“Don’t tell me what to do…”

There’s a battle going on??? Maybe that’s not the right word – seems a bit too extreme. There isn’t physical violence…yet.

There’s disagreements happening??? No, that doesn’t seem to capture the moment either.

There’s something happening and it’s not great. That’s seems more accurate.

I have witnessed public meetings as of late, and read about them too. They happen in a variety of settings – secular and churches too.

An outspoken group of people gather together and make demands – and that’s putting it mildly. Sometimes it devolves into shouting and threats if those in charge don’t comply. Phrases like “I’ll determine what my kids learn” are shouted as some kind of rallying cry. Never mind the irony of shouting such a thing at a public meeting for a public school who has a responsibility to the entire community to teach kids the things they need to learn, not just was individual parents want them exposed to. There’s always the option of pulling your kids from school after all. I’ve heard similar phrases at churches to. I don’t recall anyone forcing anyone to be part of any church. There are certainly plenty of church options out there, even with a major decline in churches happening.

Forget about the subject matter – typically about masks, vaccines, and anything dealing with race. There are legitimate debates that can happen over these topics in healthy ways and communities can come to good conclusions with them too – conclusions that work well for their context. That’s not the issue. Sure, the words and demands of the shouts have to do with masks, vaccines, and race directly, but I think it’s about much deeper things. It’s about control. “Don’t tell me what to do…” might as well be the summation of the shouts and demands.

People seem to have forgotten, or maybe never understood, what freedom actually is. Freedom is not doing whatever you want. That’s license. Freedom isn’t all about you and what you want to do, regardless of the consequences to others. Freedom is not based on individualism and individual desires solely. Doing what you want, when you want, saying what you want and how you want to whoever you want, without regard for anyone or anything else isn’t freedom. It’s selfish. It’s sinful.

Luther defined sin as turning inward on oneself. That means we start to only look to ourselves and blot out the rest of creation. We only care about ourselves and in doing so, we edge out God. We can’t follow God if we are too busy looking at ourselves, listening to ourselves and our desires, and only doing what we want to do. That runs counter to what discipleship is all about. It doesn’t match up with what is means to be a Christian – a follower of Jesus. You can’t be self-absorbed and at the same time actually follow Jesus, or anyone else for that matter. Following requires one to stop gazing at themselves and listening to themselves and instead to look at the one you are following and listen to them. And then act on what they tell you, regardless of your personal desires.

In Mark 10:17-22, we hear the following story about Jesus and the rich man:

“As [Jesus] was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honour your father and mother.” ’ He said to him, ‘Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.’ Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.”

The man was absorbed in him self. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” is his question. It’s a consideration for himself. I want what I want. What must I do to get it?

In the end Jesus tells him, “You lack one thing…” The think he lacked was consideration of others. His desire and his stuff became most important to him – which is why Jesus told him to sell it all. It would require him to see others and their plights. And he went away grieving. Turning inward on oneself has a way of leaving us in grief. Because it’s awfully lonely when we are self-absorbed. And the reality is we don’t like what we become when we are self-absorbed. And we lash out. We actually go against our very nature – the nature that God created us to be. In community and in relationship. God’s very nature is relational and communal. That’s the essence of the Trinity. And we are made in the image and likeness of God – relational and communal.

“Don’t tell me what to do…” doesn’t fit in with what it means to follow God. Jonah tried that line. It didn’t work out. Herod said that line to John the Baptist when John criticized Herod for marrying his brother’s wife. It cost John his life, of course. But did Herod actually gain anything? Not really. He remained in a constant state of fear of losing his power.

“Don’t tell me what to do…” is the rallying cry of anarchists and tyrants the world over. Anarchy and tyranny are not opposites of each other. They are actually the same thing – someone imposing their will on others regardless of the cost. The only difference is a matter of how many people imposing their wills on others. In tyranny, it’s one person. In anarchy, it’s everyone. Regardless of the numbers, it’s all about control and imposing one’s will on others. Tyranny and anarchy are just forms of toxic individualism and both are destructive, dangerous and violent.

Freedom is the opposite of tyranny and anarchy. Because freedom involves responsibility and regard for others. In freedom we voluntarily restrict ourselves for the benefit of the greater good – those restrictions are not imposed by others. In freedom we recognize that doing whatever we want is not being free at all. There is no order in anarchy and tyranny. There is only attempts at control. Freedom orients us towards something greater than ourselves – we can put our head up and look around us and listen to those around us.

The philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote about the Social Contract. Here’s a good summary:

The Social Contract, with its famous opening sentence ‘Man is born free, and he is everywhere in chains’, stated instead that people could only experience true freedom if they lived in a civil society that ensured the rights and well-being of its citizens. Being part of such a society involved submitting to the general will – a force that transcended individuals and aimed to uphold the common good.” (Source)

Rousseau would never have bought into the idea of “don’t tell me what to do…” or “I’ll determine what my kids learn about.” Rousseau is one of the people that our founders looked to as they formed our government and the ideals it is based on. “Don’t tell me what to do…” is about as un-American as it comes because “Don’t tell me what to do…” is a form of tyranny and anarchy – something our founders were trying to avoid. When we are part of a society, we are calling out and asking to be told – “Tell me how to live peaceably with my neighbors. Tell me how to be a good citizen. Tell me what I must do to serve. Tell me how I can support my community.”

“Don’t tell me what do to…” doesn’t match up with what it means to be a follower of Jesus for the simple fact that as followers we seek out what to do based on what Jesus tell us. We are in essence saying “Tell me what to do. Tell me how to live. Tell me how to love.”


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