Joseph Smith said something that I wish to live my life by.
“I teach them correct principles, and they govern themselves.” This was Joseph Smith’s explanation to the order found within Mormon communities. With that simple statement I believe Smith spoke some of the wisest words to come out of 19th Century American religion. I so wish more Christians would discover this gem and live by it.
Let me put this wisdom in a non-religious context to show its fruit. My wife works to relieve world hunger. In her work there is an elusive yet profound distinction between “outputs” and “outcomes”. Outcomes are the goals you wish to accomplish. Outputs are the activities surrounding those goals. Unfortunately, quite often people set out to accomplish their outputs rather than their outcomes.
One example of this can be found in clean water development. You may wish to prevent deaths caused by water-borne illnesses. Your “outcome” would be to reduce death and illnesses. One of your “outputs” might be to build 10,000 water wells across the world. If you have enough money, building 10,000 water wells is not a difficult thing to do. It can be accomplished quite easily. It can be accomplished so easily that people will often dive headlong into digging and then start giving high-fives all around as the last water well begins to produce its hygienic bounty.
The problem is that the water wells by themselves will not deliver the outcome of fewer deaths and illnesses. Water wells can be met with a lot of resistance from developing communities. They are slower and more cumbersome to use than traditional bucket methods. Sometimes there are cultural or spiritual influences that cause resistance (i.e. there are spirits in the lake which will make us stronger). It’s not uncommon for water wells to be damaged or ignored. Instead of building water wells, the thing that will actually produce fewer deaths and illnesses is to teach people the love of clean and healthy water. They have to gain a knowledge and a hatred of pollutants that will kill them. If you teach these principles successfully people will start to build their own water wells (though at times they may need assistance).
People sometimes pursue building water wells instead of teaching the principles of clean water for one simple reason; it’s easier. It’s much easier to measure and it’s much easier to achieve than the discipleship of true principles.
I believe the ethic found in the New Testament and taught by Jesus is a virtue ethic. One which teaches people the correct principles and lets them govern themselves. This is why Jesus focused his teachings on the heart. A hateful heart may not murder but it will still hate. A loving heart will never murder and will never hate. A lustful heart may not fornicate, but it will still lust. A pure heart will never fornicate and it will never lust. An undisciplined heart may not get drunk but it may still get fat. A temperate heart will remain sober and healthy. Washing the inside of the cup will naturally clean the outside as well.
There is nothing wrong with abstinence and piety just as there is nothing wrong with water wells. But abstinence and piety are exterior signals of righteousness; they have no ability to actually produce righteousness. They are “outputs” rather than “outcomes”.
My own religious upbringing was formed by individuals who decided it was easier to tell people how to behave than to actually teach them how to behave. As culture and technology progressed past their prohibitions, silly little debates were created over the ‘do’s and don’t’s of our denomination (Movie theaters were prohibited, but what about public screenings? VCRs? Cable television? Pay-per-view?) It would have been much messier, much scarier and much more difficult to teach people correct principles and let them govern themselves, but it would have produced a much better fruit. Prohibitions and restrictions are only useful in the context of where they were formed, while virtue extends itself to all possible situations.