Contrasting Interpretations of Discipline

“We will not allow for a policy of ‘anything goes’”.  So said the Chair of a plenary meeting of Anglican bishops in 2008.  There were about seven hundred bishops from around the world attending the once every decade gathering in Canterbury, England.  The plenary took place one afternoon during the three-week conference.  The topic was sexuality, specifically the issue of whether or not to  allow gay and lesbian people to be ordained, and to have their relationships blessed.  There was considerable cultural and theological disagreement among the diverse group of prelates; and the chair – a former British military officer, sought to keep a tight reign on the discussion.  “We will not allow anything goes”, he said again, intending to institute some discipline on those he clearly felt didn’t have any.  The tension level in the room, already palpable, got even more charged with fear and distrust, as he expressed his disdain for those who held a different viewpoint.

The Chair was invoking a classic understanding of discipline, which is to correct or punish behavior  which is deemed to be unacceptable.  Keep people in line, the thinking goes; don’t challenge the rules – each of which are benchmarks for efficient and effective military practice.  Anything outside of the established paradigm is regarded as “anything goes.” 

I was insulted by the British bishop’s comments.  He was implying that those of us who championed the rights of LGBT people – at every level in the church, had been coopted by the fad of the moment; that we were buffeted about by the winds of secularism.  That there were no theological or biblical roots to our position. 

There is another, quite distinct understanding of discipline, which predates the rather punitive attitude that seems to prevail in so many areas of our modern life.  The root of the word discipline is discipulus, a Latin term which refers to a student or a pupil; a disciple, if you will.  The disciples of Jesus were students and followers of his message.  He tried to invoke a level of discipline on them, not by punishing but by encouraging them to absorb his wisdom, vision and teaching. Jesus’ perspective of sin, sabbath and healing generated a passionate following, and at the same time drew the concern of various religious and political authorities who regarded Jesus’ positions as anything goes.  They contrived  ways to discipline him for his radical views and actions, and eventually succeeded in nailing him to a cross.   As a modern disciple of Jesus, I have sought to embrace Jesus’ conviction that we are all imago dei, created in the image of God; and to actively and prophetically love all of God’s creatures, which for me means to offer my full blessing on everyone.  Discipline then becomes a set of practices which reinforce the commitment to one another and can move us to a greater sense of freedom. Those are deep roots; anything but anything goes.

That said, at some level I understand the concern that many people, rooted in a cultural and theological tradition, who feel that those who are not so rooted subscribe to a morality that is defined by whatever feels good in the moment, that impulses need to be honored and acted upon– and that traditions are too ossified to be respected.  I get that – to a degree, because the secular swirl of instant gratification can sometimes generate a similar sort of disdain for those who seem, from their perspective, to be too tied to life-denying roots.

And yet the military notion of discipline seems to be getting more attention and purchase these days.  There are a growing number of forces and voices who claim that certain policy positions – transgender rights, abortion access, and what are construed (erroneously) as open borders – are misguided, if not dangerous; and are tantamount to “anything goes”.  There is a growing refusal to acknowledge that such positions have moral and theological underpinnings.    From this perspective, discipline (in the militaristic sense) then needs to be imposed; and certain behaviors need to be corrected, if not punished. The results are increasingly harsh, if not cruel; and end up accelerating the process of polarization.

More space needs to be given to the notion of discipline as a set of practices that are intended for growth – for everyone.  We need more and more people who subscribe to discipline as discipulus, disciples who commit to a process of learning – from deep and diverse cultural and religious roots, which seek to bring people together.  Discipline in this discipulus sense, can serve as a corrective to the cacophony of calls for vengeance and punishment. If we are willing to learn.



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