Ties That Bind

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Listen to “Ties that Bind” by Fred Smith


In his address to the National Parliamentary Prayer Breakfast in Westminister Hall last month, Tim Keller tells the tragic story of the shooting of ten little Amish girls in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania in 2006. It is a remarkable account of forgiveness and grace on the part of the families. In fact, over half of those in attendance at the killer’s funeral were Amish. Three scholars of Amish history and culture were prompted to write the book “Amish Grace” that exposed many for the first time to the deeply rooted practice of forgiveness in Amish spirituality that is an everyday part of their life. For me, what is even more remarkable is the fact that no minister or church instructed its members to offer forgiveness to the killer or to extend kindnesses to his widow. “These actions were born of a lifetime of practice,” writes Anna Keating in her review of the book in “The Catholic Catalogue.”

In 1912, Lord Moulton, a British Parliamentarian, spoke to the Authors’ Club in London. His impromptu speech was later titled “Law and Manners” and the response of the families in Nickel Mines reminded me of his remarks so many years before.

According to Lord Moulton, 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.” For everything, there is a rule or regulation. All disputes and disagreements must eventually be settled by the Law. There is no latitude for discernment, judgment or settlement “out of court” and the most important issue of the day is who will be the final arbiter. Who will enforce obedience? In that, it reminds me of our own time when picking the right Supreme Court Justice reflects our belief that all the important matters of the culture will eventually be decided by the Court. But, as Marc O. DeGirolami and Kevin C. Walsh write in the New York Times, “Let us not get our hopes too high..the Supreme Court cannot save a degraded culture, nor can it degrade a virtuous one…Conservatives seeking lasting change are better advised to attend our failures in the broader culture than to prepare the way for our Supreme Court savior.” A culture bound together only by Law is brittle.

The second Domain on the opposite end of the spectrum is Free Choice, which includes all those actions which we claim and enjoy with complete freedom. “From this domain comes all the spontaneity, originality, and energy of a nation. The great movements which make the history of a country start there. It covers a precious space where the actions of men are not only such as they choose, but have a right to claim freedom even from criticism. Men must keep safely guarded this right to follow the bent of their nature in proper cases and act as they would without anyone having the right to utter a word of dictation or command.” There is no call for obedience. We are bound by freedom.

But, between these two there is a third large and important domain in which there rules neither total Law or Absolute Freedom. “In that domain, there is no law which solely determines our course of action, and yet we feel we are not free to choose as we would…it is the Domain of Obedience to the Unenforceable. The obedience is the obedience of a man to that which he cannot be forced to obey. He is the enforcer of the law upon himself.”

My own concerns are echoes of his. In times of uncertainty and fear, we tend to swing toward one side or the other – total individual freedom with no dictates or the rigidity of an authoritarian rule. We are uncomfortable with the tension of the middle ground that requires wisdom and responding to an infinite variety of circumstances. But, “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 testifies to the way they behave in response to that trust…The true test is the extent to which the individuals composing the nation can be trusted to obey self-imposed law.”

Os Guinness said, “We have moved from the “inner-directed” world of the Puritans, in which calling acted as an inner compass, to the “other-directed” world of modern society, in which our contemporaries are our real guides. Whereas the Puritans lived as if they had swallowed gyroscopes, we think and act as if we have swallowed Gallup polls.” Isn’t this exactly what reveals the inexplicable response of the Amish? They did not need an external Law or directive. They had years of practice. They had swallowed gyroscopes. They could obey the self-imposed and unenforceable. They lived grace.


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    Jack Willome

    Fred, this is excellent! “Obedience to the unenforceable” – wow! The greatest challenges of my life come in the form of “passivities”….things that happen to me and my reaction. How I react to these “passivities” is the very crux of the Christ centered life and the Holy Spirit reminds me moment by moment when I fall short of His model …emptied, humbled, obedient (the mind of Christ from Phil 2). The correction of the Holy Spirit is never shaming; always forgiving, loving and encouraging me to do better with the next “passivity”. This is how the Amish dealt with the horror of Nickel Mines it was just another “passivity” to them….”Christ in them, the hope of Glory”.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith

      Thank you, Jack. They had been prepared for this by year’s of practice. No one had to tell them to do it. It was hard-wired.

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