by Bill Robertson,
Creation Care Council Chair
As an artist, an iconographer, and farmer, it has always bothered me that most artistic images of St. Francis of Assisi depict him as sweetly bucolic, praying before rose-covered crosses and preaching to the birdies when, in fact, his whole life consisted of constantly violating the rules of his day. Why? Because he believed in the Gospels so intensely that he thought that Jesus’ mandate to love was a higher law than all the combined rules of society, culture, or religion. And he also did his level best to follow the example of Jesus regardless of the personal cost. Francis was a radical and a rule breaker of the first magnitude.
Rules probably originated to help ensure the connectedness of a tribe or society. To connect, one had to be accepted. One important measure of acceptance was to follow the rules.
Therefore, Rule #1 is to “Follow the rules.’ This rule is universal and ancient. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, it dates back to Eden. Adam and Eve lost both acceptance and connection for a rule violation.
Rule #2 would seem to be “Don’t question the rules”. Questioning the rules in most societies, cultures, and religions seems to cause the same loss of connection and acceptance as breaking Rule #1.
Rule #3 is “If rules conflict, the higher rule prevails.” This is probably a holdover from the days of kings, but this concept was important in Francis’ day and is still reflected in our own court system and our contemporary culture. How many levels of courts do we have in the United States? How many cases hinge on the interpretation of a rule? Even the outcome of sporting events can be decided by a rule!
With this line of thinking so deeply ingrained in our psyches, it should come as no surprise that the way most of us try to connect with God follows the exact same model: Connection with God (salvation) is perceived as a personal responsibility requiring great knowledge (learning all the rules) and great discipline (following the rules). Yes, we are told of God’s grace and God’s love, but many times we regard these aspects as intellectual concepts with very little bearing on how we live out our lives. Like the Pharisees of Jesus’ time, we tend to worship the rules.
In 12th century Assisi, and even more so today, even the Church itself seems to be hung up on the rules. If you look at the “hot” agenda items at almost any General Convention of the Episcopal Church over the past hundred or so years, you will see arguments over the rules—particularly rules regarding acceptance and inclusion. Here are some of the actual topics debated at some of the past General Conventions: “Should we have human slavery? Do women have souls? Can we revise the BCP? Can women be priests? bishops? Can a divorced person re-marry? Can a gay priest be a bishop? Are people of color equal to white people?
Both Jesus and Francis dealt with the same kinds of issues, all of which can be boiled down to one question: Can people we don’t like or who don’t agree with us be thrown out of the garden?
Francis’ answer to this question was to invoke rule #3—the higher rule—and here’s how it worked for him: “God’s rule is to love. Since God is greater than us, God’s love must be bigger than our love. Any of us can love those that the rules permit us to love, yet God loves those who violate the rules too. Therefore, we need to expand the parameters of love to love the unlovable! In doing so we come closer to God”. And this is what he did. Francis loved the poor by voluntarily becoming poor himself, and in doing so put poverty in a whole new light. He called for peace at a time when even the church was calling for Crusades and war. And he embraced a radical reading of the Gospel of Jesus Christ that depoliticizes our understanding of conversion and evangelism even to this day. And like Jesus before him, Francis went out of his way to love those that society had ruled to be unlovable.
This is what God said to Francis—and what God is saying to us every day:
“I want to be in relationship with you.
Can you expand the parameters of love beyond the rules that bind you?
Can you teach this love to all my children by how you live your life?
Can you connect with my whole family?
Those are my rules.
HOW MUCH CAN YOU LOVE?”