There’s a song that’s been randomly coming to mind lately. It’s an old hymn. One of my favorite hymns: “Come, Thou Fount.” There are several recent arrangements of this hymn that build and swell with a steadiness throughout. Regardless of the arrangement, the words come through crystal clear.
One line has caught my imagination: “Let Thy goodness, like a fetter, bind my wandering heart to thee.”
What Binds Us?
Now, it’s a sometimes shaky business gleaning theology from hymns and sacred songs. But this one does a pretty decent job of offering a coherent theology.
The reason the line has elicited so much thought for me has to do with how I’ve been analyzing all that currently fetters — or binds — the lives of people (myself included) in our relatively affluent American society.
I examine my own belongings and find so much that I don’t really need. We have lots of extra “stuff” we seem to accumulate. Right now, my wife and I are going through another season of purge. Where does this junk come from, and why do we find ourselves getting rid of so much every few years?
From technology to a pantry or fridge full of food it seems we are fettered with so much that it’s hard to live simply.
And this line of inquiry leads me to a bigger philosophical question:
Are any of us ever truly independent?
That is to say, aren’t we all fettered to something or more than one something? Whether we realize it, or acknowledge it, or not?
I tend to think we are not as unattached as we’d like to think.
And in comes the line from the hymn: the fetter that I could allow myself to be bound by is God’s goodness. Instantly, the simplicity and profoundness of my life’s focus consumes me. God’s goodness binds me but not by force; rather by my choice in responding to the goodness of the God that Jesus called Father.
I’d say it’s good theology to assert that following Jesus does not make us independent, but it does make us free.
It’s good theology to assert that following Jesus does not make us independent, but it does make us free.
Turning the Other Cheek
What if we read Scripture through this lens of binding, fettering, attachment, dependence as being good things; at least when the thing that binds is the goodness of an uncontrolling God?
Such a practice might enable many confusing dictums, stories, letters, and passages to become clearer.
Consider the guidance Jesus gives to turn the other cheek. I have at former times considered myself a Christian pacifist. Though I’m not sure I fully understood what that meant. As the ethicist Stanley Hauerwas has said, I am too violent a person to not be a pacifist. It’s a choice of angry necessity. And that Christ should call us to turn the other cheek when we are struck is just icing on the philosophical cake.
But what if this instruction is looked at through the lens of God’s uncontrolling goodness? Might the meaning and implied practice become clearer?
I think of my three kids who are well practiced in testing the boundaries of parental authority … and the boundaries of my patience. When my now 12-year old son was a toddler, he had the occasional habit of hitting mommy or daddy … hard, because he was strong for his age! In the middle of wrestling with daddy or exerting play, I could understand this. He’s a boy after all and boys tend to be violent; we like to hit things and tear stuff down. But when he was told that such an action is not acceptable and the heat of the moment had passed, he then sometimes deliberately chose to hit.
It’s at this moment I would hear the words of Jesus: “If your brother (or son?) hits you, turn the other cheek.”
Surely, the plain sense of this command is not isolated. It can’t mean that I’m to allow my son to hit me at random without consequences. Can it?
I then remember Jesus’ greatest instructions: love God and love others. Again, the lens for viewing this command should be what I’ve chosen to be dependent on, that is, God’s goodness.
If I love God I will train my children with an understanding of authority figures, consequences for actions, obedience, and , not least of all, uncontrolling love and goodness. If I love my kids, I will shape them to embrace actions and practices that display a love of God and love of people.
Hitting people is not love.
But allowing my young son to hit at random without consequences also is not love. Love requires, not control, but discipline.
And so, when my son would deliberately hit, he would experience the consequences of disobedience: he’d get long time outs, seated still, away from the rest of the family, allowed to do nothing but sit.
After his long period of isolation, I’d hold my son and tell him I love him and reiterate to him that hitting somebody hurts that person. Then we’d hug.
At those times years ago, I certainly did not simply turn the other cheek and ignore my young son’s behavior. Instead I tried to put love of God and love of my son into concrete action by giving at least a faint expression of what God’s goodness looks like and what it should look like when we are dependent on it.
A Lens for Interpretation
What if our context for reading Scripture were the goodness of God I’ve been referring to?
So often parts of scripture are proclaimed out of context. The very scripture I’ve been discussing is used to support pacifism and yet it holds thin when applied to the parent-child relationship.
What then about war?
It seems that Christ is suggesting that whenever the relevant factors in the “cheek hitting” are injury to myself (or my family, my community, my nation, etc.) and retaliation against the injurer, then I am not to give into the anger of retaliation and heap violence on top of violence. The great instruction is not “do to others as they have done to you,” but rather “love your neighbor as you love yourself.”
Seems like there is a good deal of patience, repentance, and forgiveness wrapped up in that kind of love. Seems like a love that is full of goodness.
The turned cheek, though humiliating, is necessitated by choosing to be bound to God’s uncontrolling goodness.
God’s goodness, like a fetter, has the potential to bind our lives to a love that does not control.
That is, if we want it to.