Relationships as Covenants

Professor Jameson said very clearly that his church, evangelical and puritanical, was at the center of his family.  You could only understand them by understanding their faith in Jesus and their deep commitment to Christian doctrine.  His wife nodded.  His teenage daughters nodded.  Even his 15 year old son seemed to agree.

The occasion was an interview that I was conducting for a television pilot.  We wanted to explore—and celebrate, I thought—the great variety of American families.  As I began to explore Professor Jameson’s opening, there was a knock on the one way window that separated us from the camera man and the producer.  The producer was already bored.  The pilot needed something juicy in order to win over his audience.  He wanted to know how the parents dealt with the girls so-far-unexpressed dating desires.  I did too, I said.  Let’s see how a deeply Christian family deals with it.  He wanted to watch them negotiate or argue, which I already knew wouldn’t happen in public, if ever.

Over the next hour, the producer interrupted several times and I never got as deeply as I wanted into the specific covenant that bonded the family together.  That was about twenty-five years ago but I remember it perfectly because it spoke to an idea that has become thematic to me: marriages, families, organizations, and communities who are united by a belief in something beyond themselves, are more securely bonded than those who come together simply on the basis of mutual or negotiated agreement.

The origin of the covenantal idea is biblical.  For example, when Abimelech and Isaac decided to settle their land dispute, they made a binding agreement, a covenant, to live in peace.  When Moses brought the Ten Commandments to the Jewish people, their relationship to the Commandments was said to be covenantal, which I think means that the relationship with God sealed and strengthened the relationship between Moses, the secular leader, and his community.  Thus the Jews were said to be people of the covenant.

The best way to describe covenantal relationships may be by comparing them to what might be called transactional relationships.  In the law, these are written agreements or promises between two or more parties, generally “under seal” and concerning some performance or action.  Transactional contracts are quid pro quo arrangements.  I agree to do this if you do that.  If one of us fails, the other is no longer obligated to fulfill his part of the contract.  There is no assumed relationship, no necessary loyalty, and it can end when either chooses.

Free agency in sports is a good example of how this works.  The dramatic change in employer-employee relations, once a lifetime affair, ensured by loyalty to an almost family-style relationship, and now a matter of financial calculation, also illustrates the transactional style.

There can, of course, be common ground between the two types of agreements.  If, for example, both parties believe that the law, itself, is sacred, if the agreement is thought to be not only formal but also solemn and binding, then the agreement might be considered covenantal.  But in most cases this is not so.

The covenantal relationship is more like a three legged stool.  Two people or groups come to an agreement but another force is present.  It could be God.  It could be a shared sense of mission, a shared set of values—something larger, more important than the two people and the particular agreement.  If this is so, any breach in the agreement is a transgression, not just against the other party but also against God or sacred values.  In that case, you don’t violate the terms of the agreement very readily; nor do you leave the relationship with ease.

There is, however, a complicating factor in covenantal relationships: the assumption of free will.  As in a transactional agreement, a covenantal relationship must be elected.  You have to make a decision and, once made, you have to be all in.

The combination of a binding yet freely elected relationship has a paradoxical quality.  If you opt in why can’t you opt out?  How do you sustain the experience of permanence when you have free will?  I believe that solving this paradox is at the heart of virtually all spiritual and religious experience.  At the risk of extending myself way beyond my own understanding, let me propose a few keys to such a solution.

The first is a willing suspension of disbelief.  You simply insist, internally and externally, that the compact is forever—or, as they say, until death do us part.  During the marriage ceremony, for example, we are aware, cognitively, that divorce is a possibility, but we will ourselves to deny it.  The marriage is forever—and we believe it.

This brings me to the second key to sealing a covenantal relationship: ritual.  Over and again, rituals like anniversary celebrations and yearly religious celebrations of Easter,  Passover, and Ramadan consolidate our connection to past, present, and future.  They remind us emotionally, more than cognitively, that the covenant is eternal and sacred.

The third key is to hold both sides of the apparent contradiction—freedom of choice and permanence—together, in one hand, one breath, hold them so close that they touch and inform one another and no longer seem in conflict.

There is one last quality of covenantal relationships that I want to name.  In Hebrew, it is called hessed, which means loving kindness.  This speaks to the day by day quality of relationships, when discipline and spontaneity combine to bring generosity to one another.  By contrast, the binding power of relationships that lack hessed feels obligatory, tolerable, necessary, reasonable.  But not enhancing.  The very nature of obligatory relationships is that they are often bothersome and, in fact, unreasonable.  When that is so, the parties resist.  The thought of leaving can seem practical and relieving.  Leaving becomes easier.  Short of leaving, checking out, living within the relationship but without strong feelings becomes the norm.

When you combine the sacred quality of a covenantal relationship with free will and loving kindness, relationships become strong and life giving.  This is an idea—an image and a feeling—that has come to me late in life.  I could not be more grateful.

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