In the South Park episode about anti-smoking zealotry called “Butt-Out,” Cartman ends up running from a homicidal Rob Reiner who needs him to die in order to prove that second hand smoke kills. This is a classic example of South Park’s brilliant reductio ad absurdum, and can’t be recommended more highly.
Sadly, I ran across an article entitled “The Chemist’s War” and was horrified to learn that, in this case, art was imitating life. In it, the author, Deborah Blum asks, “I never heard that the government poisoned people during Prohibition, did you?” Sigh, no. In what can only be read to be believed, she explains:
“Frustrated that people continued to consume so much alcohol even after it was banned, federal officials had decided to try a different kind of enforcement. They ordered the poisoning of industrial alcohols manufactured in the United States, products regularly stolen by bootleggers and resold as drinkable spirits. The idea was to scare people into giving up illicit drinking. Instead, by the time Prohibition ended in 1933, the federal poisoning program, by some estimates, had killed at least 10,000 people.“
One of the more tragic aspects of this whole episode has to be the fact that the three deadliest days of government supported alcohol poisoning began on Christmas eve, 1926.
Now, clearly, few people today are championing the government’s action here, although if the UK is any indication, strong-armed, Big Brother paternalism–where Mozart is weaponized–is alive and well. And while the limits and responsibilities of the secular state make for interesting discussion, they are not our primary concern here. For our purposes, this historical episode is interesting because of the close connection between religious and secular appeals to “the greater good.”
One of the fundamental tenets of our project here is that this distinction between law and gospel is not an abstract theological exercise, but an everyday pastoral concern. Put in terms of the above story, we are more concerned with why you are drunk on Christmas eve than getting you to stop drinking. We believe that when the law and gospel are not clearly distinguished, then our reflections about God move from contemplation of his self-revelation on the Cross—his “one way love to sinners,”—and retreat back behind the cloud of his “glory,” or “holiness” or “the greater good.” When God is taken off of the Cross, then we can understand what he is doing much more readily, see more clearly the direction the world is heading in, and have much more to say about His will for your life. Along these lines, if that ultimate will requires us to poison you so that you’ll get the picture, then bottoms up.
There is another way of doing theology that does not start with God as Ultimate Power, Greatest Good or Fundamental Reality, but rather from the bottom up, as God the Son, who was “crucified under Pontius Pilate.” This is a theological stance that is less intellectually satisfying, but more existentially relevant, because we are not wrestling with with Ontological Proofs, Aquinas’ cosmogony or cosmology (as interesting as those are), but rather with the everyday implications of a God “who justifies the ungodly” (Rm. 4:5). With the Apostle Paul, we confess that, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.(1 Cor. 13:12)” Until then, we’ll hold onto his “comfortable words,” to Timothy: “This is a true saying, and worthy of all men to be received, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” Thanks be to God.