Monday, January 30, 2006

What kind of line?

Susan, I hope you will indulge me a little difference in approach to the issue of “lines.” I do not believe all lines are inherently evil, nor do I believe all line-drawing is driven by fear.

Early in high school I had thoughts of being an engineer. Listening to Saturn rocket static firings every week and attending school with the children of German rocket scientists certainly influenced that fleeting life script. As part of my preparation for that vocation, I took a course in engineering drawing.

I don’t remember too much of it, but I do remember that we learned how to draw many different kinds of lines and that each line had a distinct, essential function in the drawing. Bold, heavy lines were reserved for the object itself. Lighter lines, broken lines, phantom lines, dotted lines, etc., etc., were used to identify important attributes of the object, like dimensions, hidden features, etc.

We find a similar situation in systems thinking (which is rooted in biology). “Boundaries” (another form of line) range from hard, physical expressions (such as the shell on a clam) to more abstract descriptions of life functions from the subcellular to the macro-ecological level. But in every case, boundaries are essential to life. What distinguishes a living clam from an inanimate granite pebble is the ability of the clam’s boundary system to exercise discernment and selectively protect from attack, allow the passage of essential nutrients, and expel accumulating waste products.

In a similar way, psychologists and counselors speak of self-differentiation. As a gross, oversimplification this means that you are not me and I am not you. One of the important ways of respecting both you and myself is understanding the “line” between me and you. The line between married couples is different from the line between co-workers, but there is a line in both. There are also lines between men and women, racial lines, cultural lines, linguistic lines, etc. These are not unfailingly evil lines (although they may well be). As just one example, in the 60’s we often spoke of the goal of color blindness that would ultimately erase the race line. But we didn’t stop to think that if we erase color, then I may be erasing you and you may be erasing me. The problem resides not in the fact that I can see (and therefore, respect) you as a brown person and you can see me as a white person. The problem resides in what we do with the reality of that line. Is it a line that says, “Here I stop and you begin,” or is it a line that becomes an undiscerning, impenetrable barrier.

A line can include just as easily as it can exclude. (In fact, every line does both at the same time; it merely depends upon your perspective.) And neither function is always right or always wrong. Inclusion can be just as violent and oppressive as exclusion (Hitler drew a line to “include” Poland in the third Reich). Boundary training with pastors encourages them to draw lines excluding certain behaviors because they are detrimental both personally and professionally.

Jesus drew lines; lines that both included and excluded. Some of them are lines I puzzle over, but cannot easily dismiss. The early church struggled with lines as it moved into the world arena. Paul’s letters almost always address a church issue involving healthy and unhealthy lines.

Lines can protect, define, focus, warn, or guide.

With regard to ABC life it is not unusual for some in one camp to long for lines like granite, while others want no lines (but are delusional). From a life perspective we must have lines—lines of all kinds. The key questions for us as a complex, spiritual (I hope) system are: 1) Is this a line consistent with God’s intent? 2) What kind of line does it need to be? 3) How will this community of faith draw and maintain this line?