The Role of Permission in the Christian Church

From “Simon Says” to “Mother May I?”

As a child I never was very good at playing “Simon Says.” [1] I would always, inevitably, make some illegal movement and be tossed, unceremoniously, from the game. I always wondered, “Who is this Simon and how did he get the power to boss me around?” I was always more partial to the game of “Mother May I?” [2] At least in that game you only got sent back to the beginning if you made a mistake, and it was clear where Mother’s authority came from.

And so goes my own theological search for God’s truth. I have always been skeptical of the theological Simons who continuously tell me what I must do to be a Christian or have salvation. If we make one wrong move, get one doctrinal jot or tittle wrong, or question their authority to tell us what to do, then we’re out of the game — out of the church — out of the denomination. Who are these Simons and where do they get the power to boss us around? I’m much more partial to taking my commands from my Mother — God — whose authority is clear and unambiguous. Why do I need all these Simons to tell me what to do when my Mother — my Creator — is the only source of authority that I need?

In my mind, the game of “Mother May I?” represents our unmediated relationship with God, while “Simon Says” represents our mediated experience of God through the church. Simon, or the church, must give us permission if we are to seek out our own voice within the tradition. It is Simon who says whether or not we can keep our Christian identity while we make this search. Chung Hyun Kung makes the point that many of us won’t seek such permission from the church or anywhere else because we fear losing our Christian identity. Someone will say we’re not a Christian if we don’t believe in thus and such a doctrine. Besides, Simon Says that’s how we’re supposed to believe, right?

But, Chung points out that we must move away from that fear and “risk that we might be transformed by the religious wisdom of our own people.” [3] By finding their own voice, by taking permission from Mother instead of from the Simons of the church, Chung believes “we may find that to the extent that we are willing to lose our old identity, we will be transformed into truly Asian Christians.” [4] Losing this old, Simon imposed identity, then is a risky, but necessary step toward finding our own voice within our traditions, be it Asian, African-American, gay and lesbian, or white American women.

We must find the courage to ask along with Chung, “Who owns Christianity?” From considering this question we gain permission — through God — to begin seeking out our own voice. In our metaphor then, we switch from listening to Simon to listening to our Mother. Our Mother calls us to use the permission that has been granted to us, but to use it wisely — always asking advice from our Mother, always seeking Mother’s approval — but without the fear that we’ll be tossed from the game if we make a mistake.

This metaphor also fits nicely with Rene Harrison’s assertion that play is a form of sacred seriousness. We realize that even though we’re likening our search to a game of “Mother May I?”, our search for our voice — our giving of permission to ourselves to seek that voice — is sacred and quite serious. Harrison argues that “play is a fundamental and necessary theological and ethical construct to reaffirm selfhood, reclaim identity, reinterpret God, and ensure liberation. Where play is suppressed oppressive paradigms are reinforced and perpetuated.” [5] In short, our game of permission helps us to throw off these oppressive paradigms and instead reinvent ourselves through this form of sacred seriousness.

The world of the Simons and their rigid system of granting permission has led to what Elizabeth Johnson calls a “scotosis” — a hardening of the mind against “women’s theological speech” [6] in particular, but I think it also applies to the hardening of the mind against any marginalized groups’ theological speech. For centuries the theological speech unique to gay and lesbian believers, African-American believers, Asian believers, Latino and Latina believers, just to name a few, have been suppressed. The Simons have refused permission to these groups and their voices have either been muted or silenced all together.

The “scotosis” in the church has a long and rich history. Even poet William Blake noticed it in the 18th century when he wrote his poem “The Garden of Love”:

I went to the Garden of Love,
And saw what I never had seen;
A Chapel was built in the midst,
Where I used to play on the green.
And the gates of this Chapel were shut,
And “Thou shalt not” writ over the door;
So I turned to the Garden of Love
That so many sweet flowers bore;
And I saw it was filled with graves,
And tombstones where flowers should be;
And Priests in black gowns were walking their rounds
And binding with briars my joys and desires.

It’s not so much the existence of the Chapel in the Garden of Love as much as it is the sign on the door that upsets the poet. Instead of an open Chapel for all, the door is shut tight, with a foreboding sign denying anyone permission to enter. The Priests are there but their role is not to edify the worshiper but to impose themselves between the worshiper and God. So it goes with many of the Simon churches today. Instead of opening the doors wide they post “thou shalt not” signs and go on about the daily business of tending the graves of those whom have grown dead in the Spirit.

The Spirit, however, wants us to breathe — to enjoy the life that God has called each of us to live! To breathe and be alive in the Spirit, then our permission to explore our faith and relationship with God must come from some other source than the Simons of the church. Instead, we turn to our Mother where we can gain direct access to God and then seek permission for our search directly from the source of all life! Johnson calls this discovery of our direct link to God, “conversion.” In this experience of conversion we find the long lost Garden of Love that Blake laments by risking “new interpretations that affirm (our) own human worth.” [7]

Faced with the Simons of the church who tell those on the margins “thou shalt not,” and the realization that our Mother lovingly grants us permission, those who have been silenced become indignant, Johnson says. “Indignation generates the energy for resistance, an act grounded on an equally deep and lasting yes to women’s flourishing. The search commences then, both in action and in theory, for new ways of living that will find what has been lost.” [8] This indignation pushes us to make a decision, Johnson says: “either close their minds and deny what they have experienced, or use it as a springboard to address and struggle with the causes of suffering.” [9]

However, we must be realistic about permission. Having permission granted to us also brings with it responsibility. Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz insists that we have a “moral obligation to follow (our) conscience.” [10] But to follow through on this obligation must be an act of self-determination, an act of asking God directly, “Mother May I?” instead of attempting “to comply with what the ‘official’ church says, with what it considers to be orthodoxy.” [11] However, we will find as we exercise our permission to seek God in an unmediated way that often we come up with more questions that we do answers. Isasi-Diaz makes it clear that this should be our agenda. By embracing this agenda to ask questions and seek answers that may be, ultimately, elusive, we begin to see struggle as a form of moral agency. We begin to grow through our questions. Indeed, the church can even grow through our questions. We see this even today as the church struggles with the question of ordaining gays and lesbians. Most of the strongest opposition to this idea comes from quarters of the church still stuck playing “Simon Says.” They’d like to toss out those they see as doctrinally or biblically incorrect instead of letting them remain in the game to ask their questions. These people want quick and concrete answers and cannot even fathom asking questions that may not have answers! Asking our questions, however, moves the church from a “Simon Says” to a “Mother May I?” church where more people can begin to feel free to find their voices through an unmediated experience of God.

The word permission comes to us from the Latin “permittere” which means, “to let through.” When we grant permission to ourselves it is not permission to walk away from something, or to not face something. Instead, permission is what we have to “go through” something. Trying to find our voice within the church is something we must “go through” and it will certainly not be an easy task. There are plenty of Simons in the church who will remind us that women are not “permitted” to speak in church, or to preach or teach in the church. There are other Simons who will remind us that gays and lesbians are not “permitted” to even set foot in the church, forget leadership roles, until they give up that “filthy lifestyle.” To exercise the permission that our Mother has given us, we must often overcome these obstacles. To do that we must “go through” them. We must wrestle with the questions that are put to us by the Simons who seek to deny our permission. But, we must always remember our permission comes from our Mother and that is not affected by anything the Simons say.

It is in this struggle — this “going through” that permission grants us — that ultimately is our liberation, according to Isasi-Diaz. “Liberation theologies insist that the poor and the oppressed must struggle consciously to be agents of our own history. They must move away from being mere objects acted upon by the oppressors and become active subjects: moral persons.” [12] We only become these moral persons when we stop looking to the Simons for permission and stop allowing them to “act upon” us. We must turn to a “Mother May I?” form of thinking that frees us from Simons’ grip and instead makes us “agents of our own history.” When we deal directly with our Mother, and gain permission through our relationship with God instead of through Simon and the church, then we become moral persons. That lived experience then — that struggle for liberation from the Simon churches — becomes our agency, our praxis. For Isasi-Diaz, this praxis “is a political action which seeks to change the oppressive economic-socio-cultural structures of society.” [13] The goals of praxis within other groups like African-American women, gays and lesbians and Asians may be different, but their motivation and their struggle to become moral agents of their own history is just the same.

The struggle, however, is what transforms us from Simon church followers to those who ask Mother for permission to explore our experiences and find our voice within the church and tradition. Delores Williams calls this sort of transformation “the wilderness experience.” In the wilderness we undergo “intense struggle before gaining a spiritual/religious identity, for example, as a Christian. But the struggle itself was regarded as a positive …” The wilderness, far from being a place where one is forsaken, is instead, Williams says, “a positive place conducive to uplifting the spirit and to strengthen religious life.” [14] It is through this wilderness experience, this struggle, that we find our voice, and are granted permission by our Mother to explore our own experience, and build our own spiritual/religious identity without fear of being kicked out of the game by some rule-keeping Simon. Surely we will make mistakes during our wilderness experience, but our generous and loving Mother — the Mother who honors our search and encourages our seeking of her permission — will never kick us out of the game. We may be sent back to the beginning where we must again re-evaluate and re-imagine our spiritual/religious identity, but we never lose our basic identity as our Mother’s beloved children.

Permission, however, can also be abused or taken too far. We must remember there are limits to permission — even if we won’t be kicked out of the game for exercising it. Instead of being kicked out, we can fall away from the game if we’re not careful. Sallie McFague reminds us that it is a form of permission that we give ourselves to objectify the world around us. “If we see human beings and nature as resources, we gain permission to treat them that way.” [15] That objectification, seeing the world through what McFague calls “the arrogant eye,” makes it easier for us to abuse and exploit the earth and her resources. Instead we must cultivate the “loving eye,” which is “the eye that sees ourselves and others, including earth others, as profoundly related while at he same time able to respect real differences.” [16] McFague reminds us that we must cultivate this “loving eye” even toward the Simons who seek to control us spiritually and physically in how we relate to God. We must never give ourselves permission to objectify people and things. Instead, permission should always strive to keep relationships subjective — where we are in mutual relationships with the people and things around us.

As a way of switching our perspective from the “Simon Says” to the “Mother May I?” church, we need to transform our human actions and response to God. One way to being transforming ourselves in this way is to ritualize our experience of permission-giving. I have composed an example “Ritual of Permission” based on Acts 26:1 where Paul is brought before King Agrippa who gives him permission to defend himself. Likewise, we are granted permission to defend ourselves and bring our own experiences of God to the forefront of our search for a voice and a place within the Christian tradition.

A Ritual of Permission
Based on Acts 26:1

Leader: “(King) Agrippa said to Paul, `You have permission to speak for yourself.’ Then Paul stretched out his hand and began to defend himself.”

All: Just as King Agrippa gave Paul permission to speak for himself so, too, has God given us permission to speak for ourselves – to seek the truth of our faith through our hearts and our minds.

Leader: “Knock and the door shall be opened unto you – Seek and you shall find.” (Matthew 7:7)

All: “I will walk with integrity of heart within my house.” (Psalm 101:2)

Leader: You have permission to speak for yourself.

Reader 1: I am a woman – I stretch out my hand to defend myself.
I embrace my God-given gender
I am created in the image of God
I embrace the God who works and speaks through all humans regardless of gender

Leader: You have permission to speak for yourself.

Reader 2: I am a lesbian – I stretch out my hand to defend myself.
I embrace my sexual orientation as God’s good gift
I am created in the image of God
I embrace the God that proclaims that “whosoever believes” is saved

Leader: You have permission to speak for yourself.

Reader 3: I am the poor – I stretch out my hand to defend myself.
I embrace the power of the margins
I am created in the image of God
I embrace the God that empowers the weak to speak to the strong

Leader: You have permission to speak for yourself.

Reader 4: I am Latina – I stretch out my hand to defend myself.
I embrace the power of my community
I am created in the image of God
I embrace the God who honors our struggle and the questions we bring

Leader: You have permission to speak for yourself.

Reader 5: I am African-American – I stretch out my hand to defend myself.
I embrace and honor my heritage and traditions
I am created in the image of God
I embrace the God who sees my suffering and acts on my behalf in the wilderness

Leader: You have permission to speak for yourself.

Reader 6: I am Asian – I stretch out my hand to defend myself.
I embrace han-ridden spirit
I am created in the image of God
I embrace the God that rises above imperialism to bring us all into community

All: Teach me thy way, O Lord, that I will walk in the truth
Unite my heart to fear thy name (Psalm 86:11)

Such rituals are only the first step toward pulling us out of our dependence upon the Simon churches for permission and instead begin to seek God on our own terms. Other actions must be developed to pull us out of the graves we have dug for ourselves in Blake’s Garden of Love. We have put ourselves in those graves by accepting the rules the Simons have set forth for us. Instead of asking, “Who is this Simon and where did he get his power?” we’re too busy either trying to obey the Simons’ rules or helping the Simons’ come up with new and inventive “thou shalt not” signs to keep even more people from entering the Chapel.

Instead, we must create rituals, educational programs, and call forth for brave preachers and teachers in the church who will show us a new way to respond to God, instead of responding to the Simons and their endless rules. In short, we must begin to play “Mother May I?” seeking our permission from God directly, instead of mediated through Simons and their doctrines and dogma. It’s not the ritual or the doctrine that gets us to God. It’s our own inner searching. It’s the clarion call within us that realizes, in a very basic sense, that we are all hardwired to seek God in our own unique and creative ways. The Simons want to clearly mark out the path and put up foreboding “thou shalt not” signs discourage us from leaving their path. These signs, writ large with doctrine and dogma, become so much litter, so many stumbling blocks, in our path. Transforming the church into a “Mother May I?” church would give people the sense of permission they needed to seek God on their own terms, through their own experiences of God. Women and gays and lesbians, especially have been taught to distrust their own experiences of God. They’re told that whatever conclusions they’ve reached about God’s will for their lives are clearly wrong because they don’t jibe with the biblical doctrines and interpretations set forth by the Simons of the church. A church that follows a “Mother May I?” approach, however, will understand that each person’s search for God in their lives may yield vastly different results.

That said, however, we do need to be reminded that along with the exhilaration of permission there is also the danger of taking our permission too far. When permission leads to objectification of other people, even the rule-keeping Simons of the church, we’ve taken a wrong turn with our permission and are in danger of being sent back to the beginning of our spiritual seeking by our Mother. The results of our search — of exercising our permission — must be good fruit. If our search does not produce “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23), then we have taken a wrong turn and Mother will surely send us back to the starting line. What we are in search of, ultimately, as we exercise our permission is the “good news” that Christ brings to us. Chung reminds us that good news is news that edifies and uplifts. “If religious teaching or practice provides a life-giving power to Asian women so that we can sustain and liberate our lives, that teaching and practice becomes ‘good news’ — gospel — for us. If it makes Asian women die both inside and outside, it becomes ‘bad news.'” [17] It is this “bad news,” conveyed to us by the rigid Simons that puts us into the graves in the Garden of Love. The church needs to begin to recover the “good news” that edifies and empowers all of those who hear it — even those on the margins who are oppressed and have been rendered silent. God calls us to ask permission directly and not pay attention to the Simons who seek to bind us with rhetoric and doctrine.

When we realize that God has already granted us what one of my favorite authors, Joseph Sharp, calls “grand permission” to seek out God’s will for our lives unmediated by the Simons of the world, then we begin to look for “new ways of living” as Johnson says. We have a choice, either we can follow the Simons and, as Johnson says, “close our minds and deny our experience” or we can embrace that grand permission and “use it as a springboard to address and struggle with the causes of suffering.” In this way, Chung says, we “win” the game of “Mother May I?” by ourselves becoming “mothers who will actively participate in the birth of a new spirituality.” [18]