What does the Bible have to say about buying a microwave, a dishwasher, closing down a school, staffing a prison or building an out-of-town shopping centre? Well, probably quite a lot but one commandment that helps in all these decisions is not surprisingly the greatest commandment. ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself ’ (Matthew 22:37-39).
Jesus’s response, as Michael Schluter has shown, not only clarifies God’s priorities it provides a tool for us to consider almost anything we do. At root, the command to ‘love’ is a relational command. As such, what interests God most is:
1. The quality of our relationship with him.
2. The quality of our relationships with other people.
This divine priority on the quality of relationships stems inevitably from the nature of the triune God, who is neither some distant impersonal force nor starkly monadic like the god of Islam. The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is relational in essence and in that essence the three persons commune with one another – the Father with the Son, the Son with the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit with the Father, and so on. Relationship is vital because God is relational.
So, in considering any idea, policy, action, look at it through the lenses of relationship. How will this decision affect my relationship with God? How will this decision affect our relationships with other people? The relational lens is not only a means of examining our own behaviour it is also a diagnostic tool in analysing everything from karaoke to housing policy.
Should we, for example, have built those sixties concrete tower blocks that came to dominate our inner city skyscapes? They weren’t bad because they were ugly – they aren’t. At least not from a distance. They weren’t bad because they were an inefficient use of space or funding. Functionally efficient they were – the modernist’s dream realised in concrete. They were bad because they failed to preserve or create vibrant, safe communities. They became relational deserts where delinquent jackals prowled and neighbours did not know each other – contexts without social capital –with graffiti on the walls and needles in the vandalised playgrounds. The design didn’t serve to nurture relationships but rather to make them more difficult. Design affects relationships. Sometimes positively. Sometimes negatively. And so does technology.
Take a more domestic example. It’s 3.42 am. Pitch black outside. Chilly inside. In the dim distance down the corridor, beyond two half-closed doors the snuffling begins to rise to a whimper... It ’s going to happen and it ’s my turn.
The whimper will grow to a cry, to a wail, to an insistent howling crescendo that will make an air raid siren seem as unintrusive as a hamster bell... It ’s going to happen. And it’s my turn. Blearily I swivel myself out of bed, gathering momentum like a fighter pilot scrambled... and scoot downstairs, flicking the kitchen light on as I slide towards the fridge... 15 seconds and counting. The bottle is already in there. I grab it, take two paces to the right, punch the button and the glass door swings out... 19 seconds. I catch it in my left hand and place the bottle on the glass plate with my right. 21.15 seconds. Push the door gently to. 23 seconds. And press the one minute pad. Forty seconds later, I press and grab the warmed bottle, swivel and dash for the door, flicking the light off as I exit and turn up the stairs... I can hear the whimpering. eight seconds later I ’m in the room... two seconds later the bottle is in the mouth... 74.5 seconds.
Not bad. And good enough. The whimpering subsides; crisis averted. No one else has been seriously disturbed, no one else knows how my speedy reactions have once more meant that innocent civilians all over our three-bedroomed semi could sleep safe and snug in their beds, oblivious to the crisis averted. In the morning, of course, I will tell them of deeds done in the dead of the night. But it wasn’t just me, it was the technology. Vorsprung durch Technik. It was the microwave.
In the olden days, before we were given the microwave, when the bottle had to be warmed in a pan, and it was impossible to get bottle to mouth in under three minutes 17 seconds, long after the howl had already filled every cranny of the house … I failed. The microwave has bestowed better sleep on us all, made our relationships better. But 10 years from now it may not be like that. 12 year–old calls up at 6.30. ‘I won’t be home ‘til 8.30.’‘ But I ’ve made Lasagne Verde a la Siciliana.’
‘I’ll microwave it when I get home.’ The 14 year–old doesn’t call but turns up at 10.30 and pops it in the machine. The sixteen year-old turns up at seven in the morning and has it for breakfast. Great lasagne, mum. Yup, great lasagne but no family meal. Technologies affect relationships – sometimes for good, sometimes for ill. Sometimes saving labour and freeing up time for relationships, sometimes reducing the incentive to eat together. Dishwashers are a great and wonderful thing but just occasionally I miss the opportunity to play with water and call it helping out; I miss the opportunity to just kind of be with someone and burble on about not much at all and then accidentally, effortlessly, it seemed, find ourselves talking about the meaning of life at the beginning of the 21st century... as you do. In reality, almost everything affects relationships but are there any more specific criteria which would help us to see what is likely to nurture relationships and what is likely to damage relationships?
In The R Factor, Michael Schluter and David Lee sought to try to break down and analyse the factors that lead to relational proximity, which in turn are likely to lead to relational health. These criteria have been used to analyse a wide range of types of relationships, not simply in families but also in companies and public institutions like the NHS, prisons and the Inland Revenue with tangible results.
1. Direct Contact: maximise it.
Being there is better than sending e-mails and virtual communication and is invariably more effective. It may take two to tango but it doesn’t necessarily take two to go shopping or to take the kids swimming or wash the car. But it is time together and in a over-busy world, time together develops closeness. Those special moments that bind people closer together, the great laughs, the shared disasters, the sudden sense of being understood can as easily occur in a traffic jam as in a chi-chi restaurant savouring a hazelnut soufflé with the candlelight glinting in your eyes.
At Greenoch prison,Schluter ’s team conducted a relational audit and discov- ered among many other things that the best paid warders were those who sat in a control room monitoring prisoner behav- iour on closed circuit TV.This tended to mean that the best warders were the ones removed from direct contact with the prisoners. But it is direct contact with prisoners which is most likely to alleviate tension, prevent riots and resolve practical disagreements. So now the best paid prison officers are the ones who walk round the prison talking to inmates.
2. Continuity: treasure it.
Auld acquaintance is not necessarily best acquaintance but there’s something about old friends – they know just how many times you’ve floated into a room to announce that you’ve met the perfect partner, they know how many diets you’ve been on, they know you were never ever a size 12, they remember that you were once a great dancer, that you have always had a way with young people, that you lost your first child. You don’t have to start all over. Or, in our high mobility, high turnover culture, over and over again. Obviously, the same applies at work and in the church. Continuity builds trust. Continuity of presence within a particular community allows a number of relation-ships to flourish at different levels. Obviously,we can’t be best friends with everyone but after a while just the fact that we have been around people in our church or in our work or in our town for years develops affection and a sense of belonging and trust. The overall difference in the relational quality of shopping between 1969 and 1999 is as big as the difference between a Hypermarket and the corner shop. How rare now to meet anyone we know in a mall. How much more arid are our sorties into the world. Continuity of relationship matters, so when we are offered a job in another company or another town we need to ask ourselves how it will affect our relationships? And whether the relational sacrifice is worth it?
3. Multiplexity: foster it.
Schluter and Lee argue that people who see one another in more than one kind of context tend to be more likely to develop deeper relationships. This makes intuitive sense. A church quiz evening can seem rather trivial compared to a prayer evening but both can serve to deepen relationship, trust and appreciation. The opportunity to see someone operating in a different context fills out one’s view of who they are. And this applies to work colleagues as well as to people in the same church fellowship. Hence the tendency of leading edge companies to do Outward Bound courses, or to have an office party or simply go down to the pub. Or to have family days. It’s quite helpful for married people to see where their spouses work – even if it ’s only a rabbit hutch behind a pillar in a windowless corridor. Similarly, corporate entertaining may not simply be bribery but rather a legitimate attempt to develop trust by widening the scope of the relationship. Many high level decisions may well still be made on the golf course and this may not be because senior executives are swept off their feet by the sight of a well manicured green but rather that on a golf course there are usually not lots of other people around and a senior executive can say what they think, express a level of doubt, or lack of understanding that might be difficult in a meeting with 10 subordinates. Multiplexity has implications for pastors too – visiting is an expression of multiplexity, and countless clues to personality and interests can be gleaned on a visit to someone’s home or office.
4. Commonality of Purpose: clarify it.
People who share a purpose grow closer. And the goal that they share often serves to diminish personality tensions or to resolve them more quickly when they occur. War tends to focus even a diverse population on the task in hand and there is considerable evidence of the sense of closeness and camaraderie that combatants and non-combatants who go through a war together feel towards one another. Many people who lived through WW2 still reminisce about the positive sense of community they experienced. The impact of commonality of purpose on relationships is also clear in family, church and working life. Interestingly, research I conducted a few years ago revealed that the majority of people in home groups do not know why they are there – there may be agreement about activities but no clear sense of purpose. No wonder attendance tends to be sporadic.
5. Parity of Power: Protect it
People are not equal in their competencies or knowledge and so should not have an equal ‘say ’in how things are run. An eight year-old should not have the same ‘say ’ deciding a family’s financial priorities but an eight year-old should feel that they can express their desires. All people are created in the image of God and worthy of respect and dignity and entitled to a voice. One person’s superior competency in one area should not lead to treating other people as inferior beings In sum, relationships are vital and although Jesus was only asked what was the greatest commandment he refuses to separate the most important one from its companion – love your neighbour. You can love your neighbour without loving God but can you love God without loving your neighbour? No. In that regard, Schluter and Lee’s five guidelines are helpful. After all,there are very few if any social indicators which suggest that the quality of relational life in Britain is improving. Our relationships need protecting, nurturing. At 3.42 in the morning. And 3.42 in the afternoon.
This article was adapted from a feature that appeared in EG.
- David Lee & Michael Schluter The R Factor (Hodder & Stoughton, 1993)
- Colin Gunton The One, the Three and the Many (Cambridge University Press, 1993)
For more information on the work of the Relationships Foundation and the Jubilee Centre please contact Mrs Benedicte Scholefield @ Jubilee House, 3 Hooper Street, Cambridge, CB1 2NZ. Tel: 01223 566319