By Ronnie McBrayer
Dr. Samuel Tuke, a Quaker physician and minister building on the work of his grandfather, created one of the first asylums for the mentally ill. It was a quiet country house where patients were treated, not as wild animals, but as human beings. Dr. Tuke also broke ground with something he called “moral treatment.”
While being morally treated, patients were taught to dress respectably, and to behave in social settings. They were expected to watch their table manners, make polite conversation over tea, and keep their living space clean. The treatment was reinforced by constant monitoring and a system of rewards and punishments. Outwardly, these patients looked healthy as their behavior followed the established rules in which they had been trained. It was a marked improvement, but inside the ill remained very much the same. Put the patients in situations for which they had no rules and everything collapsed. The patients could do all the right things when forced from the outside, but they had no concept of right motivation from the inside.
“Moral treatment” was a failure that highlighted a limitation as old as humanity: People are not changed by chains—whether these chains be made of iron and steel, or made from rules and coercion. If people are going to change, it is because something happens internally, not because their external behavior has been modified.
Knowing and keeping the rules, even religious rules, is simply not a better way to live. We need a way of life that transcends our chains and changes us from inside; and that is exactly what Christ offers. Jesus strikes literally at the heart of the issue – our hearts – transforming us from the inside out, so that more rules and steeper requirements are not required.
The always colorful Clarence Jordan explained it like this: “Keeping the religious rules is like chaining a vicious dog to a tree. With the dog chained in such a way the owner could then report, ‘You know, my dog has never bitten anyone. He must be a good dog.’ Wrong! The goodness of the dog is based solely upon the strength of the chain.”
Jesus’ intention is to heal and change the very nature of the human species, not to manufacture a more robust chain. By transforming the human heart, Christ shows that chains not only fail to change us, but that those chains are no longer necessary.