No Other Way
Listen to “No Other Way” by Fred Smith
Most of us are familiar with William Wilberforce for his long but ultimately successful struggle to abolish the slave trade in England. “God Almighty has set before me two great objects: the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of manners.” We know far more about the first object than the latter but it is that reformation of manners that interests me as we watch our country head into a similar reformation in a search for all manner of purity.
He became concerned about the large number of death sentences carried out in England at that time. Believing that people punished for petty crimes would be less likely to drift into more serious crimes such as murder, he petitioned King George III to issue a Royal Proclamation urging punishment for all “manner of vice, profaneness, and immorality, in all persons of whatsoever degree or quality, within this our realm.” Setting up the Society for the Suppression of Vice, Wilberforce declared his intent to “prosecute all those guilty of excessive drinking, profane swearing and cursing, lewdness, profanation of the Lord’s Day, and other dissolute, immoral, or disorderly practices.” While well-intentioned, the Society was far less successful in reforming crass behavior than abolishing slavery.
In times of upheaval and uncertainty these movements are appealing. They are elegant, if drastic, solutions to the problems we face. It was H.L. Mencken who said, “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”
Obedience To The Unenforceable
I prefer the model described by Lord Moulton in a 1924 essay in “The Atlantic Monthly” titled “Obedience to the Unenforceable.” “There are three great domains of Human Action. First comes the domain of Positive Law, where our actions are prescribed by laws binding upon us which must be obeyed. Next comes the domain of Free Choice, which includes all those actions as to which we claim and enjoy complete freedom. But between these two there is a third large and important domain in which there rules neither Positive Law nor Absolute Freedom. In that domain there is no law which inexorably determines our course of action, and yet we feel that we are not free to choose as we would.” This is what Lord Moulton named the domain of Obedience to the Unenforceable. It is obedience that cannot be forced because we choose – for whatever reasons – to enforce it upon ourselves.
Of course, there is pressure on this domain from both sides. Many want to increase the powers of the Law to prescribe increasingly stringent and detailed regulations for every part of our lives. We no longer trust ourselves to do the right thing without a stick and unless there is a regulation we do not know what is right on our own. It is the opposite of the conditions of Israel when every man did what was right in his own eyes. No one knows any longer what is right unless an outside authority declares it so. Everything must be defined and imposed by either legislation or agencies. On the other hand, there are those who rebel against any form of regulation – even for the good of others – and desire complete license. These are the ones who demand absolute freedom from restraint and even at the risk for those around them are determined to go their own way. Both sides are hoping to squeeze and narrow the scope of the domain of obedience to the unenforceable.
“The real greatness of a nation, its true civilization, is measured by the extent of this land of Obedience to the Unenforceable. It measures the extent to which the nation trusts its citizens, and its existence and area testify to the way they behave in response to that trust. Mere obedience to Law does not measure the greatness of a Nation. It can easily be obtained by a strong executive, and most easily of all from a timorous people. Nor is the license of behavior which so often accompanies the absence of Law, and which is miscalled Liberty, a proof of greatness. The true test is the extent to which the individuals composing the nation can be trusted to obey self-imposed law.”
This is my hope for our country. There are those bent on legislating and determining the rightness of all behavior – past and present – while mandating for us endless definitions of what is pure and what is not. As well, there are many I consider just as reckless who refuse to obey any rule or regulation that constrains their personal freedom. Can we rediscover and expand that elusive middle domain where we do not give up freedom to excessive regulation or sacrifice order for license? Can we together sing the words “trust and obey for there’s no other way” again? I pray we will.
Art by Norman Rockwell
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