Rules And Hierarchies
An assembly from the Culham St Gabriel archive
Suitable for Whole School (Sec)
To look at humanist and God's views on rules and hierarchies, in biblical times and today.
Preparation and materials
- A script is provided for the assembly, but approach it in a relaxed way – a certain amount of 'ad libbing' is positively encouraged! It is intended that, as it proceeds, a 'hierarchy of power' should be illustrated on stage.
- To reflect this hierarchy, you will need three chairs – a large one, a medium one and a small one. These should be placed on the stage in a row in descending order before the assembly begins.
- You will also need a copy of the Bible and a fluffy bunny or other soft animal toy.
- Using volunteers – a teacher and student – the aim is to establish a scene that resembles not so much something from Goldilocks and the Three Bears, but that famous comedy sketch from the 1960s TV programme That Was The Week That Was, in which three suitably dressed actors, arranged in descending order of size, satirized the English class system: ‘I am middle class. I look up to him – and down on him . . .‘, etc.
- You will also need a leader and a reader.
Leader Honour your father and your mother, as the Lord your God commanded you.
Who knows where that rule comes from?
It's one of the Ten Commandments, from Deuteronomy 5:16 (NRSV), to be precise. Ultimately, God makes the rules.
Put the Bible on the large chair, to represent God being at the top of the pyramid.
To ‘honour’ one’s parents has generally been interpreted as meaning to respect and obey them. What do you think of that as a rule? Do you follow it?
The ancient society that produced this rule was one in which how good a child was viewed as being related to how much he or she pleased his or her parents. Before you start groaning at this idea, remember that, one day, some of you are going to be parents! Do you really want a child who always does the opposite of what you ask? No, of course not!
Ask your adult volunteer to sit on the medium chair, to represent the authority of adults.
Some people think that modern society is based on a new principle that is the opposite of the one we’ve just heard about from the Old Testament: parents are here to please and obey their children. Isn't it true? How many of your parents, when they sign a parental consent form, when they come to the line 'State relationship to child', secretly feel that they should write ‘servant’ or even ‘slave’?!
All societies have 'hierarchies', or 'pyramids', of power. The relationships between parents and teenagers only really became difficult in the 1950s. That's because 'teenagers' didn't exist at the beginning of the 1950s, they were a new phenomenon. If you don't believe me, ask any of your grandparents or family who were born before, say, 1955.
They'll probably remember how one of the great debates of the 1950s and 1960s was whether or not boys should be allowed to wear long trousers when they went to secondary school! This sounds really daft now, but it was based on the idea that all school pupils, whatever their age, were children and they stayed children until they left school at 15. That is because, then, they got a job and so earned the right to begin to be thought of as adults.
Short trousers were a sign that the wearer belonged to the category 'child'. The idea of being a teenager – of belonging to an in between category – just didn't exist. In the end, whatever the case, adults have power over children.
Ask the student to sit on the small chair.
It's not possible to uninvent the idea of the 'teenager' now – we are all just going to have to live with it! Since the beginning of the third millennium, however, another hierarchy of authority is being debated about. This time we have a real problem because it is the boundary between 'human' and 'animal' that has a question mark over it. That gap – between human and animal – seems to have narrowed since the discovery that we share 98 per cent of our genetic material with chimps. It sounds a lot, but we – which means you and me – also share 40 per cent with fish and 25 per cent with dandelions!
A more serious charge, for Christians, is that the Bible encourages an arrogant attitude towards the rest of creation. It's all the fault, it is claimed, of this passage.
Reader The following passage is from Genesis, chapter 1, verse 26 (NRSV):
Then God said, 'Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.
Leader Some people think that all the vile behaviour of modern human beings towards nature – cutting down forests and rainforests, polluting the sea and air, tarmacking airport runways over nature reserves, experimenting on animals, hunting endangered species and so on – can all be traced back to this one verse. They argue that it gives humans the right to do what we want with nature.
Put the fluffy bunny or other soft animal toy on the floor, next to the student on the small chair.
So, here we have our pyramid of power! God at the top, making all the rules. Then humans, though with differences in levels of power here – adults having power over children, rich over poor, masters over slaves. Then, at the bottom, animals – chimps, dogs, rabbits, birds, fish, spiders and so on.
Yet, is this really how Christians see things? Christians are meant to see things in the light of the life and words of Jesus. What did he think?
God was still certainly at the top for him, though Jesus didn't have much time for many of the supposedly important rules that the religious authorities said had to be obeyed! As for the rich, he didn't have much time for them either.
Reader The following passage is from Matthew, chapter 19, verse 23 (NRSV):
Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’
Leader What about parents and children?
Reader The following passage is from Mark, chapter 10, verses 15 to 16 (NRSV).
‘Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.’
Leader Perhaps Jesus thought that he himself should be treated with slavish respect? Not according to this account of the Last Supper.
Reader The following passage is from John, chapter 13, verses 3 to 5 (NRSV):
Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him.
Leader Here Jesus' 'power' is shown by his becoming a servant! The true ruler puts the weak and powerless first.
This overturning of hierarchies of power recurs throughout the Gospels. It is true that Jesus didn't have much to say about humanity's power over animals – it just wasn't an issue some 2,000 years ago – but would it be wrong to extend Jesus' attitude to some of the environmental problems we face today?
Would Jesus be on the side of the creation of jobs and wealth, progress . . . or would he be on the side of nature and the environment?
It's a hard question! What do you think?
Time for reflection
Think about the many people in the world who don't have power, who cannot make the rules, but simply have to obey them.
All of us know what it feels like to have to do what we are told when we don’t want to – even when it is good for us!
All of us, too, know what it is like to have power over others – even if it's only a younger child!
All of us know that, as we grow older, our power will increase – eventually, we will make the rules!
Help us, when we are in a position to make the rules – over other people and other parts of creation – to measure the way we behave by how much we can give, rather than how much we can take, like Jesus, your Son.
‘Brother, sister, let me serve you’ (Hymns Old and New (Kevin Mayhew), 91, 2008 edition)
‘Will you come and follow me’ (Hymns Old and New (Kevin Mayhew), 834, 2008 edition)