Indeed Concordia good point – something possibly for Fritz to consider for forthcoming Lessons. i.e. 1 discovering (y)our gifts, 2 using them and 3 spreading the good news.

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