Sunday, October 31, 2010
I have been thinking this week about one way in which behavior, attitudes and beliefs change in the context of coercion.
In the present culture in which people are encouraged to “do their own thing,” it is considered a serious violation of individual freedom to compel anyone to do anything. Nevertheless, despite its bad reputation, on occasion coercion appears to bring about desirable change in relatively short order. This seductive “short cut” between coercion and change is a fascinating one. It occurs in ordinary life events although we may be too distracted to identify what we see.
On a recent road trip I travelled several hours on a two lane highway through rolling hill-covered countryside that made assured clear passing lanes short and, to frustrated travelers, very far between.
As the miles (and time) crept by, the risks being taken by impatient drivers increased noticeably; distance between vehicles shortened while bursts of speed and abrupt braking increased as people attempted with increasing frequency to pass in the no passing zones.
Then a change came. Speed slowed dramatically; distance between vehicles lengthened. Efforts to pass in no passing zones ceased entirely.
“What is happening to traffic?” I asked.
My friend who was driving smiled. “I can’t see yet, but my guess is that somewhere ahead of us someone has spotted a highway patrolman.”
Sure enough, as we crested the next hill we too could see a patrol car parked carefully off the highway at the edge of an intersecting country road. As we passed we could see the patrolman sitting peacefully, watching the crowded two-lane traffic moving carefully with commendable attention to speed limits and the no passing zones.
Simply by sitting quietly in his visibly marked patrol car, the patrolman had evoked major visible positive change—increased safety, decreased risk of injury or death. He had, in effect, “made” a group of irritable, law-breaking drivers into model citizens. No passing in the no passing zones under his watchful supervision.
“That’s the command presence of the Law,” my friend smiled as we drove past, “but let’s see how long this improvement lasts.”
As you have likely guessed, this changed behavior lasted through six hills and the crossing of a narrow country bridge. The change continued only until drivers judged the police radar had become unreliable and the patrolman’s vision had become blocked by woods and hills and a long slow curve in the road. Once through the curve and across the bridge, to no one’s surprise, the driver’s speed resumed, and attempted passing in the no passing zone became once more the norm.
I’ve been thinking lately about Paul’s letter to the Roman church, and his careful analysis of the relationship of the law to change in human behavior. I was intrigued by this “road” demonstration in part because it demonstrated Paul’s argument that Law (even Torah) could not produce the change in human behavior that God desires. Paul’s argument, played out on that winding two-lane road, was that the Law demonstrates both human willingness to break the Law, and, ultimately, human inability to keep the Law. Only when the human heart is changed, Paul argued, does lasting change emerge in behavior.
The Law is good, Paul argued; but gaining that kind of human heart change required more than the gift of Torah , to God’s great cost.
“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold the new has come.” 2 Cor. 5:17 RSV
The problem is, of course, that the “new” does not translate immediately into behavior that is perfect and unchangeable. Change comes, but this new life is worked out in the “already but not yet” of driving winding country roads.
Thinking with you about the necessity for change that is greater than rule deep.
See you next week.