Monday, March 3, 2014

One of These Things (is not like the other)

When I was younger I really liked that Sesame Street segment that asked you to identify which “one of these things is not like the other?” Typically there were four items with one that was slightly different. As a song played, the viewer had to decide the commonality among items and, by default, which one was “not like the others.” So, fpr example, there might be four bowls of cereal on a table. Three were all the same size, while one was significantly larger.

We could play a form of “one of these things is not like the other” with three things in our culture: instant replay in sports, gun control laws, and the “n-word.” Our game is a little different, however. In our game, we note that there is one common bond between all three things, just as all four items on the table were bowls (in our example above). And, just as one bowl was a little larger than the others, one of our items differs slightly from the others.

Every major sport in the United States now utilizes instant replay in some form or fashion. The goal for using instant replay can be summed up with the phrase “to get it right.” We’ve all seen bad calls in sporting events. And whether we viewed that bad call from the arena or from our sofa, we wished the officials had seen what we (apparently) had seen. But, is getting the call right the only thing going on?

Although the debate over gun control was thrust back into the national spotlight after the tragic events at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT, the attempt to find the most effective way to minimize gun violence is very old. In the United States, the British sought to control colonists by restricting the amount of gunpowder available to them. A hundred years later, frontier town sheriffs sought to lessen gun violence by banning guns in town. These efforts, as well as current laws, are all an attempt to lessen violence. But, there is a bigger problem that hamstrings these efforts.

Most recently, and the thing that inspired this post, is the current fascination with attempting to legislate the use of the “n-word.” This month (Mar 2014) the NFL Competition Committee will convene to consider instituting an automatic 15-yard penalty for on-field use of the "n-word," with a second infraction resulting in ejection from the game. The NBA, too, is facing significant pressure to address the issue. In the midst of all this attention, ESPN ran a special story about Marge Schott on the tenth anniversary of her death. The story highlighted Mrs. Schott’s frequent use of the “n-word” and her views on race. The goal of all these “n-word” rules is obvious and clear: to promote civility and treat others with decency. But, again, I wonder, is there something more fundamental that will hamper this worthwhile goal?

As I think about these three issues, it seems to me that all three have in common a fundamental misunderstanding of the human condition. That is the way in which all three are alike. They all wish to deny the truth of the biblical description of mankind. According to the Bible, Adam and Eve disobeyed God’s command to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The result was a corruption of human nature that separates us from God. The result is that we are unable to obey God and, worse, we are unwilling to do so. The point is that the Bible teaches that the problem is inside of us. It is in our nature. And no matter what kind of restrictions we place on the outside, we cannot change the inside. That fact flies in the face of assumptions that are behind all three of the issues discussed in this post.

Both gun laws and the attempt to legislate human language is an effort to reverse the effects of the fall of humanity without the gospel. Gun laws are developed with the (false) assumption that people are able and wiling to follow the law. The problem is that we have not figured out a way to create legislation that makes people good. The best we can do is attempt to manage evil behavior. And we do not do that very well. Why? Not because we have a lack of laws or because they are poorly written. No. We do not manage evil behavior very well, because the problem is on the inside. And until the inside changes, all the laws in the world cannot protect the innocent.

The attempt to legislate human language has the same problem. The Bible testifies to the power of language. The Proverbs 18:21 tells us that “life and death are in the power of the tongue.” The old notion that “sticks and stones break our bones but words will never hurt me” is patently untrue. With that said, all of the penalties and fines in the world will not change the human heart. Jesus said that it is “the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them” (Mt 15:18). Reigning in the tongue is treating the symptom. The problem is the heart.

Instant replay is a little different. While the other two issues are driven by a denial of the human condition, instant replay is an effort to live as if the results of the fall can be overcome with the right technology and the intelligence to employ it correctly. Every time a call is missed, we are reminded that we live in a broken and fallen world. Those reminders point us to the need for help. We need someone to fix the broken mess. We need someone to fix us. But, rather than turning to Christ, we turn to technology.

In short, our culture’s obsession with making rules in order to force people to behave better is an attempt to reverse the fall without the gospel of Jesus Christ. For all of the good intentions, all three efforts fall woefully short. The reason calls get missed, the reason people commit violent acts with guns, and the reason people use their mouths to disparage those made in God’s image is because we are sinners, separated from God. We don’t need more laws. We don’t need penalties and fines. We don’t need instant replay. We need the grace of God in Christ.

No comments: