Growing up, I learned a lot about legalism. Our family were members of the Plymouth Brethren, a dissenting fundamentalist sect which spelled hard-line in capital letters. Whatever the reasons and blessings which might have come from this group’s formation a century or so before, these seemed to have been long lost by the time I grew up within its stifling confines in the 1960’s. This was a time of change and revolution in society, which made the members even more guarded about change or dissent within their own ranks. A strong streak of Victorian morality ran through it all, ironic really, because that was never the most moral or upright of times. The legalism I experienced was based on fundamentalist bible teaching which extended to include dress code, hair length, wearing of hats for women, unacceptable social activities including cinema, entertainment and so on. I remember my Dad, (no shrinking violet himself), being yelled at on the steps of the meeting hall by a five-foot nothing member with a Yorkshire accent, holding an attaché case containing a bible big enough to kill a cat. My Dad he said, was unfit to be a member or a father because of the shortness of my sister’s skirt and his unwillingness to be corrected in allowing this. Whatever the man thought he was doing, to me as a kid, it seemed very aggressive and deeply personal.
Compliance with the rules meant inclusion and acceptance within the sect. Non-compliance could mean being ostracised (as happened to one widower who remarried too soon to an outsider), or in serious cases lead to exclusion and being asked to leave the “assembly,” as groups referred to themselves. This usually meant attending a different meeting in another town that was deemed less strict, there being a hierarchy of strictness – open, closed or exclusive – impermeable strata between which there was no communication or association. Like the Soviet and East German states of the time, most members were good at spotting modernisers, reformers or heretics and skilled at reinforcing the ideology. Underpinning it all was the overpowering fear of going to hell when you died, spelled out in graphic terms on a weekly basis. As a child this was scary stuff and very easily shackles you onto the chain gang. Looking back, it is also amazing how a group of christian people could still manage to slip meanness, gossip, cruelty and pride underneath the radar of their strict code of conduct. I never did become a member, in spite of the pressure, but when I left home I discovered that I could leave the meeting, the people and their beliefs, but they did not leave me. I was still shackled and left with a narrow, mean-spirited picture of God along with a whole range of unhealthy religion-based fears and anxieties. Maybe that’s what I’m still really recovering from.
Legalism is an attempt to gain favour with God or impress people by doing certain things or avoiding others. It might seem to be a means to become a better person and a marker of progress but it goes sour and turns into pride and self-righteousness the moment we think we’ve attained it. Jesus hated legalism and had more conflicts with the legalists of his day than any other group. Usually these were the religious leaders. He often seemed to seek conflict as he challenged them openly, deliberately flouted their rules and refused to comply with many of their required but unnecessary behaviours. His challenge ultimately led them to kill him. Jesus objection to them was that their rule-based living not only utterly distorted the image of God, but it placed emphasis on the outside or external things rather than what was going on inside our hearts which could not be fixed so easily. He illustrated this by calling some legalists of his time whitewashed tombs – clean and bright on the outside but dead and putrefying inside. Constantly he met, touched and ate with the people regarded as immoral and unclean by the legalists, because these were the people who were ready to hear what he had to say. Flawed and broken, spat out by the religious system, they were in exactly the right place to be able to receive him.
Bill W and the early founders of AA, also flawed and broken, were very influenced by the Oxford Group, a Christian organisation which shaped many of the basic practices of current 12 step fellowships – surrender, moral inventories, making restitution or amends, sharing stories, restoration of sanity, etc. A central plank of the Oxford Group’s approach to change their conduct were the four absolutes – moral standards of absolute honesty, absolute purity, absolute unselfishness and absolute love, guidelines to help determine whether a course of action was directed by God. Fortunately, Bill W could see that because these absolutes of conduct were impossible to attain, trying to follow them created an unhealthy legalistic framework that would only make recovering alcoholics feel like failures and more than likely serve to reinforce their drinking. All that was necessary was absolute honesty because this exposed any rule-based system and the flawed attempt to make ourselves seem good by following this or blaming others for our situation. Absolute honesty makes everything possible, because we are not pretending to be anything other than we are. No false self, no glittering image. With absolute honesty, each of the twelve steps works. This is true for all of us. Until we seek to be honest with ourselves, about ourselves, our progress is always going to be limited whether that is recovering from addiction or simply managing our lives and learning to grow and change. Ultimately it is honesty in accepting that it is an inside job which we can’t do ourselves, surrendering instead to a God who wants to restore us and work from the inside out.
When I limped back to God, many years after my childhood experiences, I found a lot of what I had learned still sitting on the mantelpiece waiting for me. However God does not have a checklist, eager to catch me out and punish me. I have had to unlearn this on a daily basis, challenge those distorted lessons about God, rules and regulations, claiming instead God’s love and grace. At the same time it’s also been necessary to start to deal with the loitering resentments I carried about those early years. The life and teachings of Jesus are always the corrective lens. It is never about winning approval or earning God’s love. I never can. But that is okay because it is freely and lavishly given, which is what grace is always about. There are many helpers along the way and light-bulb moments. Like the AA member who said that his higher power really liked him. What, God might actually like me?! And the picture of God in the story of The Shack powerfully counters so much of my childhood learning. In it God is shown to be “particularly fond” of each of us, without exception. God is love. Accepting this, and living a life of gratitude and surrender to this love, helps us at last to leave behind the chain gang of legalism.
Spiritual connection and engagement is not built on compliance, it’s the product of love, belonging, and vulnerability. Brené Brown
Your ego is a great technician. It cannot be creative. It goes in for methods and techniques and produces holy people who are rigid, consistent, mechanical, lifeless as intolerant of others as they are of themselves – violent people the very opposite of holiness and love. The type of spiritual people who, conscious of their spirituality then proceed to crucify the Messiah”. Anthony de Mello
Most of what I had been taught by Christian clergy was that I was created by God, but was bad because of something some chick did in the Garden of Eden, and that I should try really hard to be good so that God, who is an angry bastard, won’t punish me. Grace had nothing to do with it. I hadn’t learned about grace from the church. But I did learn about it from sober drunks who managed to stop drinking by giving their will over to the care of God and who then tried like hell to live a life according to spiritual principles. What the drunks taught me was that there was a power greater than myself who could be a source of restoration, and that higher power, it ends up, is not me. Nadia Bolz-Weber