Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Held Together

In my continuing quest to share cutting edge thinking with you primarily by ruminating on opinions expressed by people much smarter than me, I herewith reference an essay by David Brooks (“What parking tickets say about how the world turns,” Houston Chronicle, 8/19/06). You may be aware of the high rate of parking tickets accrued by United Nations diplomats in New York City over the years (they have diplomatic immunity and do not have to pay the fines, hence they often park illegally with impunity). Well, according to economists Raymond Fisman and Edward Miguel, it seems that some countries’ diplomats do this far more often than others’ and this opens up a revealing glimpse into the influence of culture. Notably, the diplomats whose nations rank high on the “Transparency International corruption index” (Egypt, Chad, Sudan, Mozambique, Pakistan, Ethiopia and Syria) committed huge numbers of violations. Whereas diplomats from Sweden, Denmark, Japan, Israel, Norway and Canada committed none. Nada.

But wait! If you know you can park illegally and not have to pay the fine, why not do it? Well, this is where values and culture exert their influence. If you know you can steal a shirt from a clothing store and not get caught, what keeps you from stealing it? If you know you can run the toll booth and not get caught, why not do it? Because you believe you are a certain kind of person, the kind of person who doesn’t do those things. And, most probably, you believe you are part of a people who don’t do those kinds of things. You have an identity that has been shaped by the values you have been taught and by your cultural identity. You realize that even though your one transgression will not appreciably affect the status quo, if everyone chose to transgress in that way (e.g., littering, running red lights, paying attention to Paris Hilton, etc.) the world would change considerably for the worse.

Brooks refers in his essay to a speech 65 years ago by Walter Lippman, who noted, and listen closely, that people don’t become happy by satisfying their desires, they become happy by living within a belief system that restrains and gives coherence to their desires. Specifically, “Above all the other necessities of human nature, above the satisfaction of any other need, above hunger, love, pleasure, fame – even life itself – what a person most needs is the conviction that he is contained within the discipline of an ordered existence.”

The Christian faith calls Jesus’ followers to be “contained within the discipline of an ordered existence” which we identify and claim as God’s Kingdom breaking into the world. Paul uses a word in Colossians 1:17 (sunistemi) to proclaim that in Christ all things in the universe “hold together” or “cohere.” Christ and the life he calls his followers to “restrains and gives coherence to our desires.” Christians are, or ought to be, “held together” morally, ethically, and socially by the “belief system” we have adopted as Jesus’ followers. He is the One in whom we locate and live out our identity.

Put simply, there are certain things Christians ought to refrain from doing, and certain things we ought to do, even though we could get away with not doing or doing them, respectively. The good news is that this brings joy and satisfaction to our lives. If we will park there.


Blogger Mike said...

Very good thoughts that bring home our responsibility to live to a higher standard. The most challenging application of this principle to most people (including me) is applying it to the "trivial" things in life, like obeying traffic laws and extending common courtesy to strangers. When we don't make these everyday applications we are erroding the foundations of the larger principle. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this - I need this kind of reminder.

Mike Renzelman

6:59 AM  

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