Rules & Relationships

It is common for westerners in India to be amazed at the utter chaos and yet the seemingly laissez-faire attitude of the Indian drivers.  One of our Indian drivers remarked about the traffic:  “In India, nothing is impossible because I-M-Possible.”  He chortled over his cleverness, and repeated that saying many times in our nine day trip.

On a road trip from Agra to Jaipur I fell asleep only to wake up when we slowed down for a pothole the size of a Volkswagen Beetle.  To my surprise, we were surrounded by a herd of camel that was walking along with the traffic.  Camels of all color and all sizes surrounded the car, and a man and his son were calling out behind them to keep them moving.  Another time I looked up from reading my iPad to see a naked man walking slowly across the highway [1].  Even in New Delhi, it is common to see cows wandering through the city streets as business people are driven to work in traffic that is six lanes deep on a three lane stretch of road.

Later in our travels, a fellow tourist in Nepal noted that people in the West (he was German) drive based on rules while people in India drive based on relationships.  It took me a while to figure this one out, but after spending a lot of time in India as well as encountering Indian drivers all over Asia, I believe I understand what is meant  by driving based on relationships. Drivers communicate with other drivers using their horn.  There are often no signs, road markings are not followed, and essentially nothing is illegal or if illegal it is not enforced.  If there is an accident, the drivers need to work it out together.

To give you a taste for it, I will share an interesting story about an Indian man who needed to be in the US on a long term business trip, requiring him to have an international driver’s license.

Ten years ago, when I was heading for America for the first time, an international driving license, I was informed, was essential if I intended to use a car there.  So off I went in pursuit of one.  After making a few inquiries, I soon realized that in order to get an international driving license, I first needed a local one.  This took me to the office of the road transport authority and into a maze of queues.  I was rescued by a tout or middleman sitting on a scooter, parked under a shady neem tree.

Tout:  What do you want?

Self:  A driving license

Tout: Do you have a learner’s?

Self: No.

Tout: Problem, big problem!  Everything has to be organized.  Medical, age, proof of residence . . .

Self:  How much time will it take?

Tout: How much can you pay?

Self: I need it urgently.

Tout:  For getting it within a week, it’ll cost you Rs. 600 (approx. $15)

Self: No, I want it today.

Tout:  Rs. 2,000 ($50).  Four hours only.

Self:  Done.

Tout:  Sign these papers, get a photograph taken under that tent, wait for the driving test over there under the tree.

Self:  I do not have a car.

Tout: It is just a formality, Sir.  He’ll ask if you drive; you say yes.

Self:  When will I get the license?

Tout:  In four hours.

The longest it took in the whole deal was getting the photograph taken.  The rest of it was a cakewalk.

Armed with my new license, I went to get my international driving license.  The person in charge gave me a piece of paper and asked me to learn everything on it well for I was to be “tested.”

At the examination, I could only remember two of the thirty-six odd signs.  The examiner was totally disgusted with the outcome of the examination.  “Very bad, very bad,” I was told.  “I am going to sign your license, but you must go home and learn all the signs.”  I thanked him for signing the license and apologized profusely for not being able to learn all the signs.

Driving in India implies getting from one point to another.  How you do that is your own problem.  Rarely is anyone trained to park, overtake, or drive in one’s lane.  The lines on the road are for decoration.  They don’t mean anything to the drivers.  The rear view mirror is also rarely used; most of the time it is kept folded.  With so much chaos in front of the vehicles, drivers hardly bother to see what is happening in the rear.  In fact, the three things you require most on Indian roads are — Good Horn, Good Brakes & Good Luck. [2]

If you can still grab onto something, there’s more room.  This is a common sight in India.  People will hang on for hours to get to their destination.

This idea of driving based on relationships is an unusual one, but think of it this way.  Every move you make as a driver in India is negotiated with the others around you, not based on road signs, laws governing right of way, etc.  If you want to get where you need to go, you have to communicate with those other drivers and watch their actions to understand their intentions.  You can’t go on auto-pilot following the rules without taking into account the actions of all the rest of your traffic community.  It is all about the unpredictable things you will encounter and deal with.  People are just glad to arrive alive at their destination with no personal injury or damage to their car.  They don’t wish each other ill in the process, knowing they are all just doing their best.

Contrast this with Western driving where anyone not following the rules is considered a danger to self and others, a person to be dealt with sternly.  It’s simply a different mindset.  When a driver acts rashly or unpredictably, that person doesn’t deserve the same privilege you do of being allowed to drive, a privilege you believe you have earned by following the rules.  Again, if neither of you had been given any instruction or passed a driving test to be there, you might be more forgiving of their errors.  Perhaps we would have more defensive driving, watching out for each other, and less road rage.  For some, the rules give a false sense of security.  We believe that if we follow the rules, nothing bad will happen to us.  Conversely, if something bad does happen, it must have been deserved.  A rule must have been broken.

Typical traffic in India: cars, tuk-tuks, motorbikes, rickshaws, pedestrians, all jockeying for space to move toward their destination.

On another forum, someone mentioned having been a temple worker but being frustrated that there was so much emphasis on making minor corrections.  I made a similar observation when attending the Atlanta temple.  In returning my rented temple clothes, a female locker room attendant took me to task for not pinning the sash together in some way I had never seen before.  I asked my mom about it later (she was a worker in the temple at the time), and she defended the practice saying you couldn’t return the ceremonial clothes without properly pinning it together.  What was I thinking?  Didn’t I know anything?  I assured her this was the only temple in the dozens I had attended that had this expectation.  She was incredulous and still felt their practice was correct.  We love our rules and the sense of control they give us.

I have also noticed that some wards are more observant than others about ensuring the sacrament prayers are read exactly correctly, even taking up to 18 tries in one prayer attempt in a sacrament meeting I attended a few years ago.  For a time, the instruction was to let the prayers go without perfection, but this has reverted to a requirement to read them letter perfect again.

I recently finished a book called Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes about the ways that Westerners interpret scripture through our own cultural lens without realizing that the people in scriptures did not live in a culture that resembled our own.  One chapter talked about the issue of relationships and rules, which accords with my own experiences living in Asia.  Westerners tend to view all relationships in terms of rules or laws or contracts; these are somewhat superficial relationships and the laws place limitations on them to protect both parties by spelling out obligations.  In the ancient world, the rules existed but they were only the visible part above the surface, not the entirety of the relationship.  They did not limit the relationship, and relationships had obligations that ran deep.  Most Westerners assume that the Bible delineates natural and spiritual laws.  We take a very legalistic or rules-only view on the book when these cultures did not view the world through a legalistic lens.

Once we define relationships with rules, Western readers typically assume that rules (in the form of laws) must apply 100 percent of the time; otherwise, the rule is “broken.”  Likewise, rules (in the form of promises) apply to 100 percent of the people involved and apply equally; otherwise, we consider the rule to be unfair.  Since God is both reliable and fair, surely his rules must apply equally to all people. . . . In the ancient world, rules were not expected to apply 100 percent of the time.  Israel did not keep the rules and God complained about it, but we often gloss over the reality that the rules had been broken for centuries.  The covenant, however, was broken only when it became clear that the relationship was over.  The end came when the relationship, not the rules, was broken.

The book goes on to cite another example of what happened in a meeting of the Convention of Indonesian Baptist Churches the author visited, and his conversation with the leader there.

“I thought this meeting was for pastors only,” I remarked to the conference organizer.

“It is,” he replied.

“But there were women in the audience,” I pointed out.


Now I was confused.  “But your laws say pastors must be male!” I exclaimed.

The convention president calmly replied, “Yes, and most of them are.”

Goodness.  His answer represents a fundamentally different view of law.  To the non-Western mind, it seems, a law is more a guideline. [3]

It goes without saying that our Western focus on rules colors our approach to how we interpret the gospel and practice our religion.  After my experiences in India, though, I started to question some of my natural assumptions about rules, relationships and keeping score of right and wrong.  Cultural habits are hard to break.  But nothing is impossible.  After all, I Am Possible.



[1] Sadhus are a fairly common sight in India.  These are men who’ve entered the fourth and final stage of life and are preparing for death by renouncing all their worldly goods (and often their clothes) and even their family relationships.

[2] The Holy Cow and Other Indian Stories by Tarun Chopra.

[3] Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible by E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien


  1. I gave more thought to the importance or otherwise of rote sacrament prayers when my husband pointed out that the retranslation of the Japanese language scriptures meant amongst other things that the sacrament prayers were different. They weren’t the only things to change either, updating the language went beyond simply updating the scripture.

  2. The Austrian traffic regulations strike a useful balance in my view, establishing on the one hand a “principle of trust”–what better basis for a relationship?–that one may assume competence among other road users while on the other requiring drivers to pay special attention to those who are clearly not competent (my own translation):

    (1 ) The use of the road requires constant caution and mutual consideration; this notwithstanding, road users may trust that others are following the relevant laws for the use of road unless it must be assumed that the persons encountered are children, people with visual impairment identified with a white cane or a yellow armband, people with obvious physical disabilities or persons whose demeanor makes it evident that they are unable to recognize the dangers of the road, or to behave in accordance with this insight.
    ( 2 ) The driver of a vehicle shall behave in such a manner so as to exclude risk to any person to whom the principle of trust pursuant to para. 1 does not apply, in particular by reducing speed and being ready to brake.

  3. This post speaks to me more than any other you have written. Living in Moldova at the moment, my family and I have had similar insights regarding the contrast in driving standards and laws, etc… I love the extension to how we interpret our covenant relationships and the rules that help us respect them. Worth reflecting on.

  4. I should have said, more than any other of your posts that I’ve read. I don’t presume to have read them all. :-)

  5. Geoff - Aus says:

    Having just travelled to Rome, Athens, Ephesus, etc, and having the culture of the time of Christ explained by local guides, one of the things that struck me was that one of the gods worshipped at the time was a God of love/sex. When you hear the term Roman orgy, a religious festival is being described. The scriptures in Romans, used to oppose homosexuality, are probably talking about straight people who don’t have our restrictions on what is acceptable.

  6. John Mansfield says:

    With the driving example, it seems there should have been something written about the effectiveness of driving in India beyond simply noting that they do it. Such as: How long does it take to drive two miles across a city center compared with a Western city? What’s the fatality rate per person or per mile? How widespread are the benefits of driving? Wishing such context were included probably means I’m distracted from the intended direction of this essay, which seems to be to keep in mind that other cultures see things differently. My distraction may be one more example of that point.

  7. Hope Wiltfong says:

    Very interesting reading – thank you for sharing!

  8. This is great stuff, Angela, and it gets to things I’ve been thinking about for a very long time. Thank you!

  9. When a major earthquake strikes, do you want to be in a country where building codes are about relationships, or about rules that are followed exactly 100% of the time?

  10. Cliff, I think you are missing the point.

    The post isn’t about how driving in India is better than America. It’s to show how different cultures have completely different ways of thinking about things and how that paradigm shift could improve our understanding of the gospel.

  11. “Contrast this with Western driving where anyone not following the rules is considered a danger to self and others, a person to be dealt with sternly.”
    Only when it’s not us not following the rules. If it is us, then the proper response is “everyone else was doing what I did”.

    “We believe that if we follow the rules, nothing bad will happen to us. Conversely, if something bad does happen, it must have been deserved.”
    Only when it happens to someone else. If something bad happens to us, it must have been someone else’s fault, even if we were the ones not following “the rules”.

    I think it’s not so much knowing that they are breaking the rules they learned as not giving a flying flip about other peoples circumstance or reasoning unless it effects us.

  12. Well, there is a reason we have laws, rules, etc. This is not to say that a society which uses laws and enforces those laws will always get the end result the best. It’s a work in progress. In India, their lack of road laws and obedience creates more confusion, more congestion, more accidents, more problems, etc. Traffic laws work best when the roads, signs, laws all work in concert to provide the fastest, safest and clearest routes between destinations. It’s about consistency and the efficiency of processes. Think of it this way- suppose there was the same mass chaos of India streets happening in downtown New York. Traffic would basically go nowhere and chaos on a mass scale would result. God’s house is a house of order. This not to say that the rules we have in our church are perfect, it’s a work in progress. It is very important that we do have the rules we choose and obey them to the point where we see areas where we need changes, make those changes and again all conform a little more into perfection. That’s how we make progress and become successful as a whole. The problems that arise in church are almost entirely when we start to march to our own beat instead of according to rules and guidelines. God’s house is a house of order. Our church, because of the strictness of rules and guidelines, has the greatest capacity to run more perfectly than any other church on the earth because it causes it’s members to all march to the same beat. It’s called “discipline”.

  13. To attempt to answer John Mansfield’s questions, I am a LA resident and recent ex-Bangalore expatriate. While in LA it can take days to get places, in Bangalore it takes years. I would imagine fatality rates are low because it is virtually impossible to ever go above say 30 mph, what with the traffic, cows, and potholes. And driving is not widespread. Most rely on public transport, including myself, whose company would not allow me to drive while there (but provided instead a car and driver, which was awesome)!

    If we are going to discuss rules and relationships, I think it’s important to also discuss that relationships in India also heavily involve the caste system. Money certainly greases the wheels (as illustrated in the story of obtaining a license, and I should point out that you can pay locals to stand in long lines on your behalf, again, awesome) and the caste system can shift the line drastically, so that within a New Dehli minute you go from being third in line to thirtieth in line. Because the Reddy family has entered the building.

    To wit, one waits everywhere in India. In the grocery store, there is no queue. The most aggressive person buys groceries first, and so on and so forth. Sometime relying on relationships can be just as harmful as being a stickler about the rules. Rules provide a feeling of equity in the world; relationship provide a sense of favortism and nepotism. In contrast, as illustrated in the context of the temple, the rules can make someone extremely apprehensive and embarrassed at their experience, whereas a relationship perspective may decrease this somewhat.

    I suppose there is a time and season for each.

  14. I think this also adds perspective on the Mosaic Law. Two much relationship-culture among the ancient Israelites. Time to teach them strict obedience to law.

  15. Mormons worship rules. Literally. What other religion would come up with “The First Law of Heaven is Obedience”? Seriously, what society (other than ours) has ever written a statute that says: “Our first rule is that you must obey the rules.” Huh?

    Apart from the fact that there is no scriptural support for this latter-day maxim, when you stop and think about it, it’s not really a “law.” A “law,” by definition, is something that must be obeyed, unless an exception applies. Why the redundancy? Unless your motive to command unwavering, blind obedience, in which even you should have voted for the other guy’s plan in the pre-existence.

  16. Farside,

    We have freedom by having rules and laws of obedience. Lucifer wanted disobedience, God requires obedience. Why does God’s kingdom require obedience to laws? Because it’s through obedience that we become saved from Satan’s chains. That sustained obedience to eternal principles and laws allows us our freedom and capacity to exercise agency.

  17. To extend the metaphor —
    1. In the center of town in Belmont, Massachusetts, there is an intersection that has streets going five ways under a railroad overpass. There is no stoplight, stop sign, or yield marker. It is a busy intersection and yet people pay attention to each other and take turns, the traffic flows, and the throughput, I am told, is better than under any controlling arrangement tried.
    2. Through the center of Chicago runs the Kennedy Expressway (also I-90 and I-94 both, for a stretch). The Kennedy is notorious or famous for bumper-to-bumper traffic at 55 mph. Also for out-of-town drivers at the side of road shaking with fear. There are signs and lane dividers–the whole works of modern Western highways–but rule-bound driving fails; it just doesn’t work fast enough. What does work is everybody paying attention to everybody else with a reasonably consistent set of expectations.

  18. Ron, you mischaracterize Lucifer’s proposition: he wanted to compel obedience with a guarantee that all would be saved, an approach Mormon culture often seems to emulate—but without offering the same ironclad guarantees.

    The gospel of Jesus Christ places far greater emphasis on love, mercy, grace and agency than obedience. Indeed, it is noteworthy that the Savior never once in the four Gospels used the word “obey” or “obedience” with reference to his commandments. Instead, he said “Come, follow me” and “If you love me, ‘keep’ my commandments.” The Greek word for “keep,” as used in this context, means “honor” or “respect.” There is a separate Greek word for “obey” that appears in other places such as: “Who is this? He commands even the winds and the water, and they obey Him!” Matt. 8:27.

    Christ never uttered the words “The first law of Heaven is obedience” and it would seem totally out of character if He did. Rather, this is a modern-day invention whose primary purpose seems to be to encourage conformity and discourage questioning, to treat individuals as if they were “the winds at the water.” Regrettably, it seems to be working.

  19. PassTheChips says:

    “Because it’s through obedience that we become saved from Satan’s chains. ”

    Uh, thankfully no.

  20. Although I think incidental to the point of this post but not the comments, I wanted to point out that there is a substantial area of study, originating in experiments in Holland, that show removing traffic lights and other rules of the road can be both safer and more efficient, and a number of towns in Holland and the UK have adopted this approach. This was a hot topic a few years ago. Google Drachten if you are interested.

    There are deep undercurrents to this argument that implicate politics and religion – organic development versus rationalized systems, etc.

  21. What was that article of faith…3 We believe that through the Atonement of Christ, all mankind may be saved, by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the Gospel.

    Satan wasn’t about forcing obedience. Satan is a liar. All he wants is for us to be disobedient so that we fall into his power to chain us down.

  22. DCL @4:58 Thanks for the name Drachten. I have looked for this information.
    The “deep undercurrents” that implicate politics and religion deserve more attention. I do not think this incidental to the OP, because it challenges the common Western (and Mormon, as shown in comments) view that rules are best, i.e., most efficient, most productive, most salvific.

  23. Traffic roundabouts are pretty common at junctions in Britain, though there seems to be a limit to the traffic flow they can cope with before traffic lights are installed on the roundabouts at particularly busy junctions.

  24. PassTheChips says:

    “Salvation cannot be bought with the currency of obedience; it is purchased by the blood of the Son of God. Thinking that we can trade our good works for salvation is like buying a plane ticket and then supposing we own the airline. Or thinking that after paying rent for mour home, we now hold title to the entire planet earth.”

  25. The gateway to salvation is repentance and baptism. Obedience to eternal law is a requirement to gain salvation.

  26. John Mansfield says:

    Could life in India centered on relationships rather than rules have anything to do with the hobby of competitive memorization (spelling bees and digits of pi)? It is easy to imagine people exhausted from their “relationships” via honking horns and jostling for position seeking a reprieve with the dictionary or an unchanging page of impersonal digits.

  27. Rob, we are not saved by our obedience. We are saved by Christ. It isn’t a matter of our obeying and doing all we can and Christ making up the rest; rather, Christ does all and we obey and do all we can in gratitude. Our obedience is a natural result of our faith and gratitude for the Atonement. The Atonement is not conditional.

  28. Lovely article and fascinating comments. I found myself nodding in agreement to the arguments for order over relationships. Order is more efficient. Order does create more production and safety. But then as I was thinking about it last night, it occurred to me that while order does have those strengths, are they the actual goal? Is God seeking efficiency, production, and safety? Or is God seeking unity in our relationships?

  29. Nrc42,
    I think we are saying the same thing. To clarify- we must repent and be baptized to be entered into the path of salvation.

  30. The whole post seems to rest upon the unspoken premise that “rules” or commandments are some sort of punishment sent to us by a judgmental God. As an antidote, I’d recommend you spend the weekend thinking about just what the Lord meant in D&C 59:4.

  31. I have found that if you keep in mind the spirit of the law, exceptions are far easier to encourage. I call it country driving. We follow rules generally, but cows and huge tractors and pot holes and things happen. People wave and work things out. It’s much better than the no rules traffic I experienced in parts of my mission. I have found chaos has it’s own rules…bullies and caste and money. equality means everyone stops at the stop sign except the tractor and that dude who ran out of gas and… country driving.

  32. Country driving – I like that! I grew up in rural PA, and most of the country roads had no real “rules” but we all knew animals were going to do what they wanted, and hitting them while being right wasn’t going to do anybody any good.

    I was teaching the lesson on Romans today, and it was interesting to note that Paul was really taking the Jewish Christians to task over their love of the rules or law rather than their acceptance of God’s grace and their ability to trust God and have a relationship with God rather than policing behavior. It seems we are more like the early Jewish Christians than ever.

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