A Wider Jurisdiction

2023-04-01 Word Count: 1829 Reading Time: 10m


I've been leading a group of students at my church through the book Tattoos on the Heart by Fr. Greg Boyle. I had originally started this group years ago and we got about halfway through the book before Covid hit and turned everything upside down, effectively ending our little book club.

I was excited to be able to start it again this year and while the group varies in size from week to week, the discussions it brings forth have been thought provoking.

One of the most important things to keep in mind when reading Boyle is that he's something of a mystic and a poet. Like all mystics and poets, he has a tendency to turn language upside down and come at things from a non-linear perspective. This makes his religious and theological takes something of an adventure in reconstruction. In an odd way, I think this makes his material easier to discuss with younger minds. In short, he's both staunchly religious and decidedly not so.

So far, his book has allowed us to address multiple aspects of faith and its practice. Perhaps more so, a way to see things differently. We are about halfway through the book and we've discussed its underlying premise and purpose: "Simply to change our lurking suspicion that some lives matter less than other lives".

The book goes on to present and challenge many concepts:

  • Our image(s) of God - How we think of God and how those images inform how we see ourselves and others, including our enemies

  • Compassion - Sympathy, empathy, and compassion. Kinship with "others" and how God's compassion re-orients us in the face of victims and victimizers.

  • Water, Oil, Flame - The sacrament of baptism and the work of finding ourselves living a new life

  • The Slow Work Of God - Finding a steadfast, longsuffering faith when waiting on the often times slow work of God.

Last night we discussed "Jurisdiction". As in, how boundaries, physical or otherwise, can stunt our ability to be in kinship with others.

The Gorilla's Navel

I worked with a friend years ago who would always remind me that something was out of his hands by saying "My jurisdiction only goes to the gorilla's navel."

He explained to me that Bob Newhart had a bit about a newly hired security guard that worked in the Empire State Building. His first day just happened to coincide with the event of King Kong climbing the fabled building. The authorities, in an attempt to get a better picture of the situation, eventually get the newly hired security guard on the phone. They are quickly dismayed however when they ask him if he can go up to the higher stories to see what the gorilla is doing. He responds that he cannot as, "My jurisdiction only goes to the gorilla's navel."

Having worked with my friend for years, I think often of this little saying. It's a little reminder of how ridiculous we can be when it comes to perceived boundaries. Often, we've lived with them for so long that we are like the baby elephant, whose leash is staked to the ground. While a juvenile, the elephant fights and fights against the stake but lacks the strength to break free. As the elephant gets older, they just become accustom to the stake, assuming that boundary is immovable even though they now have the strength to break free at any time.

While the staked elephant story is likely an urban-myth, the situation it details is hardly uncommon. So many of us just assume either that a situation is not our problem or more likely, someone else's, that we accept it unthinkingly. "Not my jurisdiction," we say.

I'm thankful that I have friends in my life that challenge my perception of boundaries. Not in some aggressive or obvious posture, but in simply defying what I thought was a boundary to begin with.

Seeing Our Boundaries In A New Light

I once sat in a ministerial meeting made up of pastors and church leaders in our area. The purpose of the group was to discuss local issues and events, encourage each other, and basically just keep all apprised of their shared purposes.

In the meeting I attended, a man was asking the churches to consider any sort of programs they could provide for those needing to serve court ordered community service. The pastors were generally agreeable to the idea.

One pastor shared a story of having someone who was in need of community service hours help clean their church. Only to later discover that the person had taken $5k worth of A/V equipment. Thankfully, the pastor was able to find the person and that person readily returned the stolen equipment with what was received as a sincere apology.

In an off-the-cuff response, the man presenting the idea of community service, said something to the effect of, "I'd recommend we don't trust them with anything more expensive than a garbage bag for picking up trash."

You could hear the room collectively chuckle. Until that is, one pastor, shaking his head, spoke up saying something along the lines of, "No. We can't have an attitude like that about people."

In a very odd instant, the tone of the room, and the pastors with it, changed. This pastor wasn't saying that churches shouldn't be careful of their equipment or not practice discernment regarding community service opportunities. He was simply saying that we didn't need to denigrate or disrespect the dignity of these individuals.

I would say that the way people saw the boundary between the proposed community service program and the individuals needing to make use of it changed.

A few words are needed before I continue: The man with the quip wasn't intentionally being rude or dismissive. As for as I could tell, he seemed genuinely caring about the subject. I can guess that most of us have made some poor statement that, given some thought, we would be embarrassed to have said it. I know I've made more than a few of these mistakes. Nor do I think this is a situation where all of the pastors should have known better and should have been guided by their better lights.

What I think really happened here is that everyone in the room now started to see the boundary of the situation a little differently than before. It's so subtle and pervasive how our boundaries, our categorization of the subjects, are so easily colored by where we draw lines that often, while we see the line, we don't see the implication around it.

The line in this story is between those who provide community service opportunities and those who need to fulfill their service due to legal consequences. What "colors" the relationship around this line is the idea that the person who has failed, is less human, less deserving of decency, than the room full of pastors who are only trying to help. In the words of Fr. Boyle there is that "lurking suspicion that some lives matter less than other lives."

Once again, I'm not saying this is an active prejudice (though it certainly can be), so much as a consequence of how we order ourselves, how we see our jurisdiction... sinner and saint if you will.

Location and Value

What if we expanded our jurisdictions? What if a boundary only represented a person's location and not their status as a human?

Sure, there are very evil people out there who have certainly earned their location. Some only have themselves to blame. More likely though we see people across a spectrum ranging from culpability to circumstance and everywhere in between.

I'm not suggesting that all boundaries are bad and should be dissolved. They often exist for good reasons. I'm also not saying that jurisdictions are somehow immoral. They can often exist to keep us at a healthy engagement with the world and to better know how to spend our efforts, i.e. that which we can control and that which we cannot.

What I am getting at however is how these often good and proper things can confuse a person's location with their value. This happens across the board. We can view a person in a good location, with power and prestige and money and confuse their location as though it reflects their value. In short, they're a "good" and more "valuable" person. Likewise we can see the person deep in the throws of addiction and terrible behavior as "bad" and "less" than worthy.

Here's the crazy thing about people though: they can land in new locations. Either through effort, help, or chance, they can find themselves in a location, good or bad, they've never been in before. We are a mobile people and the circumstances that move us are complex and at times inscrutable.

What's more, if we can truly add just a little bit of daylight between a person's location and their value, we can participate in the relocation of those who, as the hymn says, were "lost but now are found."

And perhaps now we can go farther, finding ourselves to be a mobile people after all. Having found for ourselves a safer more life-giving location, maybe we can use this amazing power of locomotion in the service of others. Perhaps we can treat people by worth and not just their location on the board.

Then some people came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him, and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Child, your sins are forgiven.” - Mark 2:3-5 (NRSVue)

What if we can change the location of the person in need AND move the boundaries at the same time. Maybe, just maybe, we can carry those who can't walk AND we can tear off the roof that separates the outside from the inside. We can bring in and expand out.

"When Jesus saw their faith...", the faith of a community of people carrying those who cannot carry themselves AND widening the boundaries between outside and inside... "he said to the paralytic, 'Child, your sins are forgiven'."

Imagine a people, who use their mobility to treat those with no mobility as people of value. Who both carry across boundaries and expand them. Bringing those on the outside in.

So one day a paralytic can hear the words:

“I say to you, stand up, take your mat, and go to your home.” - Mark 2:11 (NRSVue)

And so they did.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash
Categories: boundaries