Pharisitical Obedience

Policies, procedures, and handbooks. The three things that we relinquish our power of reasoning and thinking to.

“It’s the policy” and “It’s in the handbook.” Statements that end the discussion declaring that there is no room for debate. No exception to the rule, this is how it is, this is how we do it, we follow with exactness.

I have a different view on the matter. I’m not opposed to the use of policies, procedures, and handbooks to provide a standard of expectations, but I don’t think they should replace discussion, the wise use of good judgment, and thinking.

There are a lot of good reasons to teach elementary students to walk in the halls and to even make it a rule. My friend who teaches elementary teaches her students to also walk in the halls telling and then gives a scenario like this: “What if during class someone was tipping on their chair and fell over backwards and hit their head so hard that it cut it open and it started to bleed and they passed out. And what if I asked you to go to the office to get someone to help. Should you walk or run?” Most of the time they proudly say, “Walk!” Her reply, “No, you should run fast!” She’s not teaching them to look for exceptions and the loopholes so that you can get justify not following the rules. She trying to help them develop the capacity to make wise judgments and not to depend on rules and regulations to think for them. She wants her students to be agents unto themselves. Too often she sees students who are taught to be told every little thing that they should do that it cripples their development. They don’t darn make any decisions because they have been trained not to, rather they have been trained to only do as they are precisely told what do to, no questions and no expectations. She wants to break this destructive cycle and help her students to step into their potential.

They did obey and observe to perform every word of command with exactness.

Alma 57:21

There was a group of people called the Lamanites whose culture made it easy to justify the taking on another’s life. Basically, if there was a problem, the way to solve it was to kill. A subgroup of this culture woke up to the lack of moral goodness of their actions and made a promise to never take the life of another person again and to prove how serious they were, they buried all their weapons of war. It wasn’t long until their own people turned on them and came into their city declaring war. Committed to their promise, they laid down on the ground, unwilling to kill even in the defense of their own life. Many died and others risked their lives so that they could honor their commitment to never take the life of another person again. They were not going to move from their commitment no matter what.

For protection, they had to move out of their land. The Nephites, a group of people in a neighboring land-who the Lamanites had previously raged war upon, stole, and plundered-agreed to let them into their country, giving them a piece of land to build up their city, and willingly agreed to protect them. It wasn’t long until the Lamanites came into the land of the Nephites ragging war. The refugees, still committed to their promise, would not fight. They watched the Nephites fighting to protect them, providing them with food and resources, but none of the refugee men to join in the battles because of their promise to never fight again. The Nephites fought and risked their own lives so that the refugees could keep their promise. The refugees were obedient to their covenant with exactness. For them, there were no exceptions to the rule.

As the war progressed, the refugees grew uneasy with the way in which they were involved with the war efforts, realizing the great sacrifices that were being made to protect them and honor their promise to not kill, no matter what. Nephites were being killed in battle, a battle that in part was fueled by the refugees’ move into the Nephite land. They began to reason and feel that it was necessary to break their promise under the circumstances, but they were counseled not to by the Nephites. Being torn at not joining the Nephites in battle and wanting to remain true to their promise, That way they could honor their covenant and participate more actively in the war, they soon found another way to do both. They asked their sons if they would go into battle because their sons had not made the covenant not to fight and kill.

The sons of the Lamanite refugees became known as the 2,000 stripling warriors. In a letter to the chief caption Moroni, Helaman praised these young men saying:

“And now I say unto you, my beloved brother Moroni, that never had I seen so great courage, nay, not amongst all the Nephites…Now they never had fought, yet they did not fear death; and they did think more upon the liberty of their fathers than they did upon their lives; yea, they had been taught by their mothers that if they did not doubt, God would deliver them…(Alma 56:45-47.”

Having no experience or training previously, these 2,000 young men entered the battle and “fought most desperately; yea, they did administer death unto all those who opposed them…and they did obey and observe to perform every word of command with exactness (Alma 57:19,21).”

They came out victorious. Not only were they able to win each battle that they entered into, but of the entire 2,000 young men, though some of they were wounded, they all survived.

Moral of the story, obey and observe to perform every word of command with exactness? Is that the moral? Is that what this story is suggesting? Is it morally honorable to obey and observe to perform every word of command with exactness? Is that always an act of strength and wisdom? Are there no exceptions to rules?

Is it morally honorable to obey and observe to perform every word of command with exactness?

There are those who are prone to comply. Those who are willing to be obedient and do what they are asked to do giving very little thought as to what they think about the matter. They will push aside their views because they believe it is more important to obey, because they don’t trust their views, or because they want the validation of being good.

And there are those who are prone to rebel. Those who are more likely to push back and do the exact opposite of what they are told, giving very little thought as to what they think about the matter, believing that it is more important not to let anyone tell them what to do, because they don’t trust the views of others, or because they want to feel the validation of being right.

There is a strong tension between obedience and agency and this tension often exposes our immaturities, but this tension, when one is able to tolerate it, can cause significant growth in the development of your sense of self.

There are those who plead, “Tell me what to do” and others who scream, “Don’t tell me what to do.” There are those that no matter what it is you ask of them, they’ll do it. And there are those that no matter what it is you ask of them, they won’t do it. Both are immature positions. Those that comply, are typically the ones who are praised. Those that push back are typically seen as unruly. Both behaviors are destructive and neither one should be praised or encouraged.

After graduating from high school and expressing interest learning the business of home building, my dad talked with a friend of his who owned one of the largest home building companies in Utah, and got me a job. His friend wasn’t looking for an employee, but he was happy to let me help around the office and learn a little bit about the business. This job was a great opportunity for me at a key time in my life as I was starting college and making decisions as to where I wanted to focus my studies.

There was no real job description or title for my position, and when they hired me they didn’t really know what they would have me do. I started helping out with odds and end tasks that needed to be done. I was eager and willing to work. The people I worked with were very kind and encouraging and I wanted to be seen as a helpful employee and not just some high school graduate whose daddy got them a job. Whenever I was given a task, I’d jump right in and get it done. I saw myself as a great employee, willing to do what was asked of me and I was dependable. However, if there wasn’t a job assigned to me, I’d just sit and wait to be told what to do. With nearly every task I was given, I was so invested in doing it right and perfect, I would constantly ask the sectary question after question on how to do it and what to do next. Rather than developing the capacity to problem solve, I depended on others to tell me what to do whenever I’d run into something that I wasn’t sure how to do. I wanted to know the guidelines and procedures for every little detail afraid of making a mistake.

When we obey every policy, procedure, and commandment with no thought as to the value of the policy we are resorting to being an employee that sits in the corner and waits to be told what to do. When we pressure others to obey we are taking away their power, which all to often is forfeited with little resistance, and asking them to let us do the thinking for them. We exploit those who are prone to comply and justify our attaching of the marionette strings because they gave them to us so willingly and because it is for their good. Moral integrity will not take advantage of those prone to obey, but rather than pressuring them to comply they will pressure them to think decide for themselves what they feel is just, unjust, good, wrong, appropriate, or inappropriate. We are to think and act for themselves and we ought to encourage others to do the same.

Pharisitical obedience is rigidly adhering to particular actions without honestly evaluating the moral goodness and value that it creates, and doing so to been seen by others (or your own self) as good and right. It’s not an act of weakness to be obedient to a law or commandment, nor is it an act of weakness to listen and take in the teachings and wisdom from someone else, but it is not morally honorable to act without taking responsibility or thought for your actions.

In an interview with Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife, she explained the difference between discipleship and dependency:

There’s a difference between discipleship and dependency, and we often conflate the two.

Discipleship requires discipline and includes a thoughtful willingness to yield to an important principle or objective. Whereas dependency is a blind yielding that allows us to not take responsibility for ourselves. The two orientations get interchanged and misused all the time. 

To be humble is to be teachable. It’s a willingness to acknowledge what you don’t yet know.  It requires a willingness to self-correct and learn. You might master a lot of things but when you are humble you are still open to what you haven’t yet mastered or what may be wrong in your thinking.

Being humble is a function of courage. Humility is a function of strength, not of limitations. Despite developing knowledge and capacity you remain willing to let what you believe or think to be challenged, you remain willing to change your course in order to get closer to what’s true and what’s right.

The value of being humble and open is not just being moldable; it’s being moldable toward greater wisdom, knowledge, clarity, and strength. 

If you’re a humble scientist, for example, you’re willing to be discerning and willing to take a position.  And as much as you may like an idea or an explanatory theory, to get to what’s true you have to be willing to let your theories be blown apart by evidence, if need be, to make way for something more accurate or better able to account for reality. 

It takes courage to not let your ego or pre-determined ideas keep you from what’s true or right. That takes strength. In this frame, humility is absolutely a virtue and not a humiliation. 

Humility is not the absence of discernment, or the lack of a position, or decision about what you think is right. You have to be willing to discern and make judgments to be a force of good in the world. It’s just that you’re willing to course correct when needed.

When we talk about the word meekness, we confuse it with weakness and the idea that if you’re humble and meek, you will submit to anything. Aristotle talks about virtue as being the Golden Mean, and meekness, for example, is to be in the middle between extreme anger and anger-lessness. That is, to be meek is to be capable of meaningful anger but not to be in the distortion of extreme anger or anger-lessness. And somebody who is meek is able to have a meaningful response in the world, able to make decisions, able to have appropriate anger for things that aren’t right or aren’t okay. But they’re not extreme in one direction or the other, and so it allows them to keep moving forward and be a force for goodness in the world. 

It’s the same with humility. You have to be willing to take a position, to own what you think is right and yet stay open-hearted. Humility is avoiding the extreme of being closed to input and unwilling to come to truth or open to every input and therefore vulnerable.

September 17, 2019

Time writing this article: 3 hours

Total time writing on this blog: 22 hours