That I should devote a page of Current Religious Thought to the subject of traffic needs explanation, and the fact that it needs explanation needs explanation. In the first place, my devoting the page to this subject needs explanation, so I feel, because the matter seems to be neither especially current, especially religious, or especially of the nature of thought. That that explanation needs explanation is because traffic really is current, religious, and of the nature of thought; therefore, it is surprising that anyone should think it necessary to apologize for treating this subject under the heading of current religious thought. But I think that my attitude, which I am here criticizing, is rather common and therefore significant. If it is as common as I think that it is, then the shallowness of our thinking is revealed in our thinking that this subject is shallow.
To show how common this attitude actually is let me relate an experience. Not too long ago in the company of some learned men a moral issue—an obviously moral issue—was being discussed. One member of this company, in the context of discussing that particular moral issue, took occasion to appeal to an analogy in the area of behavior, or rather, misbehavior, on the highways. Immediately another member of this learned company protested the irrelevancy of the remark on the ground that the analogy had to do with traffic and that had nothing to do with morals.
The first topic that comes to mind is religion and speed. Can one conclude from the miles per hour that a driver is a Presbyterian, a Methodist, a Christian Scientist, a Romanist, or a pagan? Unfortunately, no. Alas for the vast majority, the Bible and speed limits have no relation to each other. There was a time when the minister we know best of any would regularly drive 70 miles an hour to conduct a prayer meeting or communion. Frequently when we rose to preach on the duty of keeping the law, we would have broken the law of the road in order to reach the pulpit. Many people who knew us only before our reform will be saying: Aha, look who is talking on the sin of speeding! For years we, who would not think of cheating in an exam or on an income tax return, would defy any speed limit if we saw no trooper behind a clump of trees or in our mirror (which we used to watch conscientiously). This is a confession, you are right. It was years before we broke under the relentless logic of Romans 13: if the powers that be are to be obeyed for God’s sake, and the powers that be make traffic regulations, then their regulations are to be obeyed for God’s sake. Now, since I have been enlightened, I could not be a Christian and drive 70 on a highway in Pennsylvania (except in the case of dire emergency for which I could conscientiously request a police escort if that were feasible). This is a confession, all right; but I make it not for myself alone, but for all those sinners who see no correlation between driving and duty. And their name is legion.
It is remarkable how many persons who, as pedestrians, are quite courteous Christian gentlemen and gentlewomen, but undergo a transformation (not unlike Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) when they get behind a wheel. While they would not think of pushing and shoving on the sidewalk or in a corridor, they do the equivalent of it in a line of cars without batting an eye of their conscience. They tip their hats to ladies on the street and hold the door for elderly folk, but seated in a super eight they are not distinguishers of persons. Polite as the most refined and genteel in the drawing room, they are uncivilized savages when on Route 6.
There was an old Latin saying: in vino veritas—in wine there is truth. Inebriation gives vent to some uninhibited expressions. Is it possible that for many persons driving is a sober man’s alcohol under the influence of which he takes leave of his usual restraints and feels no moral inhibitions? We are reminded of the little boy who once asked his mother why it was that when father drove the car all the “pigs”, “vermin”, “dogs” and “toads” came out on the highway.
Speaking of traffic, consider this well-known slogan: “Drive carefully—the life you save may be your own.” Now the writer of that motto at least recognizes that the matter of driving is a moral matter. He appeals to a basal moral law of self-preservation. He seems to be arguing that we ought to be careful on the roads because we ought to preserve our lives as long as possible. While no one wishes to quarrel with the law of self-preservation or the morality of the same, this bald statement seems to us to be fundamentally nonmoral, if not immoral. To appeal to me to be careful for the sake of me with no consideration whatever given to the possible innocent victim of my otherwise careless driving seems like the crassest hedonism. While there may be nothing wrong in appealing to self-interest as one motive along with and subordinate to others, to appeal to self-interest disregarding all others’ interest seems unethical. Society may be better off if I am a careful driver. But, if I am a careful driver for no other reason than my own preservation, then society owes me no thanks. Somehow I cannot imagine our Lord, if he were in the business of writing highway slogans, penning such a motto. It would be easier for me to imagine him saying: “Drive carefully—the life you save may not only be your own but someone else’s.” Loving your neighbor as well as yourself applies to your fellow driver. The ethics of the Sermon on the Mount apply on the highway as well as elsewhere. Christian morality goes beyond the preservation of self.
But, then I can hear the cynic remark: What an anticlimax that would be. To which I suspect our Lord would say: What an unethical sentiment your remark is. After all, what does it profit a man, even on the highway, if he save his life but lose his soul? And does the immoral person not lose his soul, no matter how effectively he preserves his life—from traffic hazards or whatever?
A minister friend of mine recently put an article in his church bulletin on the morals of highway driving. Apparently there are many who need to be shown the relation between their Christianity and their motoring. How can a person be a Christian in the living room and not on the road? What kind of moral dichotomy is that which permits a man to be a saint behind a desk and a sinner behind a wheel? To be sure, Isaiah was not predicting modern travel when he spoke of a “highway for our God.” But may we not adapt his expression and call for a modern highway for our God? As a matter of fact, must not those who are on Isaiah’s highway, prove it by behaving as a Christian on ours? Is modern driving an irrelevancy in the realm of current religious thought? I think not.
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