“Nothing so needs reforming as other people’s habits.
Fanatics will never learn that, though it be written in letters of gold across the sky.
It is the prohibition that makes anything precious.” – Mark Twain
I am a fan of many PBS Documentaries. But one of my favorites, is the three-part series on the history of the temperance movement, prohibition and the passing of the 18th Amendment, and its repeal in the 21st Amendment. The overall theme of the show is that good intentions to reform behavior by means of the passing of laws, don’t always, perhaps never, have good outcomes. The intention of prohibition was to eliminate the bane of alcoholism from the lives of otherwise peaceful American households. The net outcome was that the same country which outlawed the import, production, and sale of alcohol, imported more cocktail shakers than anywhere else on the planet.
Prohibition did not succeed in eliminating alcoholism. In fact, the rate of alcoholism in the U.S. has been the same (hovering right around 10%) for nearly our entire history. What prohibition did, is make criminals out of millions of otherwise law-abiding people. The term “scofflaw,” was invented during a New York Times competition to create a term intended to describe American’s overall attitude to the 18th Amendment and the Volstead Act, which was the law passed for the purpose of providing a legal framework in which to enact said amendment. We had become a nation of scofflaws.
I am not an absolute believer in the cyclical philosophy of history, a sociological/historical concept according to which the periodic nature of history is based on the recurrence of various social processes. But I do think that there is some merit to the idea that themes tend to repeat themselves in history. And honestly, I think politically and theologically we are living through one of those recurrent themes now. My evidence for this assertion is admittedly anecdotal, so read the remainder of this argument with that in mind. I will provide only two examples for my assertion, one of a civic nature and one theological.
First, I will use what I will simply refer to as the “Social Justice Movement.” As I have come to understand it, social justice is a political theory which argues that there are levels to the idea of “justice” several of which transcend those included in standards of civil or criminal law, or economic concepts like supply and demand. Rather, social justice often focuses almost entirely on insisting on “just relationships” between various identified people-groups within society. This is, as far as I can tell, a very well-intentioned set of principles.
But where this goes wrong, I think, is when these principles are used to tell others not only how to live, what to watch, where to give their patronage, but also what to think. In other words, it often seems that the attempt is to reform other people’s external and internal habits. The habits of what they watch, listen to, say, think, and believe. Now, I am a fan of conversation and argumentation. I am fan of being convinced I am wrong, or maybe more so, convincing others that I am right. But that takes honest discussion, frank conversation, sometimes intense argumentation, and occasionally, reasonable concession. Yet, this is all what seems to be lacking from any modern conversation regarding ideas of justice which too often seem to be predetermined by an amorphous group on Twitter or some other “social-network,” which is hardly capable of reasonable discourse. This lack of conversation has perhaps led the state recently reported by the Washington Times which found that 66% of Americans of all political stripes are afraid to speak their minds in public.
What we are left with is a series of prohibitions. Prohibition of words. Prohibition of ideas. Prohibition of conversation. And finally, prohibition of reasoned and reasonable thought. I am a fan of any movement which brings justice, true justice, into our sinful world. Yet I too am a Christian and a realist. My Christianity tells me I live in a world that still lives under the curse of sin and will likely not attain some justice nirvana prior to the return of Christ. So, we do our best and get by with reasonable conversations in an attempt to make things incrementally better as we can. This is what I fear will not happen as long as we all are simply attempting to reform the habits of others. We might even, sadly, end up with a backlash where injustice once more rules the day.
My second example is theological and drawn from my experience within my own church-body. There has been a movement within conservative Lutheranism over the course of the last decade or so, to refocus onto the law and its various uses or functions. Now, for the sake of some brevity I will refrain from going into the long and often misunderstood history of such theology within Lutheranism and its theological and confessional history. Suffice to say, it is more complicated and nuanced than we all too often make it in catechism classes. The point is that a refocusing of our theology on the law, rather than the gospel of Christ, or even a solid law-gospel theology, has tended to draw us to the point where all of us are very interested in reforming other people’s habits.
In fact, in my now thirty some years of studying theology, I have not heard as many conversations as I have in the last five centering on the Latin word habitus (character or moral condition of a person), or as Mark Twain called it, habit. It has become, in my personal and again, anecdotal, experience, nearly an obsession. Now focusing on creating good and God-pleasing habits could never be described as bad. But I am forces to ask two questions: First is it the point of theology? And second, will it work? That it is, will it produce the change in habits it desires?
My answer to both of these has to be a rather emphatic, no. The point of theology, God’s words, or words about God, is the proclamation of Christ Jesus as Lord and Savior and the only hope for the aforementioned sinful world and humanity itself. Paul makes this clear abundantly several times. Again, for brevity sake, just one example. “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” (1 Corinthians 2:2)
So, does it work? Does the attempt to reform the habits of others by means of the law work? Again no. Or maybe, to put the best construction on it, if it does, it does only in the short term. Even our own confessions admit this. Thus, the Formula of Concord in the Solid Declaration claims: “For the Law says indeed that it is God’s will and command that we should walk in a new life, but it does not give the power and ability to begin and do it; but the Holy Ghost, who is given and received, not through the Law, but through the preaching of the Gospel, (Gal. 3:14) renews the heart.”
So, the preaching of the law and even the reform of habit is necessary. But necessary so that we know God’s will and know that we do not live up to it. Thus, the preaching of Gospel is necessary so that we know and believe that Christ has saved us from sin, death, the power of the devil, and even our attempts to reform our habits and the habits of others. And as the Formula says, if our hearts and thus our true habitus is to be changed, it will be by the work of the Holy Spirit by means of the preaching of that same Gospel.
My exhortation in this long blog is that we realize that the absolute prohibition of things causes our sinful minds and hearts to want those things even more. In society, this is almost always a failed experiment, though I look forward to the day when we rebound towards civility and normal conversation once more. The 21st Amendment provided correction to the 18th Amendment and prohibition, the correction to our current conversational prohibition is perhaps already in the works.
Yet, for Christians, our hope is in Christ alone. No attempt to reform our own habits or those of others by means of the law will ever provide the hope and assurance that is only promised the sinner on account of Christ. Fanatics will never learn to stop attempting to reform the habits of others by means of prohibition, though it be written in letters of gold across the sky. Remember we are scofflaws all. But here is the good news, Christ saves even fanatics and scofflaws like you and me from our own good intentions.