An Ethical Lesson from NASCAR

Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. (Matthew 18:18)

Jimmie Johnson's Number 48Christian ethicists could learn something from NASCAR crew chiefs and their race cars about living in this world.

Somewhere along the way, I started watching NASCAR races and I learned about “tight” and “loose.” A tight race car resists turning in the curves and cannot take the most efficient route around the track. Push a tight race car too hard in the curve and you’ll slide up the race track into the wall or another driver. A loose race car, on the other hand, turns too easily and wants to spin out. Race cars need both stability and the ability to turn, and they need them in the proper balance. As conditions change throughout the race, NASCAR crew chiefs make adjustments to improve the handling of their cars – to loosen or tighten them up as required. The track bar wrench in the back window of the car turns both ways.

Christian ethics need a balance, too. It is tempting for Christians to emphasize only the ethics of Jesus’ earthly ministry, the ethics of grace. Jesus ate with sinners, cast out demons, healed the sick and raised the dead. Through parables and hyperbole, he spoke of radical forgiveness and radical faith. He gathered a community that surrendered their resources and depended upon God alone for its provision and security. Through these words and deeds, Jesus demonstrated the power of God that would someday transform all creation, and the saving grace that would reach its culmination in Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection.

Translating the ministry of Jesus into contemporary social concerns, for example, Christians talk about the importance of providing for the poor and needy, showing hospitality to the foreigner, restoring the guilty and reconciling enemies.

For Christians to live responsibly in this world, however, they must not only be concerned with the distribution of resources, but with the production of resources. They must not only be concerned with the forgiveness and reconciliation of the guilty, but with the protection and defense of the innocent. They need to balance “loose” and “tight.”

The Unique Role of Jesus’ Saving Act

But someone might ask, “Why should Christians be concerned with economic productivity, public order and national defense? Jesus didn’t say anything about those issues.”

That’s right. Jesus was not primarily a moral philosopher. He is the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. He did not come with a program or a strategy for bringing the kingdom of God into being. He came as the instrument of the kingdom’s power and grace.

The theological question here is something like this: is Jesus’ death simply the moral validation of his timeless ethical teaching, or are Jesus’ words, deeds, death and resurrection all part of one great act of God to redeem God’s creation? I think the witness of the New Testament suggests the latter. Together they reveal our radical need, God’s promised future, God’s radical grace, and God’s call to radical faith.

Jesus’ earthly ministry is a living parable, a prophetic demonstration of God’s power and grace, calling all to repent and put their faith in God’s saving act in Jesus. It is not a strategy for transforming the world.

Living Responsibly in the New Testament

As we wait for the kingdom to appear in all its fullness, western Christians now have the opportunity to live responsibly in this world. The earliest generations of Christians had no opportunity to influence public policy one way or another. That’s why there is no discussion of public social policy in the New Testament.

Nevertheless, we begin to see in the New Testament that even the church required a balance of “loose” and “tight” in its temporal life. Coincidentally, that’s exactly what Matthew calls it as he quotes Jesus in Matthew 16:19 and 18:18. Here, Jesus is using rabbinic language that refers to making decisions about the practical application of the law. He uses that language to describe one function of the temporal church. The church has the responsibility to both bind and loose.

For example, although the early church practiced an extraordinary level of sharing and generosity, Paul admonished the Thessalonians, “If any one will not work, let him not eat.” (2 Thessalonians 3:10). In his letter to Timothy (1 Timothy 5:3-16), Paul gives extended guidance on the financial relief of widows: their families bear first responsibility, younger widows should remarry, and supported widows must demonstrate certain characteristics in their lives.

These examples from the early church are a step toward imposing responsibility and a step away from the unqualified, inexhaustible grace embodied in Jesus. An earlier generation of scholars considered regulations such as these to be a descent into “early Catholicism” and a falling away from the pure religion of Jesus. I do not take them to be anything of the sort. They, too are part of the canon of scripture. This is one reason that it is important to read the entire Bible, and not just the words in red.

Responsible Freedom in the Service of Love

While we wait for our Lord’s appearing and the final fruition of his saving work, Christians live as both citizens of God’s kingdom and sojourners in this present fallen world. Even as sojourners, western Christians have the opportunity and responsibility to influence the world in which we live.

We will not perfect the temporal world, but we can participate in it. The question, then, is how do we participate. Do we live only by an ethic of grace, or do we also live by an ethic of responsibility? Do we value only an ethic of redemption, or do we also value an ethic of fallen creation? In other words, do Christians only work to “loose” and never to “bind”? Does our wrench only turn in one direction?

I believe that love calls us to use our worldly freedom to both loosen and tighten. It is a failure of both moral vision and moral courage to leave the “binding” in this world to the ungodly. In this fallen world, the failure to bind has as many devastating consequences as the failure to loose.

In this age, love demands an ethic that encompasses both “tightening” and “loosing.” To be sure, all of our human efforts in this world – both binding and loosing – fall under God’s judgment. We will never get things just right, and there is no perfect way to balance these concerns once and for all.

Fortunately, God has not given a strategy for saving ourselves; he has give us a savior. God’s promised kingdom is still our hope. God’s grace in Jesus is still the covering for our sin. His grace sets us free to live responsibly in this fallen world, balancing as best we can the competing demands of love.

If Christians want to err on the side of grace, that is perfectly appropriate. NASCAR drivers also prefer a car that is a little loose to one that is a little tight. They depend on their skill to keep the car under control. Unfortunately, even the most skilled driver can’t always keep a maladjusted car out of harm’s way. A car that is way too loose is always an accident waiting to happen and a danger to everyone on the track … and so is an overly loose Christian ethic.