by Winona Winkler Wendth
Is obedience a condition, a state of mind? Or is it one end of a transaction? How do obedience and rule-following work together in one’s spiritual life? Here are some thoughts about rules, about laws, codes, and systems, what they ask of us, what makes them work, and what makes them stand in the way of a mature, caring life.
Regulations work best when they organize a motley group of people and activate them toward meeting a determined outcome, usually material production or economic sustainability. One of our best and earliest examples is King Hammurabi’s civil—not religious—code, distributed about Babylonia about eighteen hundred years before Christ. Unlike the earlier Levitical Law, Hammurabi’s Code—“an eye for an eye”—was developed to keep the operations of the community running smoothly, not to keep it pure or to set the community apart from others as we are told was the case in the the Old Testament; Hammurabi’s code made no attempt to explain or to rationalize or to ground its parts in justice as we understand the word today, but in justice as punishment.
The code, carved in steles that resembled raised index fingers, a universal human gesture of “Listen to me . . . ” was not a morale builder, but was an early attempt at a kind of democracy. The code extended beyond the “eye for an eye” part and included minimum wages and compensation. Not only were workers paid according to law, but so were their bosses, and their boss’s bosses, clear up the ladder to the executive team—in this case, a few people this side of the King. This early system worked well enough. Those who disrupted society were predictably punished (sometimes gruesomely). So, government was more or less a transactional project, as the Old Testament’s religious codes were, albeit in the service of a national management, rather than a spiritual guidance program: “You do this, and we’ll do that; you don’t do this, or do the wrong thing, and we’ll do something in return. You can count on it.” The security here is in predictability. Most of us want that.
Many of us still live a spiritual life based on a transactional, punishment and reward system, even though most of us deny that. We sometimes forget that Jesus up-ended and disassembled those ancient codes, from the earlier Hebrews’ through the Sumerians’ and Babylonians’ attempts to keep people in order. Jesus also brought us a notion of an equitable respect that rose above the “us versus them” ideas of human value, a message of equality that rose above Hammurabi’s minimum wage.
The Christian message also reconstitutes our notions of purity and removes judgment from the materiality of human beings. It redefines justice and emphasizes not punition but the rebalancing of our habits and relationships. Jesus also re-defined civil codes—rules of management—to emphasize love, empathy, and compassion. These are messy concepts for a well-run operation. But Jesus gave us a new and compelling understanding of how to work and live with one another, however unpredictable and financially costly. He eliminated the transactional nature of our relationships to one another, independently and corporately.
In between Moses and Hammurabi of the ancient world and Jesus’ new order, however, we have a legendary discussion between two Rabbis, Rabbi Sammai and Rabbi Hillel, that seems to have foreshadowed Jesus’ commandment to “Love one another”—the non-transactional foundation of Christian life. Rabbi Hillel died only a decade or so after Jesus was born, so, possibly, Jesus grew up with Hillel’s admonitions. That discussion, an argument colored by personal and cultural differences, is between Rabbi Shammai, a former engineer, and Rabbi Hillel, born to a wealthy family who had relinquished material resources to be a woodcutter and live among those less fortunate. The story comes from The Talmud and goes this way:
“A gentile came to Shammai saying that he would convert to Judaism if Shammai could teach him the whole Torah in the time that he could stand on one foot. Shammai drove him away with a builder’s measuring stick! Hillel, on the other hand, converted the gentile by telling him, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary. Go and study it.”
What is compelling in this story is the outcome that is at stake: converting a gentile, not finding a way to secure one’s own place in the community or in Heaven—not “What must I do to be saved?” but what does someone else need to know to belong to our family? Rabbi Shammai assumed that teaching his notion of being a good Jew, knowing the Torah by every jot and tittle and presenting it while standing on one foot was impossibly silly—how can one be obedient to the law if he doesn’t know it? The man who worked hardest for his place in Life argued the most vociferously for others to work hard, too, and he couldn’t be bothered with anyone else. However, the rabbi who knew that comfort and contentment is not always a result of hard work and is sometimes simply one of life’s gifts was most able to live outside of the transactional system of laws and obedience. He won the gentile over—an inchoate example of grace.
We are always in the business of converting others—not by proof texts or hermeneutics, not by injunctions whose primary task is to ensure that the system is running smoothly. We convert to our world of knowledge, justice, and affection when we do not do to our neighbor what is hateful to us but do provide wisdom that generates mature thought and responsible social action. For readers and writers, then, that includes the ministry of intellectual and social healing. When we think of Adventists at the edges, as well as those “safely” in middle, when we consider and provide first, not what we need to tell others, but what others need to feel they belong, we do our fellow Adventists and Christians a spirit-saving service.
This is the way Adventist Today works for a broad spectrum of Adventists readers: Adventist Today considers first what others need to know before we think about what we want others to do for us. Adventists are now a pluralistic society—within and outside of the Seventh-day Adventist church, including those who are starved for news about ecclesiastical operations and those who are exhausted by them, those who need to know the good examples Adventists provide to the “outside” world, and those who are making that news and need an unvarnished idea of how it is received. Those who want to affect the system, and those who are weary and worn down by it.
The Adventist Today project is a hugely complex proposition—love is at the very least messy, and if you buy the notion that “budgets are moral documents,” love can be expensive. But it’s the only system a Christian has if have if we want to live a full and meaningful life and take the time to learn what others need to know to stay in the family.
Support Adventist Today and their projects. A gift to Adventist Today will not get your name written in stone, you will not get to raise that index finger and tell others what to do. A gift to Adventist Today will not change policy, it will not snag you books, autographed copies of the print journal (not yet, anyway), or a standing ovation when you walk into a room. It will not guarantee a place in Heaven. Or a place at the church leadership table. A small or generous gift won’t even be able to provide you with a list of people who now feel welcome or are thinking hard. You will get nothing for this, save that good feeling that you have helped support a critically important voice among present, former and wandering Adventists.
Like Rabbi Hillel, we know that we feel best when we give simply and expect little in return, which is the highest form of philanthropy. Philanthropy is the budgetary equivalence of grace: sharing for the sake of others.