I don’t mean to hit below the Bible Belt, but I find myself in North Carolina for a round of campus visiting this week. Since I’ve only ever passed through North Carolina on my way elsewhere before, I wasn’t quite sure if I’d experience culture shock. Since I’m visiting multiple schools, I needed to rent a car. As I climbed in, it was clear that I was in tobacco country. The problem with the rich, satisfying taste of tobacco is that it doesn’t translate well. I grew up forced to inhale many cubic meters of second-hand smoke, and I can’t stand the wretched odor. It stands to reason from my previous sentence that I grew up knowing many smokers, and it was entirely obvious to me that they did not realize just what a legacy their habits left behind. I went to school smelling like burnt industrial waste, and when I climbed into my Hertz Nissan Versa in North Carolina all of that came back to me in an instant.
In my evangelical childhood I was taught that smoking was wrong, although, perhaps understandably, Jesus had little to say on the subject. This highlights one of the thornier aspects of drawing ethics from the Bible. Apart from the obvious damages to health, the Bible gives no guidance either way on the smoking issue. The same may be said for contraception, abortion, drug use and stem cells. For all its laws, the Bible is remarkably non-issue driven. What you choose to do with your body is less important than the impact your actions will have on somebody else’s body. God is the parent who is driving the car shouting at the kids in the backseat, “Keep your hands to yourself!” So, here in the land of tobacco, the teeth of my biblical argument are extracted. I can hear some readers objecting that Paul says your body is a temple of the Lord. Problem is, they used lots of incense in the temple—and that smoke can be even more choking than cigarettes (I write from experience here).
Morals, as ethicists are increasingly realizing, come from custom rather than scripture. Rules are based on what society holds to be of benefit to the greatest number. The Bible has a voice in this debate, but no vote. Rules handed down from on high lack the human touch. We share the planet with our fellow humans, so they must be our focus when it comes to ethics. Some habits, unfortunately, share a little too much. I’m not the kind of person to tell other people what to do, but when I climb out of my rental car smelling like burnt industrial waste I somehow feel slightly wronged here. Maybe one of those rules should be, if you don’t own it, don’t smoke in it. Is that smoke I see rising from atop Mount Sinai?