On my way to a favorite bar, I sometimes passed a church sign whose blazing neon letters proclaimed: "JESUS SAVES."
The message annoyed me because I thought it was in poor taste and tended to intrude on my privacy. I resented the zeal of those who would erect such a sign. I agreed that the world needed saving, but it would be saved by tolerant, broadminded people like myself, not by religious zealots. I hurried on towards neon signs that seemed more inviting and to companions who did not threaten my way of thinking.
That was in the late 1940s. By April 1950 my reasonable way of thinking had landed me in a state hospital as an alcoholic patient. It hit me, then, that there were some problems which individuals could not solve by intelligent reasoning or personal determination. One of them was alcoholism, and a mere glance about the hospital ward told me that there were other more sinister human problems. In short, I needed saving---from myself. At the same time, I realized that I had no answers for the others in the hospital, the victims of terrible mental and physical diseases.
Well, my answer came via AA. Its principles and practices have carried me over some very rough spots in the years since 1950. In its way, curiously enough, AA has been a form of personal salvation like that offered by the old time religionists who proclaimed that "Jesus Saves." It has neither altar call nor sawdust trail, but some of its best ideas appear to have come from the teachings of Jesus. In fact, some of AA’s most novel and radical ideas are not new or different at all; they are just new and different in our time. Here are a few of them that first saw the light of day in the sayings of Jesus:
By all accounts, the principle of anonymity came to AA in a gradual way, and was discovered almost by chance. There were members who didn’t want their association with the fellowship to be known, so the pioneers instituted a policy of discreet silence. The AA founders also worried about what would happen if a well-publicized member slipped, so anonymity was also an attractive way to protect the society from unfavorable publicity. Then the AA book was published under the title "Alcoholics Anonymous," chosen because its authors had no bylines. The name caught on for the society and has become so identified with the ideal of mutual help in problem-solving that other societies have adopted the "anonymous" tag.
But anonymity also has a deep spiritual purpose. It is the spiritual purpose that Jesus must have had in mind when he warned against doing good for public praise: "Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them; otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven. When thou doest alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee…That thine alms may be in secret: and thy Father which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee openly."
The Trusted Servant
Another of AA’s startling ideas has been the tradition that "our leaders are but trusted servants, they do not govern." In a world that writhes with power struggles, AA has been almost unique in putting a severe limitation on the authority, tenure, and prestige of its leaders. And for good reason. Power struggles, by their very nature, generate the bitterness and resentment that would destroy our effectiveness in carrying the message. We cannot afford the strife that seems to be second nature to many organizations.
Where did AA get this radical idea about limiting the power of leaders? It may have been inspired, in part, by Jesus’ instructions to his own disciples: "Ye know that the princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them, and they that are great exercise authority upon them…But it shall not be so among you: but whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant."
Attraction Rather Than Promotion
It is nothing short of miraculous that AA settled upon a policy of "attraction rather than promotion" quite soon after its origin. The very first AA member was a stockbroker skilled in the arts of salesmanship and persuasion, while others who soon followed him into AA were advertising men and business promoters of all types. What convinced those promoter types that something besides the established ways of publicizing and advancing an enterprise was needed for AA? If promotion is good for business, why isn’t it good for AA?
One reason for rejecting promotion is that we have nothing to sell. Another reason may be in the ethics of the thing:; promotion would be bad for us in the same way that it’s deemed to be bad for certain professional people.** But the best reason for putting aside promotion may be that it’s simply inferior to attraction, which is more appropriate for a spiritual fellowship.
**Since the time this was written, professionals have begun to advertise, making the comparison expressed here somewhat out of date!
Attraction is also more lasting, because it tends to work on real feelings of the heart rather than surface desires. Heavy promotion might cause us to buy a certain automobile, but it would never keep many of us in AA for long.
This form of reaching others was called "letting your light shine" in the sayings of Jesus: "Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven." The same thought is evident in the writing of Emerson and others: we attract people by what we are and not necessarily by what we say or do. If we are sincere and unselfish, people intuitively understand this and seek us out for help, but if we are hypocritical and self-seeking they will turn away. It is always the quality of AA that counts, never the quantity of publicity that happens to be coming our way.
Placing Principles Before Personalities
One of the characteristics attributed to alcohol is that "it’s no respecter of persons." Oddly enough, this same attribute is often applied to God; again and again, we hear that "He is no respecter of persons." Both sayings are true for the same reason: "Principles are no respecters of persons and always take precedence over personalities."
The alcoholic in his cups does not understand this truth. He grovels before certain people, tries to grind certain others in the dust, plots vengeance against those who have harmed him, and makes pitiful attempts to love and to reward the few who approve of him. He tends to react to others rather than to respond to them in accordance with certain principles in his own life. Thus, it is all right in this distorted way of thinking to behave badly towards some people because they "deserve" it, and it is all right to cheat some individuals and to steal from others.
Alcoholics are not the only people who fail to place principles before personalities, and the problem must have been rampant in Jesus’ day. Hence the following saying, one of the great utterances of all time: "Ye have heard that it hath been said, ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor, and hate thine enemy. ‘ "
"But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you and persecute you."
"That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust."
"For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? Do not even the publicans the same?"
"And if ye salute your brethern only, what do ye more than others? Do not even the publicans so?"
"Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect."
It should be obvious that the principles of Jesus which have been stated in one form or another in the AA Traditions directly concern the ordering of the society of Alcoholics Anonymous, whereas the AA Twelve Steps directly apply to the individual. The Twelve Steps are indeed the vital organs of AA, but the Traditions are the bones or framework without which the Steps would cease to function.
Inventory, Confession, and Restitution
Jesus also contributed ideas to AA’s Twelve Steps, though these principles for personal recovery depended on AA’s founding members for their present form. It is not true, as some AA members believe, that the Twelve Steps can be related to similar passages in the Holy Bible. With one or two exceptions, such passages are not to be found. But it certainly is true that the ideas of the Twelve Steps and certain thoughts in specific scriptures can be paralleled.
The idea of taking personal inventory can be discerned in Jesus’ emphasis on "cleaning the inside of the cup" and his statement that it is what comes out of the mouth (and the heart) that defiles a man. He also warned against taking the other person’s inventory: "Judge not that ye be not judged…And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?"
Confession, or AA’s Fifth Step, comes from the Book of James, which is sometimes called the "Little Sermon on the Mount" and closely approximates, in tone at least, the teachings directly attributable to Jesus: "Confess your faults one to another, and pray for one another, that ye may be healed. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much."
Restitution, AA’s Ninth and Tenth Steps, is to be found in Jesus’ teachings on being reconciled with one’s brother before bringing gifts to the altar. There is also the idea of agreeing quickly with an adversary and being willing to forgive an endless number of times.
The Lord’s Prayer and the Slogans
The Lord’s Prayer, repeated at the close of AA meetings the world over, comes to us from the Sermon on the Mount, while the AA slogans may also have a New Testament origin:
The Prodigal Son and The Good Samaritan
Where in the Bible can we find the First and Twelfth Steps of AA? There are remote parallels in several places, but it seems to me that the parables of The Prodigal Son and The Good Samaritan convey the intent of these steps as much as anything does. I suspect that The Prodigal Son really covers the initial three steps of the program and, in its entirety, symbolizes the Fatherhood of God. The story of The Good Samaritan is our Twelfth Step, and it represents the Brotherhood of Man.
The alcoholic appears in both parables. As the prodigal son, he takes his God-given inheritance of good health and natural talents to a far country, there to squander them in the frantic pursuit of pleasure. Finally he comes to ruin and rejection among the swine, far from his father, far from God. He recognizes his mistakes and realizes that he would be better off back in his father's house (the Second Step), and so he decides to return to his father on whatever terms his father will give him (takes the Third Step). The rest of the story, with its celebration and feast on fatted calf, is well known.
The alcoholic is also the man who takes a journey from Jerusalem to Jericho, in the parable of The Good Samaritan. The road between those two cities is downhill all the way, so the symbolism is clear: the man is doing something wrong and is on the skids. Along the way, he runs into thieves who strip him of his belongings and leave him half dead in a ditch. A priest and a Levite pass on the other side, too busy to bothered with one who may have brought most of his trouble on himself.
Things are hopeless until that great Twelfth Stepper, the Good Samaritan, arrives on the scene and takes charge. He takes the victim to a hostelry, and dresses his wounds with oil and wine. Since oil and wine often represent God’s Love and Life in the Bible, we can conclude that something of great spiritual importance is taught here. It is this: if we love our fellow man and pour our own lives into helping him in his hour of distress, we are doing the work of Eternal Love and Eternal Life. Faith without works is dead, it passes by on the other side of the road. But the most ordinary man, if he is willing to serve, can put into practice God’s healing Love and Life. Come to think of it, maybe the Good Samaritan is also the alcoholic, and he helped because he too had once been half-dead in a ditch.
On my way to an AA meeting, I sometimes see signs whose letters proclaim: "JESUS SAVES." I have no quarrel with such signs now, for I believe that Jesus bequeathed to the ages a saving truth that is with us today in AA. It is as if he stood as a silent partner in the historic meeting of Bill W. and Dr. Bob in 1935. It is as if he sat in on every AA meeting. It is almost as if Jesus himself came again among winebibbers to give them the new wine that does not perish.