Committee on the Prevention of Virtue

Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there with a withered hand. And they watched Jesus, to see whether he would heal him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man with the withered hand, “Come here.” And he said to them, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him. – Mark 3:1-6


It seems simple in hindsight, but the moral clarity of this passage was certainly out of the mainstream as far as the Pharisees were concerned. When asked about the greatest commandment (see Matthew 22), Jesus responded with (i) love God, (ii) love your neighbor as yourself – “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:40). That response is echoed here (though the Mark 3 passage probably happened first). Should we hate our neighbors to observe the sabbath? Should we destroy life to keep the sabbath? Observing the sabbath must be done with love of God and love of neighbor.

I saw an article in the Houston Chronicle the other day about a man and wife who served food to the area’s homeless – and were told by authorities to stop because they did not have a permit to give away food. “Bobby and Amanda Herring spent more than a year providing food to homeless people in downtown Houston every day. They fed them, left behind no trash and doled out warm meals peacefully without a single crime being committed … that ended two weeks ago when the city shut down their ‘Feed a Friend’ effort for lack of a permit. And city officials say the couple most likely will not be able to obtain one.”

By now you can guess how I feel about the situation. I’d like to make a few quick points on (i) the legal absurdity of it, (ii) rampant “apartment complex manager” syndrome and harming people for their own good, and (iii) questioning whether these are just silly oversteps or more sinister in nature.

Legal Absurdity

Can you, as a free person, come over to my house to eat food? Can we pack our food in a picnic basket and go to a park to sit and eat? Can I pack the food and agree to meet you at the park? Not in Houston. At which step in this process did we run afoul of reasonable behavior in a free society? Which one of these steps should have reasonably pushed us over the edge of legality?

Am I not free to give away my property, including my food? Are you not free to choose whether or not you will receive my property – and what you will do with it (including eating it)? These are extremely simple freedom of association and property ownership questions.

Apartment Complex Manager Syndrome

Most of us, especially those who went to college, spent some time living in an apartment. For those who have, you may have run into complex managers who were flagrantly strict about regulations; such as things you might put on the balcony, or the number of people living in the apartment. These regulations were all put in place to give structure to the community, to keep things pretty, and to keep the living arrangements reasonable. They are generally good things. Yet, the apartment complex managers treat them as though they are Mosaic law. Violations are to be dealt with severely, perhaps by stoning.

There are two aspects of Apartment Complex Manager Syndrome (ACMS). First, it involves a set of regulations that are elevated to a mystical status. Second, it involves authority on the part of the apartment complex manager. The holders of authority recognize that (a) they like authority and (b) their authority is completely tied to the regulations in question. Challenges to the regulations are challenges to their authority – and this will not stand!

The Pharisees in Mark 3 couldn’t get past the sabbath to love the man with the withered hand. The Houston authorities have food regulations that are actually designed to help people; but they can’t seem to grasp that this strict enforcement is actually harming the people they intended to help.

Overstepping or Sinister Intentions?

At first glance, I’d dismiss all of this as regulation gone wild. The food secret police have elevated their authority and responsibility to a ridiculous level, and are unable to see how silly it has become. If that were the sum of it, then I suspect we will see an article soon, indicating that the city has rescinded its actions and “Feed a Friend” is operating again. But perhaps we won’t.

When arguments get obscure in their silliness, one begins to suspect there is more at work than a slight misjudgment on the part of the authorities. The argument has gone beyond a desire to help people, to a desire that we help them the right way. The regulations want food prepared in a “certified kitchen with a certified food manager.”

What are these guys after? Well, there are several parties who might be interested in zealous regulation. Is it restauranters who have paid the necessary entry fee to the market, who might not want free food circulating outside the regulatory confines that restricts them? Is it government-run aide services that don’t want competition? Is it regulators who want a kickback? I couldn’t tell you (though I have suspicions).

What does seem clear is that those claiming to help the poor by preventing them from receiving free meals (and perhaps prayer in the process) are deluding themselves.

Free people, freely choosing to give away their possessions to the needy, who freely choose to accept them – all stopped by a government hell-bent on helping people, no matter who it hurts. This is America.

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One Response to Committee on the Prevention of Virtue

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