I recently listened to a fascinating conversation about obedience. It began with two provocative questions: Is it more important for a child to be creative or well-behaved? And is self-reliance or obedience more important in a child?
The questioner was Simon Greer, head of the Nathan Cummings Foundation and host of a new Internet video series, “Summits on Tenth,” which the foundation launched to “provoke and disrupt conventional thinking on pressing contemporary issues.” The first episode focused on “evangelicals building a just America” and featured Rev. Joel C. Hunter and Pastor Michael McBride.
In posing his questions, Greer noted that in a recent poll evangelicals were 14 percent more likely than other respondents to value obedience over self-reliance and good behavior over creativity in their children. Both Hunter and McBride are evangelicals. Hunter is white and in his sixties, while McBride is African American and a generation younger.
Greer asked both men why evangelicals place so much importance on obedience. Hunter answered with an example: Learning something new—such as ice skating—takes discipline. You have to practice many times over before you can develop the freedom to be creative.
It was a smart response—not “either-or” but “both-and.” First comes discipline, structure, and practice. That grounding is essential in developing the tools to be creative and the self-confidence and skills needed to be self-reliant. This is true for ice skating and just about any creative endeavor. If you want to be a novelist, for instance, you first need to master dialogue, setting, plot, character development, and more. You must do the necessary preliminary work before you can take off and soar.
Rev. Hunter resisted a forced choice. He praised self-confidence and good decision-making skills and also emphasized the importance of obedience. It is “a big deal” for evangelicals, he said, because there’s a connection between a child obeying her parents and learning to obey God.
Greer then turned to Pastor McBride and asked: “If you had to choose—creativity or obedience?”
McBride thought for a moment. Then he said, “In March of 1999 I was beat up by two white police officers because they felt I was not being ‘obedient’ enough. Now, I felt like I was being obedient. But the way they saw the world, and me in their world, created a fear and reaction to my actions that caused me harm.”
McBride said he has lived with that experience ever since, as do many people of color who have been victims of police violence. That attack affects how he responds to a question about obedience or creativity, and it makes him think of his four-year-old daughter, who is “super-creative, bold, and audacious.” McBride said he worries that when his little girl goes to school, her creativity and audacity might be seen as disruptive and a threat to the learning environment. The teacher might not see a curious bubbly child but instead a girl who is not “obedient” enough.
McBride leaned forward in his chair and said the question reminded him of conversations he had growing up when his father would instruct him how to act around certain types of people. Those carefully taught behaviors were very different from how he acted when he was with people who loved and cared for him and meant him no harm.
Greer responded, “So obedience might actually be a valuable survival strategy—not against creativity but essential or you don’t get a chance.”
McBride nodded in agreement. He then expanded beyond himself and his family to advise all of us to engage in conversations that go deeper than polling questions and to get out of our own parochial views. McBride urged us to understand the differences that surround us in this world and to get to know those whose realities are unlike our own. He pressed us to be allies of people who are under-represented in the political process and are objects, rather than co-creators, of policies that affect them. McBride argued that we need to make sure that all God’s children can engage and participate in the issues that affect them and can make their voices heard.
It was a memorable discussion. I was grateful for Rev. Hunter’s “both-and” response and was profoundly moved by Pastor McBride’s life story. Good conversations are like that: They prod deep places in our heart, evoke insight and self-understanding, and connect us with lives unlike our own.
Sally Steenland is Director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. Steenland, a best-selling author, former newspaper columnist, and teacher, explores the role of religion and values in the public sphere.
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Director, Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative