I realized at an early age that the world is a broken place. And it wasn’t the result of some traumatic event or major loss. All I had to do was look around, to pay attention to what was taking place around me, and it was easy to recognize just how messed up things are. Or more specifically, how messed up we’ve made things. The bad things that happen are generally the result of selfish decisions made by individuals and groups that have tragic consequences for themselves and for others. And as a kid observing these awful events taking place around me, I had a strong urge to stop them somehow. I wanted to make the world better. Often, I found myself seeing something happen in the world and thinking, “There should be a law against that.”
Take racism, for example. There was a time in my life when I literally thought that expressing racism should be a crime. “Sure,” I thought, “we can’t stop people from holding prejudiced beliefs, but we can stop them from voicing them.” In my mind, throwing someone in jail for saying something racially insensitive or treating another person differently due to the color of their skin would eventually suppress racism to the point that it would disappear. It sounds ludicrous now, but I actually used to think that we could legislate racism out of existence. Now, I know a little better.
As I’ve grown up, my recognition of the world’s brokenness has only grown more vast and nuanced. I’ve seen people mistreat one another in ways that break my heart and haunt my mind. And the more I see of these behaviors, the more I realize that the issue doesn’t lie in the things that we do; it lies at the very root of who we are. Things like discrimination, violence, corruption, and the like aren’t ultimately external or legal issues. They’re heart issues. And no law or punishment can heal a diseased human heart.
The truth is that we can’t legislate morality. As Jasmin Patterson points out in her article at Relevant, forcing people to adhere to a moral standard through the legal system can’t actually change their hearts. In fact, it probably only makes them less inclined to change their underlying beliefs. Whether it’s in the classroom, at home, or in the political arena, making anything mandatory automatically makes it undesirable for many people. And if we actually want to make the world a better place, we can’t just deal with the symptoms. We have to find a cure for the disease.
I’m not saying that laws are bad or unnecessary. Of course, we need a legal system that protects peoples’ basic rights and deals with those who infringe on the rights of others. And there are some issues that should be dealt with through the legal system. For example, I think that the regulation of businesses (such as rules against monopolies and measures protecting net neutrality) are best left up to legislation. But those legal measures are really just bandages that temporarily and inadequately treat the real problem. They can’t change the human heart.
So if making laws isn’t the way to solve the world’s problems, what is? There are some who say that a free and open market would naturally take care of most of these issues for us. On their podcast Who Would Build the Roads, hosts Josh Taylor and Kevin McCreary represent this view well and argue that social ostracization is a powerful enough force to keep people in line. If someone commits an act that goes against the public consensus of what’s acceptable behavior, the community can simply shun that person (especially by excluding them from participation in the exchange of goods) until they commit to following the rules.
This makes sense to a certain degree. People need to be a part of a community, and they have to engage in the market in order to provide for themselves and their families, so threatening to ostracize wrongdoers might be enough to convince most people to act properly. But does that really solve the problem? To me, it seems to have the same issue as the legal approach: It only deals with the symptoms, not the underlying disease. If one is only concerned with other peoples’ external behavior, then this method would probably work just fine, possibly even better than the legal system. But if what we really want to do is heal the world’s brokenness, we have to tackle the source of the issue, the human heart, and find a way transform it.
I’m convinced that the only solution to the issue of our brokenness is the love and grace of God. We humans are simply too messed up to fix ourselves. No matter what system we come up with, whether it be a government or a market or anything else, it will ultimately fall short of setting the world right because it will not be able to solve the issue of our own selfishness. The only thing that can overcome that selfishness is redemption, and redemption is a miracle that we cannot bring about ourselves.
But that doesn’t mean that we have no role to play. Those of us who claim to follow Christ can have an immense impact on the world by simply living out the Christian life authentically. By choosing to walk with joy instead of cynicism, to forgive those who do us wrong, to love others as ourselves, and to live in the radical way that Jesus calls us to, we are putting God’s love and mercy on display for all to see, and we are drawing others towards him through the way that we conduct ourselves. Authentic Christian living is compelling, and it has the ability to inspire others to live the same way. Only by living with God’s love and mercy as realities in our lives and sharing those realities with others can we truly have a lasting impact on the world around us.
The world is broken, and recognizing that brokenness can be disheartening. We’ve tried every way we know of to fix it and found that every method of human invention simply falls short. But there is a solution to the corruption of the human heart, and it lies at the heart of God. Some of us have personally experienced the redemption that God’s love and mercy offer us; others have not. But it’s available to all, and it’s the responsibility of those of us who’ve experienced God’s grace to live into it, to share it with others, and in this way to begin to transform the world into a more loving, less broken place.