Monday, July 06, 2009

Forebear Theatening

In Ephesians, as in other epistles, St. Paul fills the last half of the letter with practical advice for Christian living. Here he advises “masters” to “forebear threatening.” Most of us live in circles of relationships in which we are at various times and in various contexts master or slave, parent or child, elder or younger. Almost no one is always only “wife” or always only “child” or always only “master.” However, as a grandfather, experienced teacher and a priest, I often find myself in relationships in which I am master (i.e. supervisor, adviser, mentor, teacher, evaluator, disciplinarian, leader, authority).
I have been paying attention lately to how often I feel compelled to threaten. I am not tempted to threaten in any gross or physically violent way. I merely want to point out certain possible negative out comes. I want to tell someone what might happen if…. I want to energize and motivate certain people by telling them what could happen if they aren’t more this way and less that way.
In discussing this with Bonnie this morning, she said, with the innocent brutality that only thirty years of loving marriage provide, “sounds like witchcraft to me.” And taking another sip of coffee she looked out the window and said, “I need you to cut down the weeds around the garden again.” Ah, the gentle violence of love.
When it comes right down to it, any attempt to manipulate the behavior of others in a hidden way is a form of witchcraft (the pointy hat is optional). This is a subtle matter. Warning and teaching are God-appointed duties for parents, priests and others who are entrusted with such responsibilities. Godly instruction and self-willed threatening may differ only in the attitude of the teacher. When I sense within myself an agenda, a goal for the other that the other is not aware of, then my “teaching” is coming dangerously close to manipulation.


Donna Farley said...

Hello, Father! Hope we can see you & Bonnie soon.

This was a very thought-provoking post.

It is also easy for 'threatening' to be indirectly stated, or just implied by vague words and by mannerisms.

But sometimes 'masters' do have to state in an honest way what the outcomes of certain behaviours will would not be fair, for instance, to let a student keep handing in papers late without first warning him that he will lose 10% marks every time he does so. I don't think that's a threat-- as they say, that's a promise! :-)

It's also difficult but sometimes necessary to distinguish threatening from setting proper boundaries with unacceptable behaviour. I think the difference with the latter is, the person who sets a boundary is prepared to follow through with whatever response is necessary, and accept the fact that the other person's free will has not given us the preferred outcome.

So for instance a coach with a team member who is chronically absent from practice for no good reason may have to say, "If you miss once more between now and the Big Game, I will not be able to let you play-- you have not learned the plays, and it is unfair to the rest of the team to have confusion on the field because you did not practice with them."

I think if it's a threat and not a boundary, we want to coerce the person. And we aren't good at following through with the outcome, and we can't accept that
the person didn't do what we wanted!

Witchcraft indeed!

On another blog I was just reminded of advice that was given to us by one of our old 'masters', our dean when we were in the Anglican church. And I think it fits with this idea of trying to get conformity through threats, too. Our dean told us, "The Lord does not call you to be successful-- He only calls you to be faithful."

Fr. Michael said...

Very good word, Donna. Discernment is key. Do I want my image of the student to be fulfilled or do I acknowledge the freedom of the person? Most importantly, do I acknowledge my own ignorance: the fact that I do not know God's will for another, nor do I know what paths or byways he or she must follow in order to "come to his/her senses" and return to the Father?

Paul said...

I love it when Matushka Bonnie has a cameo in your sermons! She is wonderful. So are you.