Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | August 19, 2019

Breaking the rules

Last week I had the joy of visiting the home of Emily Dickinson, my favorite American poet. Dickinson (1830-1886) refused to adhere to the conventions and rules of writing. Her poems were so inventive that early editors changed them. They felt no one would want to read poems with strange punctuation and non-standard capitalization. It’s not as though Ms. Dickinson did not know the rules; she was an incredible scholar. She simply chose to break them. And break them she did. Beautifully. Her work has moved millions upon millions, at least partly because of her innovation.

Of course, every society has rules and social mores that help guide its members—not just regarding literature but also about many areas of living, especially living together. Are there times when rules ought to be reexamined? Are there some that should be outright replaced?

The answer to those last two questions is an unequivocal yes. Every society changes its rules and mores over time. Most groups no longer prohibit women and girls from wearing pants; laws governing marriage and divorce have changed as society has evolved; some types of discrimination that were once legal are now forbidden by both ordinance and custom.

What values are we teaching when we make hard-and-fast cultural rules? We may be making important statements about essential values. For example, the idea of sabbath rest is essential in both Jewish and Christian faith. It reflects devotion to God and releases us from the temptation for labor to be our master or idol.

Yet in the gospel, Jesus responds to critics who say that he shouldn’t heal on the sabbath because it’s work. Their criticism is understandable, isn’t it? Healing is his work.

But the Lord answered him and said, ‘You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?’ When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing. [from Luke 13]

Rules are made to be broken, when it’s for the right reason.

What are the rules in your congregation, community, state, or nation that need to be re-examined, re-evaluated, tweaked, or discarded?

Dickinson’s poetry opened up new and thrilling outlets for writers, readers, and thinkers. Jesus’ teachings opened up the realization that life and health trump religious observance. Similarly, our conversations about evolving society should not make us afraid, but hopeful.

Let’s have those conversations. They are faithful heirs to our spiritual (and even our literary) heritage.

© Melissa Bane Sevier, 2019

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