So I learned last week that pinball machines were banned in most American cities in the 1940s. Yeah, they were considered games of chance (or could be used that way) and gambling was frowned on. Pinball was also seen as a danger to youth since these games wasted their time and took away the “… nickels and dimes given them as lunch money.” As you might guess this law was repealed … in the 1970s.
We also had a significant historical date last week. Apologies for my oversight, I didn’t realize until a day after it had passed, but last Saturday was the 100th anniversary of the beginning of Prohibition! Yes, that Prohibition, back in the years after the Great War when the manufacture, sale, and trade of alcoholic beverages was outlawed.
Prohibition in the U.S. has become popular folklore but Canada had its own period of prohibition. Complicated government regulations and looser export laws meant that alcohol could be produced in Canada and shipped outside the country. Because we sit adjacent to the U.S. there was plenty of money to be made smuggling alcohol across our shared border.
I have lived my life in a geographical area that was an important part of that history. Here in our localities middle-men, or rum-runners as they were known, used the cover of the Thousand Islands to sneak booze across to the American side. Wolfe Island and Main Duck Island were popular stop-overs for them in the middle of Lake Ontario. Prince Edward County and towns like Belleville, Colborne, Cobourg, Ajax, Toronto and others, were hot beds of smuggling across the water between the countries. The smugglers and law enforcement competed in a war of technology for faster and faster boats.
Unfortunately all this came with an escalation of organized crime, weapons, violence, loss of tax revenue (!), and deaths from unregulated alcohol. It came to an end thirteen years later for all the above reasons but primarily because it couldn’t be enforced.
Isn’t it interesting that passing laws is our ‘go to’ solution for resolving our problems? Now don’t get me wrong, alcohol has always been a source of social problems, but in the case of Prohibition the laws were unenforceable. The cost of enforcement was so onerous that it became absurd to even keep the law.
As I take in small slivers of the U.S. impeachment proceedings I find myself fascinated on another level at how human beings can bend and twist and manipulate laws into anything they need it to be.
So let me say this: you can’t legislate morality. Actually, we can legislate morality but we just can’t 100% enforce it. To put an even finer point on it, we can’t possibly force people to act morally because morality comes from someplace else beyond laws.
When I was young the occasional traveling evangelist would come to our churches – often from the deep south where most evangelists are grown. Many were wonderful but I also recall some who spoke against things like television, dancing, rock and roll, inappropriate clothing, wearing jewelry, and the like.
The only thing those preachments ever did for me was make me question why God was against so many things. Oh, and it also meant that I had to find ways to break the rules and not get caught.
Do you remember times when you were young and you were told ‘don’t do this’ or ‘don’t go there’? And do you also remember that you found a way of ‘doing that’ and ‘going there’ anyway?
That is the quandary that religion almost always gets stuck in. Christians for example, can care so much about right-living that we get ahead of ourselves and try to force it on others. The problem is that rules are never fully enforceable and we become no different than the rest of society.
I’m not suggesting that laws are a waste of time – obviously the world is a dangerous place – but laws are never going to make people good from the inside out. That’s why the ancient Mosaic Law was never adequate to change anything.
Or as Saint Paul wrote to the Galatian Christians: “If the law could give us new life, we could be made right with God by obeying it. But the Scriptures declare that we are all prisoners of sin, so we receive God’s promise of freedom only by believing in Jesus Christ.” (Galatians 3:21b-22, NLT)
The hope of Christianity is that God would come into our hearts in an inner way that makes outer laws unnecessary.
I don’t know how to break this to you but pinball machines and alcohol (and money and sex and food and tattoos and motorcycles, and everything else in creation) are all somehow from God. The problems arise when broken people misuse them and other broken people make laws to control them.
Real living faith is not reactive laws, but proactive love.
The world will be healed when we get that straight.