External compliances

Faith & Inspiration

There is a stretch of road hard by the local high school that has flashing lights warning of a 15-mile-per-hour restriction that are turned on long before the first students start arriving and remain on long after they have opened their math books. Moreover, the view on this particular road is clear and unobstructed: There are no parked cars, no turns, no blind spots-just a straight thoroughfare. Nevertheless, cars entering the zone dutifully slow to a crawl, then gun the accelerator the second they have passed the end marker.

Now and then a driver who thinks the charade ridiculous will just brazenly barrel through at the normal 25 mph, and now and then I am that driver. The reason that people don't do it more often is not, I think, for love of high schoolers but because of an aversion to speeding tickets. How do I know that? Well, because in other parts of town where there are far more obviously dangerous traffic situations-places where the diminishing of speed would be a good idea-motorists do not elect to proceed with extra caution.

I was reflecting on this the other morning as I crawled through Rices Mill Road feeling like an idiot and a hypocrite. I was thinking philosophically about law and will and character and civics and other lofty ideas. I was pondering a citizenry whose morality is dictated solely by external laws. Will that citizenry ever rise higher than legalism? Is the unfortunate consequence of a society based increasingly on externality that its people will retire their consciences and vainly imagine they are ethically unimpeachable as long as they stick within that imposed righteousness? Will they lose the faculty of doing their own thinking about (in this case) what is a safe and loving way to drive?

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Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn thought so at least in his address "A World Split Apart." The Russian told an American audience about their country:

"Every conflict is solved according to the letter of the law and this is considered to be the ultimate solution. If one is right from a legal point of view, nothing more is required, nobody may mention that one could still not be entirely right, and urge self-restraint or a renunciation of these rights, call for sacrifice and self-risk: this would sound simply absurd. … But a society with no other scale but the legal one is … less worthy of man."

The Apostle Paul, in exhorting the Galatians to stop turning back to the observance of innumerable laws, is not trying to lessen their moral sense but to increase it. Does he tell them to stop putting themselves "under the law" (4:21) in order that they may become licentious and autonomous? No, what he replaces mindless law-observance with is mindful Law observance-the law of love and consideration of others: "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness …" (5:22).

Paul urges that the internal compass is superior to the external compass. Now that the Spirit of God is within us, the kingdom of God burrows inward in a way unprecedented in salvation history. Is our obligation to one another decreased? Nay, it is increased. Thus, not only do we say: It feels stupid to crawl down a street when not a living soul is within a hundred yards. We also say: Lay down your "right" to go the full allowable speed in a 55 mph zone if obvious danger to your fellow man would make that unwise. In short, do not quench the voice of the Spirit within you in slavish tyranny to external law.

Andrée Seu Peterson
Andrée Seu Peterson

Andrée is the author of three books: Won't Let You Go Unless You Bless Me, Normal Kingdom Business, and We Shall Have Spring Again.


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