On Coercion

This post continues a series of reflections that I began here.

The first problem with discussing same-sex marriage is political. Which is to say, when I say publicly that I’m for or against something in particular people tend to hear that as a political statement. In particular, they hear me say, “I want to ban such-and-such. I want to punish people who engage in such-and-such. I want to prevent them from engaging in such-and-such. I want to coerce them, if necessary, to make them behave the way I think they should.”

The thing is, I’m hugely skeptical of legislative solutions to moral and social problems; and on top of that I’m far more interested in individuals than I am in social engineering, in conversion of life than in saving the world. And while you can sometimes coerce people to do something, you can’t coerce them to want to do something, and you certainly can’t coerce them to choose to do what is right because it is right.

Jesus pointed out that sin begins in the heart. For a man to look at a woman with lust, he says, is as bad (or nearly so) as it is to act on that lust. Coercion, legislative or otherwise, can only prevent the overt act; it cannot prevent the habit of mind and heart. Consequently, when I say I’m for traditional marriage and against same-sex marriage, I am not primarily speaking about politics or legislation; I’m speaking about sin and its effect on people’s souls.

To take a slightly less contentious example than same-sex marriage, 50 Shades of Gray and its sequels have been the top-selling books at Amazon for weeks. Frankly, I think it’s really sad that a book like this is so popular; it’s a real indictment of our society that you can find them in the book section at Walmart. But banning 50 Shades of Gray won’t make people stop craving such things. Worse than that, pornography is a relative thing; the book that were truly racy in the 1940’s are truly tame now. In that sense, all banning dirty books does is change where the mark is set.

So it’s true to say that I’m anti-pornography. I’d truly like to see books like 50 Shades of Gray off of the bookshelves—but not because they are illegal. I’d like to see them off of the bookshelves because the consumers have chosen (freely, not under any kind of duress) not to buy them: because they, themselves, have rediscovered the virtue of chastity.

Please note (here’s some of that nuance) that I’m not denying that there are reasons to legislate against certain things. But what I want to talk about here is the Christian response to sin in peoples’ lives, sin that is already actual rather than potential. And I simply don’t think that coercion brings people to repentance. There’s a role for social action when dealing with a culture’s besetting sins; but ultimately conversion of life occurs one person at a time…and that’s where the real action is.

Another bit of nuance: I’m speaking about sin in general here. Whether and in what sense same-sex marriage might be sinful is a topic for another post.

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