When bad laws happen through good people

Following on from Jacques Ellul’s reflections on how all political power is suspect, even when wielded by Christians, some interesting thoughts from Dietrich Bonhoeffer on an example of how one law passed according to “Christian principles” proved disastrously counterproductive.

This is taken from Charles Ringma’s splendid little book Seize the Day (with Dietrich Bonhoeffer), which consists of 365 devotions in which a short extract from Bonhoeffer’s writings is followed by reflections from Ringma. This is the entry for March 19th (the first paragraph is Bonhoeffer, the rest is Ringma):

“In carrying through the prohibition law in the 18th Amendment… American Christianity… has had to recognise that the transference of Christian principles to state life has led to a catastrophic breakdown. The prohibition law gave an unprecedented impulse to crime in the larger cities. – from No Rusty Swords

Sometimes Christians assume that if only they were in power the world would be a better place. But the personal values that Christians hold aren’t so easily translated into social values and laws. And more particularly, good social initiatives can have unintended consequences.

The complexity of all this, however, should not reduce us to social inactivism. Christians also have a responsibility to work for a better world. What should characterise us is a willingness to experiment, do our homework, work for gradual change, recognise that there aren’t any easy answers and display a humility marked by wisdom.

Thought: Is it better for us to be salt than to have power?

Certainly when I saw the film Once Upon a Time in America recently, I was struck by the long-term power and wealth that Prohibition gave to organised crime (a theme of numerous other films, not least the Godfather movies). And I don’t think Bonhoeffer’s point is affected at all by the question of whether Prohibition was even right in principle (which it wasn’t).

As for the general point, this is also made rather well in a similar book by Ringma, Resist the Powers (with Jacques Ellul). In the entry for July 11th, Ringma quotes Ellul as follows:

“God’s order has more to do with the practice of love, justice and mercy than it has to do with the creation of systems and institutions.”

Ringma then observes that, while God has in fact given us institutions such as the church, the family and political authority (not sure Ellul would agree with Ringma here!), when we focus on these in themselves we can miss the point:

The emphasis to us then becomes: Get the structures right and we will express God’s rule on earth. But this can get us way off the mark. For the emphasis should fall not so much on the structures themselves, but on the quality of life these structures are meant to reflect.

“Get the structures right” – and, we might add, get the right people (i.e. Christians) in charge of those structures – “and we will express God’s rule on earth”: a fitting epitaph for much “Christian” political endeavour.

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21 Responses to When bad laws happen through good people

  1. pduggie says:

    I’d question why prohibition is considered an expression of ‘Christian principles’ being applied at all, since biblical Christian principles don’t actually forbid alchohol.
    What would be an example of a principled Christian restraint on evil that *is* by bonhoeffer’s point?
    Certainly, if Christians were in power, they would have all kinds of authority to enact things that are not actually Christian, just like pagans currently do.

  2. pduggie says:

    I’d question why prohibition is considered an expression of ‘Christian principles’ being applied at all, since biblical Christian principles don’t actually forbid alchohol.
    What would be an example of a principled Christian restraint on evil that *is* by bonhoeffer’s point?
    Certainly, if Christians were in power, they would have all kinds of authority to enact things that are not actually Christian, just like pagans currently do.

  3. pduggie says:

    I’d question why prohibition is considered an expression of ‘Christian principles’ being applied at all, since biblical Christian principles don’t actually forbid alchohol.
    What would be an example of a principled Christian restraint on evil that *is* by bonhoeffer’s point?
    Certainly, if Christians were in power, they would have all kinds of authority to enact things that are not actually Christian, just like pagans currently do.

  4. pduggie says:

    I’d question why prohibition is considered an expression of ‘Christian principles’ being applied at all, since biblical Christian principles don’t actually forbid alchohol.
    What would be an example of a principled Christian restraint on evil that *is* by bonhoeffer’s point?
    Certainly, if Christians were in power, they would have all kinds of authority to enact things that are not actually Christian, just like pagans currently do.

  5. John H says:

    pduggie – I agree that Christian supporters of Prohibition were mistaken to see it as a biblical principle (and Bonhoeffer would have taken the same view, no doubt), but as I said in my post, I don’t believe that makes a difference to the key point.
    It’s worth reflecting, for example, on what would happen if laws were passed tomorrow outlawing pornography, homosexual activity, adultery etc. I suspect “the law of unintended consequences” would apply just as much in those cases as it did with Prohibition.
    “…if Christians were in power…” – hmm. Last time I looked, quite a lot of them were.

  6. John H says:

    pduggie – I agree that Christian supporters of Prohibition were mistaken to see it as a biblical principle (and Bonhoeffer would have taken the same view, no doubt), but as I said in my post, I don’t believe that makes a difference to the key point.
    It’s worth reflecting, for example, on what would happen if laws were passed tomorrow outlawing pornography, homosexual activity, adultery etc. I suspect “the law of unintended consequences” would apply just as much in those cases as it did with Prohibition.
    “…if Christians were in power…” – hmm. Last time I looked, quite a lot of them were.

  7. John H says:

    pduggie – I agree that Christian supporters of Prohibition were mistaken to see it as a biblical principle (and Bonhoeffer would have taken the same view, no doubt), but as I said in my post, I don’t believe that makes a difference to the key point.
    It’s worth reflecting, for example, on what would happen if laws were passed tomorrow outlawing pornography, homosexual activity, adultery etc. I suspect “the law of unintended consequences” would apply just as much in those cases as it did with Prohibition.
    “…if Christians were in power…” – hmm. Last time I looked, quite a lot of them were.

  8. John H says:

    pduggie – I agree that Christian supporters of Prohibition were mistaken to see it as a biblical principle (and Bonhoeffer would have taken the same view, no doubt), but as I said in my post, I don’t believe that makes a difference to the key point.
    It’s worth reflecting, for example, on what would happen if laws were passed tomorrow outlawing pornography, homosexual activity, adultery etc. I suspect “the law of unintended consequences” would apply just as much in those cases as it did with Prohibition.
    “…if Christians were in power…” – hmm. Last time I looked, quite a lot of them were.

  9. Aww, c’mon John, you know that’s just a shadow gov’t whose strings are being pulled by that gang of nefarious, ever-present, secret cabal of Illuminati. 😉

  10. Aww, c’mon John, you know that’s just a shadow gov’t whose strings are being pulled by that gang of nefarious, ever-present, secret cabal of Illuminati. 😉

  11. Aww, c’mon John, you know that’s just a shadow gov’t whose strings are being pulled by that gang of nefarious, ever-present, secret cabal of Illuminati. 😉

  12. Aww, c’mon John, you know that’s just a shadow gov’t whose strings are being pulled by that gang of nefarious, ever-present, secret cabal of Illuminati. 😉

  13. Rick Ritchie says:

    The Prohibition example is interesting, as there would be a Christian value of sobriety, along with a lot of observations about the deleterious effects of alcoholism on the family which were considered. True, the Bible does not prohibit alcohol. But it does teach values such that people some time ago thought could make a case for Prohibition. I think Bonhoeffer’s point was that there are a lot of times where people think that the translation of Biblical values into policy will be a simple affair, and it turns out not to be.

  14. Rick Ritchie says:

    The Prohibition example is interesting, as there would be a Christian value of sobriety, along with a lot of observations about the deleterious effects of alcoholism on the family which were considered. True, the Bible does not prohibit alcohol. But it does teach values such that people some time ago thought could make a case for Prohibition. I think Bonhoeffer’s point was that there are a lot of times where people think that the translation of Biblical values into policy will be a simple affair, and it turns out not to be.

  15. Rick Ritchie says:

    The Prohibition example is interesting, as there would be a Christian value of sobriety, along with a lot of observations about the deleterious effects of alcoholism on the family which were considered. True, the Bible does not prohibit alcohol. But it does teach values such that people some time ago thought could make a case for Prohibition. I think Bonhoeffer’s point was that there are a lot of times where people think that the translation of Biblical values into policy will be a simple affair, and it turns out not to be.

  16. Rick Ritchie says:

    The Prohibition example is interesting, as there would be a Christian value of sobriety, along with a lot of observations about the deleterious effects of alcoholism on the family which were considered. True, the Bible does not prohibit alcohol. But it does teach values such that people some time ago thought could make a case for Prohibition. I think Bonhoeffer’s point was that there are a lot of times where people think that the translation of Biblical values into policy will be a simple affair, and it turns out not to be.

  17. Toad says:

    Now we just need to honor the 21st amendment and allow alcohol to be sold in every county, even on Sundays.
    There is no day preference for buying guns, printing news papers or freedom of speech is there?

  18. Toad says:

    Now we just need to honor the 21st amendment and allow alcohol to be sold in every county, even on Sundays.
    There is no day preference for buying guns, printing news papers or freedom of speech is there?

  19. Toad says:

    Now we just need to honor the 21st amendment and allow alcohol to be sold in every county, even on Sundays.
    There is no day preference for buying guns, printing news papers or freedom of speech is there?

  20. Toad says:

    Now we just need to honor the 21st amendment and allow alcohol to be sold in every county, even on Sundays.
    There is no day preference for buying guns, printing news papers or freedom of speech is there?

  21. Pingback: Confessing Evangelical » Blog Archive »

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